Is It Time For Your Company to Adopt Software-Defined Storage?

by Andrew Mullen on July 22, 2017

As the name implies, software-defined storage, or SDS, is all about the virtualization of data storage resources so that they can be completely controlled through software.

In today’s environment of rapidly increasing demand for storage capacity, combined with a need for greater flexibility and agility to meet swiftly changing business conditions, SDS is becoming the storage model of choice for more and more companies. In fact, a recent survey of storage administrators by the Enterprise Strategy Group reveals that about 68 percent of their organizations are already committed to SDS as their long-term strategy.

Is it time for your company to climb aboard the SDS bandwagon? Or does the way you are doing things now remain your best option? Let’s take a look at some of the factors you should consider in making that choice.

What, Exactly, Is Software-Defined Storage?

The Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) defines SDS as “virtualized storage with a service management interface.” Through virtualization all the intelligence of the storage system is lifted out of hardware and into a software layer that controls all the individual components of the system, as well as the system overall, at a granular level.

Users interact with storage through a standardized “single pane of glass” software portal without having to be concerned with the device types, the configuration details, or even the geographical locations of the underlying physical resources. The internal dynamics of the system are all managed by the software according to policy directives set up by storage administrators.

The fundamental benefit of this approach is that storage management is vastly simplified because the details of running the system are automated in software. Except for changes defined at the policy level, there is little need for IT staff to involve themselves with the nuts and bolts of the day-to-day operations of the storage system.

What's Wrong With My Current Storage Solution?

Data center storage has historically consisted of specialized hardware/software bundles that were specifically designed for use as dedicated storage arrays. Because of their proprietary nature and specialized functions, these devices have always required a significant investment of capital expenditures (CapEx) to acquire, and a steady stream of operating funds (OpEx) to maintain.

Implemented as storage area networks (SAN) or network attached storage (NAS), these traditional systems suffer from several disadvantages in today’s fast-changing business environments.

First, neither the SAN nor the NAS models can be easily scaled up to meet the surging demand for more and more storage that enterprises are experiencing today. Not only are there technical issues (storage controllers eventually reach their throughput limits and become performance bottlenecks), but the expense of continually having to purchase additional devices can quickly become prohibitive for all but the largest companies.

Moreover, the proprietary nature of the devices that form the foundation of the system usually leads to vendor lock-in that can limit an organization’s flexibility and agility in adapting to constantly changing business and technological conditions.

The bottom line here is that as the demand for increased storage capacity continues to grow at exponential rates, the traditional approach to providing that capacity is proving more and more inadequate.

How Can SDS Benefit My Organization?

The benefits that most organizations can expect with SDS can be conveniently grouped into three major areas: reduced storage management complexity, enhanced operational capabilities, and reduced total cost of ownership (TCO).

Reduced Storage Management Complexity

Keeping a traditional data storage infrastructure running on a daily basis, as well as providing support for replacing and upgrading storage device hardware and software as needed, normally requires the services of dedicated, expert staff. But with SDS, that’s no longer the case.

Because SDS software manages all storage as a single pool of resources, IT team members need not concern themselves with the complexities of configuring individual devices. By simply implementing high-level policies in software, administrators can manage a company’s entire storage infrastructure from a single location. In addition, the software can automate many functions, such as data migrations or provisioning additional capacity, that traditionally required human intervention. An example of this effect is demonstrated in an article in Information Age. Research conducted by EMC found that IT teams using SDS saw an 83 percent reduction in the time they spent provisioning storage.

Because of this reduction in management complexity, SDS-based storage allows for greater flexibility and agility in adapting current workloads, or adding new ones, to meet changing requirements. According to the EMC research report, new business applications were delivered 32 percent faster than with traditional storage solutions.

Enhanced Operational Capabilities

The fact that the functionality of an SDS-based system is defined in software rather than in hardware allows administrators to implement advanced storage features from a single point of control. For example, capabilities such as data deduplication and compression, remote replication, and snapshotting can be implemented for the storage system as a whole. This allows enterprise-level backup, restore, and disaster recovery functions, as well as world-class encryption and data protection regimes, to be defined and controlled across the organization’s entire world-wide IT infrastructure from one central location. That allows remote and branch office (ROBO) locations to have the same levels of IT functionality as that available at the company’s HQ without having to have their own expert staff on site.

