You Can Unlock the Chains of Vendor Lock-In

by Jaap van Duijvenbode on January 30, 2017

SUB PAGE: You Can Unlock the Chains of Vendor Lock-In
Written to support the hub page: Software-Defined Storage: How Did We Get There?

Surveys of IT professionals reveal that hardware vendor lock-in is high on their list of storage-related concerns. Vendor lock-in occurs when a customer becomes dependent on a single supplier for a critical product or service, and cannot easily switch to a competitor's offerings without paying a steep price to do so. In the storage arena, lock-in has traditionally been the result of reliance on specially designed storage appliances that make use of the vendor's proprietary hardware and software.

What's So Bad About Vendor Lock-In?

Adopting the storage solution of a single supplier has some definite advantages. In a vendor-supplied system, both hardware and software will normally be optimized not only for their individual roles, but also in terms of their interaction with one another. And when problems arise, there is a single point of contact for the support needed to get issues resolved. Working with a single vendor can often be the choice that makes an IT manager's life easiest when it comes to keeping their systems up and running.

On the other hand, there are some definite disadvantages to being totally dependent on a single vendor.

First, there's the issue of cost. Manufacturers of traditional storage appliances invest heavily in giving their products a distinctive feature set. Hardware is often implemented using custom-designed ASICs (Application-Specific Integrated Circuits), and firmware. This results in products that not only are expensive (ASIC development costs alone can reach $10 million or more), but that also often limit the customer's flexibility.

With their heavy investments in proprietary designs, traditional storage manufacturers have every incentive to keep customers locked into their products for as long as possible. The natural result is that vendors can become resistant to new approaches that don't neatly match the capabilities of their offerings, preferring instead to help the customer solve the problems the vendor's products can solve, or in the ways those products can solve them. That may not, however, be the most effective approach for customers, who often find themselves without the flexibility to discover and implement the most effective solutions for their specific issues.

The result is that customers can end up paying exorbitant prices for products that don't effectively meet their evolving needs, but that they must continue to purchase to expand capacity or to replace already installed devices that fail or reach end-of-life.

How SDS Helps Avoid Hardware Vendor Lock-In

Many IT professionals are turning to software defined storage (SDS) to meet the challenge of hardware vendor lock-in. One of the most important characteristics of the SDS approach is that it is hardware-independent. Because SDS lifts the intelligence of the storage system out of the hardware layer and puts it into software, the value-added of traditional proprietary storage appliances is diminished. In fact, part of the definition of SDS is that it does not require any proprietary hardware components at all.

SDS systems are designed to use COTS x86 servers and commodity drives that are much less costly than the custom-designed products used in dedicated storage systems. In effect, SDS can turn generic x86 servers into sophisticated storage systems.

The x86 standard has been in use for decades, and a well-developed and widely understood support infrastructure is already in place. The result is that not only are initial hardware acquisition costs much lower than for traditional storage solutions, but maintenance and support expenses are minimized as well.

This hardware agnosticism of SDS yields some major advantages. Customers are no longer limited to the set of features their storage vendors choose to provide. Instead, with SDS they have the flexibility to mix and match storage devices, media, and even entire SAN or NAS subsystems to most effectively meet the specific requirements of their own storage environments.

In addition, SDS implements the sophisticated features on which modern storage systems depend, such as data tiering, read-write caching, deduplication, and in-line compression, in software rather than requiring them to be present at the hardware level. The result is that a company's existing base of "dumb" legacy storage devices can often be given a new lease on life.

By employing COTS commodity hardware in place of specially-designed storage appliances, companies that implement SDS can gain previously unattainable levels of flexibility to precisely tune their storage solution to their own particular requirement. And, as a not insignificant bonus, they may also realize overall TCO reductions of 70 percent or more.

SDS Won't Totally Eliminate Vendor Lock-In

SDS holds out the promise of freedom from being locked into a hardware vendor's line of storage products. However, when you purchase a vendor's software-only SDS package, you gain hardware independence, but may find yourself effectively locked into that vendor's software solution. Since there are no universal standards for SDS software products, switching from one offering to another may not be simple. And with hyperconverged SDS offerings, which bundle software with network and server hardware, the lock-in may be an even greater factor.

In essence, by adopting SDS you exchange a hardware lock-in for some degree of software lock-in.

As a report from Gartner notes, "Open-source standards or a cloud management platform may help IT organizations to reduce vendor lock-in, but it cannot be eliminated altogether." In light of that fact, Gartner VP Dave Russell advises, "Choose the most appropriate kind of lock-in consciously and with all the facts at hand."

With Freedom Comes Responsibility!

In theory, companies gain maximum flexibility, and minimum vendor lock-in, when they purchase SDS software as a stand-alone package and marry it to generic x86-based servers and commodity disk drives. For many small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), however, the hardware/software integration responsibility such an approach entails would strain their capabilities. Assembling compatible hardware, drivers, disks, and firmware, while keeping upgrades to the various components in sync, then adequately testing the resulting system, can be a real challenge for IT operations that don't have storage specialists on staff.

A better approach for most SMBs is to work with a storage services partner that thoroughly understands how to maximize the benefits of SDS. If you're ready to consider whether SDS can work for you, we invite you to watch the Talon FAST video.

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