Notes and thoughts on data storage – Spring 2014 edition

Data storage is a key building block of all our clients’ IT infrastructures.  There has been significant innovation in the field over the past few years, with technological advancements such as flash-based storage, deduplication, and software-defined systems driving costs and capabilities in positive directions.

I recently attended the 2014 EMC World conference.  While the show’s content was EMC and VMWare-centric, it illuminated several key trends for the storage industry as a whole.  Some of these trends include:

The storage FUD wars never died, they just refocused on flash.
Long-term observers of the storage industry are familiar with many of the fear, uncertainty, and doubt campaigns used in the past by storage companies and their local account teams.  The FUD battlefield seems to have shifted in recent months towards that of the all-flash storage array market.  While the rapid technical innovation in the product space is a good one for clients, it’s sometimes difficult to separate facts from marketing claims when the various vendors are visibly trying to “gotcha” their competition.

All modern, on-premises production storage systems are hybrid (or should be).
Hybrid storage solutions, or combinations of flash and magnetic storage media with automated tiering of data, have become wildly popular in the past few years, due to their ability to deliver a “sweet spot” of capacity, performance, and price.  Compatible with a wide range of workloads, these systems have become the modern general purpose shared storage of choice for many of our clients.

Given the relative low cost yet high capability of these systems, every modern storage system designed for general purpose use, (a combination of virtual machines, database, and e-mail workloads), should have a flash tier.  Depending on the core architecture of the selected system, the flash tier may be used for read-caching only, serve as actual writable disk space within a pool of storage, or both.

The “traditional” storage business is facing changes like never before by the combination of cloud, converged infrastructure, and software-defined solutions.
An underlying “meta” message of the conference was the proliferation of alternative storage platforms and their potential replacement of more traditional storage architectures.

  1. The rise of “cloud” infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) offerings has driven hosted storage pricing to extremely affordable levels, both for production and archival-type systems.
  2.  Converged infrastructure systems have brought the storage components of a typical virtualization infrastructure back inside of the server chassis, while maintaining the shared access, high availability, and in line data services typically found in a shared storage array-based system.
  3. Lastly, the combination of software-defined storage management and control stacks, in conjunction with either commodity on-premises physical storage, cloud-based storage, or all of the above plus traditional storage arrays, provides unprecedented levels of control and customization.

These three developments present both opportunities and concerns for the storage industry, with some vendors playing catch-up while trying to indirectly complete with the latest IaaS price cut, radical simplicity of converged infrastructures, or the dual capability+complexity requirements of a software-defined architecture.

Primary and archival data storage is affordable like never before
Our past year’s worth of storage selection projects have resulted in extremely attractive levels of pricing from all of the major vendors of primary, production-type storage systems.  Even when adding additional features such as encryption, replication, and automatic storage tiering, the ratio of price:capability has never been better for purchasers.

Clients must continue to closely define and match requirements with solutions
A recurring technical and marketing message from the EMC show was their viewpoint on how their various platforms (clustered, scale-out, distributed) serve various workload types.

While this message is an attempt by EMC to place and justify their extensive product portfolio, the underlying message of matching requirements with solutions is an important one.  While the vast majority of workloads fit within an easily defined product bucket, the proliferation of distributed and near-web scale application deployments require a careful evaluation and fit analysis of the various available storage solutions.

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