Using capabilities such as auto-tiering and thin provisioning, SDS can match particular workloads with the appropriate storage technologies, such as solid state drives (SSDs) for performance-intensive workloads, or hard disk drives (HDDs) for less demanding ones.

Reduced Total Cost of Ownership

One of the most attractive features of SDS is its ability to bring down the total cost of ownership (TCO) for a company’s storage infrastructure. First, SDS is designed for use with inexpensive commodity disk drives, along with standard COTS x86 servers. None of the specialized, proprietary storage arrays that have been the foundation of traditional storage solutions are required. Thus, simply from an initial hardware acquisition standpoint, SDS-based storage systems can be far more cost-effective than traditional SAN and NAS implementations. According to Gartner Research, “compared with branded integrated legacy external controller-based (ECB) storage offerings, SDS solutions can reduce TCO by 50% or more without sacrificing performance, data services software robustness or availability service-level objectives.”

SDS can be especially cost effective when used in conjunction with cloud-based storage-as-a-service (STaaS) offerings. In this model, rather than expending CapEx funds to purchase hardware and software for installation in their own data centers, companies can acquire storage services on a subscription basis for a monthly fee (an OpEx approach). Because with SDS all storage resources look the same to users, for many workloads it doesn’t really matter whether the physical storage arrays are on site or in the cloud. More and more companies are using SDS and STaaS to forego purchasing their own storage hardware completely.

Another benefit of SDS is that because it is hardware-agnostic, re-purposing your current storage components for use in an SDS environment is usually not a problem. So, moving to SDS doesn’t necessarily mean throwing out what you have now and starting over, and the investments you’ve made in legacy storage equipment need not be lost.

What Do I Need To Watch Out For With SDS?

As with any technology, SDS has some minuses along with its many pluses.

The fact that SDS allows use of inexpensive commodity storage hardware rather than more expensive proprietary storage arrays is one of its greatest strengths. It also gives storage administrators great flexibility to adapt their storage infrastructure to meet changing demands. But that flexibility comes at a potential cost.

The best way to maximize flexibility and cost savings is to marry a software-only SDS product to server hardware of your own choosing. But by doing so, you also take on the responsibility of integrating and tuning that hardware and software so as to achieve the best performance. According to many storage professionals, that’s not a task to be undertaken lightly. You have to ask yourself whether your IT team has the technical chops to take on a non-trivial engineering responsibility.

If that’s not the case, it doesn’t mean that SDS won’t work for you. A number of vendors now offer SDS hardware/software bundles that come preconfigured for maximum performance. The tradeoff is that you have less flexibility, and are more dependent on a single vendor.

Another important consideration is the fact that adopting SDS will require changes in the way your IT staff functions. Robert E. Stroud, a principal analyst at Forrester Research, puts it this way: “Developers need to realize that they no longer own servers. They need to simply write code that uses the resource pool.”

Perhaps the biggest reason for caution in adopting SDS is that the technology is still in its early stages of development. As reported in the Information Age article cited above, Re’em Hazan, technical sales director at Infinidat, believes that “SDS technologies today are not mature enough for enterprise-level high-end storage solutions. It may be adequate for mid-tier and low-end storage, but it is still a far cry from being able to manage and service organisations’ most critical, IO-intensive data and applications.”

On the other hand, other experts are convinced that SDS has already reached a level of maturity that marks it as completely ready for prime time. Many of those leaders are convinced that it is fear of the unknown that is holding many companies back. Sean Horne, Chief Technology Officer at Dell EMC UK & Ireland, is definitely of that opinion. “The only challenge with implementing SDS," he says, “is having the courage to start.”

Are You Ready For SDS?

There’s no denying that the momentum for SDS is running high, and it’s clear that SDS represents the future of enterprise storage. In its April 2016 Top Five Use Cases of Software-Defined Storage report, Gartner states that “48% of storage leaders are actively investigating or piloting SDS solutions.”

If you’d like to become one of those leaders who are actively investigating SDS, we at Talon can help. A good place to start is by watching this brief Talon FAST™ video.

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