Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What's the hype on unified storage?

Within the average enterprise there is a number of classes of storage, production, back-up, compliance, archive etc and traditionally each storage class would have a different tier of storage. For simplicity I have ignored the evolving internet focused storage platforms and their protocols that are becoming increasingly relevant, that is for a later time and another blog.

Despite that convenient omission and despite industries attempts to automate transparent data mobility across the traditional storage tiers these environments remain complex and costly.

However with the notion of unified storage there is a light at the end of the tunnel, at least for some. This concept has emerged as a novel way of reducing IT complexity, improving business flexibility and reducing costs.

A unified storage solution natively supports block based protocols (iSCSI) and file-based protocols (NFS/CIFS) in the same appliance eliminating the need for physically separate boxes for SAN and NAS storage. A very interesting consolidation option.

Notice there was no mention of FC. That is because there are limited solutions that offer iSCSI, FC and NFS/CIFS natively in the same appliance. NetApp being the only significant vendor with this option. Yes there are some gateway’s and hybrids that provide that capability but this discussion is restricted to architectures that natively support block and file protocols in the same appliance. Hybrid architectures do deserve a mention with Pillar Data’s Axiom being the most obvious. The Pillar Axiom supports FC, iSCSI and NFS/CIFS but need dedicated controllers one for FC/iSCSI and one for NFS/CIFS. They do have a single management view and a shared storage pool, key to optimizing storage utilization. It could be legitimately argued that this is a unified storage solution.

Those in the larger data center who are attracted to the unified concept should give NetApp a look or Pillar Data with the hybrid option.

The lack of FC is why I mentioned earlier that the current instantiation of the unified storage concept is for some. The pairing of iSCSI with NFS/CIFS natively, in a single physical appliance, targets the small and midsize enterprise and perhaps for departmental application.

So what are the attributes of unified storage that are likely to resonate with storage administrators and their bosses?

1. The flexibility enables storage administrators to consolidate multiple workloads onto a single storage platform.
2. Hardware consolidation: elimination of separate SAN and NAS hardware, replacing two physical systems with one.
3. Simplicity: with the elimination of silo’d storage and having only one box to manage the day to day management is significantly simplified.
4. Improved economics: reduced hardware reduces capital and operational expenses.
5. Improved storage utilization: A shared storage pool is more efficient - another cost savings.
6. Green. Obviously an approach with positive green benefits.

Unified storage is a concept that should appeal to all storage users, particularly the small and medium sized user. This community has all the same data management challenges as the bigger folks but has less budget dollars, less staff and less expertise which compounds the complexity of managing disparate storage systems.

However, the notion of unified storage, with all of its proclaimed benefits is a potential solution to this perennial dilemma and would suggest that this increasingly popular concept will be a boon to those with the more modest storage requirements.

Over time I suggest that the unified storage concept will evolve and have universal application but as with all evolving technologies adoption manages its own timetable.

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