What is software-defined storage and what can I do with it?

George Crump

What is software-defined storage, and what will it enable me to do that I can't do now with traditional storage?

First, let's explain what software-defined storage is, because many vendors claim to be in the software-defined space. While there's no official definition, my take is that software-defined storage is essentially an attempt to abstract typical storage controller functions from storage hardware and move them into software. These functions include volume management, RAID, data protection, snapshots and replication, to name a few.

The goal of software-defined storage is to eliminate the requirement that dedicated storage controller hardware and storage media (either hard disk or solid-state drives) be purchased from a single vendor. Also, if the storage controller function is abstracted, the placement of that function can be just about anywhere in the infrastructure. It can run on dedicated hardware, within a hypervisor, or alongside virtual machines for a true converged infrastructure.

Now to the question, "Does it enable you to do something that you can't do with traditional storage?" For the most part, software-defined storage is an attempt to provide the same functions common in traditional storage systems. What's different is the abstraction, discussed above. That's what provides its two key capabilities:

First, the storage controller function now can execute on any type of server hardware. That means a storage system could be built out of commodity hardware using commodity disks. This would make the purchase and implementation of a storage system more "kit-like," but it also means that the system's implementation and management will require more skill (and time). That investment, however, could allow you to significantly reduce acquisition costs.

In addition, the storage controller can now be "placed" anywhere. In other words, it doesn't have to be installed on dedicated hardware. A growing trend is to implement the software storage controller within a virtual server infrastructure, using available compute power from the host or hosts in that infrastructure. Doing this reduces costs further and creates a simpler scaling model. If a virtual storage controller is installed every time a host is added to the infrastructure, storage processing and capacity scale in lockstep with server growth.

Being able to drive down costs and being able to tie into an existing virtual infrastructure are the key advantages of software-defined storage versus traditional storage. For many data centers, where the skill and time are available for implementation, that could be enough of a reason to select these offerings over traditional storage systems.

About the author:
George Crump is a longtime contributor to TechTarget, as well as president and founder of Storage Switzerland LLC, an IT analyst firm focused on storage and virtualization.

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