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Commodity hardware is a myth

Software-defined storage vendors preach the concept of commodity storage hardware, but beware: the hardware is just as important as the apps.

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There's no such thing as commodity storage hardware. Sure, you can choose to believe all those software-defined storage vendors out there instead of me, but even they would admit that if there really was such a thing, they probably wouldn't want their products running on it.

Still, software-defined storage (SDS) vendors try to woo new users with the cockamamie idea that hardware really doesn't matter, that their software can do it all. There are plenty of solid, innovative SDS products available that can satisfy a specific need for many companies shopping for servers and storage together. But giving it a label like commodity hardware -- that suggests it somehow has less intrinsic value -- doesn't make sense and certainly doesn't make the software seem any better.

If you were shopping for storage for your company's data -- SAN, NAS, SDS, hyper-converged, whatever -- would you feel comfortable parking all that corporate intellectual property on something called "commodity" hardware? Of course not. That's why you ask what kind of disks come with the unit, and you study the specs to make sure they meet your needs. Maybe the word "commodity" floated to the top because of a perception that there are few choices to be made when purchasing hard disk drives (HDDs), given that only a handful of vendors still make them. But you and I know that couldn't be more off-base -- HDDs range from speedy 15K drives with stingy capacities to behemoths with room for 10 TB of data. There's no way any sane person would lump those two ends of the HDD spectrum into a single thing called a "commodity" when their applications and use cases couldn't be more divergent.

For solid-state storage, the notion of "commodity" is even more laughable. With a variety of architectures and technologies to choose from -- single-level cell, multi-level cell, triple-level cell, 3D and so on -- and implementation choices that run the gamut from SAS/SATA interfaces, PCIe, DIMM slots and just about everything in between, it would be equally insane to drop all those variations on a NAND flash theme into the same bucket.

SDS undoubtedly simplifies that hardware layer in a storage system, and admirably makes an end run around the need for specialized gear to enable sharing of storage resources. But the hardware still matters, arguably as much as the cool new software.

And SDS vendors likely know this, as well, despite their rhetoric that tends to marginalize the hardware their products rely on. As SDS has established itself as a bona fide storage category and attractive alternative to traditional storage offerings, it has also moved away from the do-it-yourself, save big bucks and avoid administrative headaches image that it projected early on.

Honestly, can you see yourself trawling the aisles of Best Buy or Fry's, filling your shopping cart with stacks of “commodity” hard drives and servers that you’ll cobble together back at the shop?

Giving it a label like commodity hardware…doesn't make sense and certainly doesn't make the software seem any better or more valuable.

There aren't very many companies that are willing to risk their data and application performance on a DIY project. And the truth is that SDS vendors are about as uncomfortable with that prospect as you likely are. If their software ends up running on a Spud's Servers R Us server with Spin City hard drives, their product will look as junky as the commodity stuff it's running on. That's why so many SDS vendors sell their products in software-hardware bundles. Yes, it's still software-defined storage, but here's some hardware to go with it.

VMware is the poster child for that tactic. With a lot of hoopla, they rolled out VSAN as a true software-defined storage product, but the product -- and the idea of buying storage software separate from the hardware -- got a lukewarm reception. That experience spawned EVO:RAIL -- software-defined storage again, but a reference model that ensured front-line hardware vendors will package it with their servers, storage and other gear. So much for commodity hardware, eh?

So what does all this mean? I'm glad you asked.

First off, it means what every storage pro has always known: Hardware does, indeed, make a difference. But it also means you shouldn't let vendors distract you from the importance of the hardware -- it's just as important as the software it hosts.

Next Steps

Why all-flash architecture is more exciting than commodity storage

Commodity hardware a big part of shifting storage landscape

Compare SDS, hyper-converged architectures

This was last published in September 2015

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Do you believe SDS vendors when they talk up the concept of commodity storage hardware?
Although I agree with you on the fact that mixing drives is a dangerous pratice, even if they are basically the same only changing the manufacturer, I believe that you may create a SDS array based on pre-existing hardware in your datacenter or even new ones you can buy on Best Buy, test it looking for compability problems and then, if everything goes right, use it for archiving needs that don't require high IOPS with low cost. I know that SDS suppliers are selling it like it is the solution to all storage problems and your article makes it clear that it is not the case (good job, by the way), but for specific needs I think it is a nice way to go.
Good hardware is good hardware, even if you get it wholesale from a vendor who creates millions of drives a year. The quantity that relegates it to a commodity doesn't come into play if the quality of the hardware is what you've specced and what you need to do your job, protect your data and keep information accessible.