The term “convergence” may have been overused by IT marketers, but it’s an important concept that should represent an ongoing design principle and can maximize storage investments.
Convergence may be one of the geekiest IT terms around, and it often defies definition. Over the past five years, we’ve seen convergence take center stage then get lost in a crowd of ambiguity. Overused and often hijacked, “convergence” has been a buzzword associated with everything from multiprotocol/multifunction network fabrics to unified and/or multifunction block and file storage systems.
For data storage shops, convergence should actually represent an ongoing design principle, and its influence on emerging and evolving technologies is increasing. Moreover, because convergence typically promises a favorable financial impact, it should be a primary consideration in any technology strategic decision.
The benefits of convergence
In the data center, convergence in various domains (such as network, compute, storage or switching) can help rein in the number of installed devices while reducing the number of separate pieces that must be touched every time an IT service is built or modified. Consolidation can happen through feature development or the virtualization of technologies into unified solutions. Convergence can help achieve important IT goals such as:
- Deploying technology faster by reducing the time and effort required to integrate technologies.
- Increasing IT flexibility with building block technologies that can scale more easily and therefore adapt to changing business demands.
- Increasing infrastructure efficiency by bringing components closer together and reducing external connections.
Those benefits may seem abstract, but there are many examples of how convergence can benefit storage operations from data protection to data replication.
Unified storage leads convergence
Unified storage characterizes the first generation of storage convergence. Unified storage has been a popular storage system alternative for a number of years and has helped alleviate the complexity of storage management. But while unified storage can consolidate file and block storage, it runs out of steam as capacity and performance demands grow and threatens to sprawl like its file and block cousins. Next-gen unified storage promises ample scalability, as exemplified by newcomers like Nimbus Data Systems and Scale Computing, along with established vendors like Dell with its Fluid File System products running on EqualLogic PS storage. Consider the cost of a single storage system upgrade and migration, and the benefits of unified storage are clear, especially over a period of time where additional migrations and upgrades can be avoided.
Convergence in the cloud
Less apparent, perhaps, is the potential of cloud technologies to enable storage convergence. In some cases, this might mean converging off-site data vaulting and on-premises storage using products from vendors like Ctera Networks, Nasuni, Riverbed and TwinStrata. Other vendors, like StorSimple, are delivering primary storage linked to the cloud behind it to efficiently handle the whole lifecycle of a piece of data. We call this approach cloud-integrated enterprise storage, where a single storage system can manage a piece of data forever. Tiering, snapshots, backup, replication, archive and more can all tap into the cloud, and the cloud service appears as a seamless part of primary storage. This effectively converges data management and eliminates any unnecessary data movement. The potential financial benefit from reducing data movement, and the elimination of redundant systems, connectivity and software, can be substantial.
One + One = One
There’s also plenty of interest in the physical convergence of coupling storage and compute closer together to cut down on complexity. Major storage vendors like Dell, EMC (with Cisco) and Hewlett-Packard (HP) all offer physically converged packages. For EMC/Cisco and HP, it’s about seamlessly integrating servers and storage into a single infrastructure “block” that can scale easily. Dell’s approach is similar, but with the added twist of aiding convergence with all-in-one features like unified storage, deduplication, data protection and more.
Newer entrants, like Nutanix and Pivot3, provide convergence in the form of building blocks that combine storage and compute. Scale Computing will soon introduce a similar approach with compute and networking running on top of n-way clustered storage nodes to create a seamless data center fabric. That type of physical convergence could signal a massive change as physical connectivity and subsystem performance limits disappear. It could also make it easier to strategically plan resource utilization and growth.
A couple of years ago, most major vendors were pushing highly converged and highly integrated stacks of IT gear, setting off talk of a next-generation, mainframe-like superstack along with the inevitable vendor lock-in. Since then, the “stack” din has died down. Today, visions of convergence are more likely to intersect with broader virtualization and cloud trends, with less concern about vendor lock-in. Whether you turn to new or established vendors, look for convergence. The evidence is convincing and there’s clear value for data storage shops.