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Get ready for the storage revolution

Data storage vendors may want you to think it's all about hardware, but when the storage revolution comes, that won't be the main story.

Data storage vendors may want you to think it's all about hardware, but when the storage revolution comes, that won't be the main story.

The rumblings are unmistakable. Something's afoot with data storage, and it looks like some big changes may be looming on the not-too-distant horizon. It's not just about cool new products from brash startups that may catch the storage market behemoths napping or the latest new twists on old technologies.

The signs of a real shakeup are emerging, with some core storage technologies and disciplines finally being scrutinized and questioned. Even bedrock storage principles seem a little iffy these days. Are file systems relevant anymore? Is RAID really the best way to protect data?

Mostly, it's about unhinging the software from the hardware -- or rethinking what the software should actually be doing. In this regard, the storage faction in the IT shop (as usual) is moving along a little more slowly than the server side. The server revolution is well underway, with server virtualization software successfully freeing apps and servers from the confines of their hardware homes.

Server virtualization adds both simplicity and complexity to server infrastructures, but it unarguably creates a far more nimble and economical environment. It does that by essentially distancing itself from the hardware, which, for the most part, remains largely unchanged. So it's a revolution that has occurred without any significant disturbances to the underlying server infrastructure. Servers are bigger and faster platforms, of course, with processors supporting more and more cores, but they're still built on x86 architectures with a direct lineage that stretches back 30 years.

For storage, the hardware part is nearly as basic; the components that make up the storage environment have pretty much remained the same since the idea of networked storage surfaced nearly 20 years ago. Everything is bigger, faster and safer, but the model has essentially remained the same. Some of the most profound changes that have come to storage, like IP-based networks and solid-state storage devices, seem more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Storage hasn't been a complete laggard; over the past few years we've started to see some disengagement of software from the hardware. Those developments are still mostly proprietary, and the degree to which storage subsystem vendors are working at this varies broadly, but thin provisioning, automated tiering and storage virtualization are tangible steps in the right direction. As data storage software plays a bigger role, storage hardware becomes more of a commodity, which is fine for storage managers but not a very comfortable situation for storage vendors.

Ironically, if you look at two of the strongest forces steering storage in this new direction -- the need for more efficient storage operations and the effects of out-of-control data growth -- one is likely to disappear if it's successful and the other exists only because storage vendors haven't provided the right tools.

Pummeled by the compounded effects of regulatory compliance, a recession and plain old profligate waste, storage managers have made efficient operations a singular objective in most shops. This has been primarily a tools story (as in give us the tools we need to make better use of our storage gear) that has overshadowed the hardware parts of the problem. Most shops that have initiated efficiency programs have seen encouraging results, so their next challenge is to turn those efforts into standard operating procedures.

Ultimately, efficiency may not have a lasting impact on storage evolution. For vendors, it's mostly a short-term opportunity, even as it becomes a way of life for storage shops.

The capacity issue is a completely different story. Not surprisingly, vendors have jumped all over this one. And why not? The equation is painfully simple: More data = more sales. Storage vendors are on a nonstop jag of "Web 2.0," "social networking," "big data" and any other catchphrase that says "Hey, you're drowning in your own data." But the products they're rolling out to counter this onslaught only treat the symptoms. If it's snowing, they'll sell you a snow shovel, and if the snow doesn't quit, they'll sell you a bigger shovel and then an even bigger one. Pretty soon, you won't be able to lift the shovel much less move the snow.

What they don't want to acknowledge is that we all know that most of that Web 2.0, social networking and big-data stuff is useless junk. And if we continue to collect and protect all those billions of bits of digital detritus that come our way, we'll just get buried in it or distracted with the process of making believe we're actually managing it all.

If we're going to get a storage revolution, the first things we'll need are the tools to help us determine what's worth saving and what should be tossed. Google and other search engines, as well as e-discovery applications, use sophisticated techniques to crack files and evaluate their contents, so I don't expect that it's an issue of technical constraints holding back development of effective content classification tools.

And a lot of that sophisticated stuff is being done on run-of-the-mill hardware. Server virtualization took off because the underlying hardware became unimportant. The commoditization of storage hardware can only be good, and whether storage vendors like it or not, it's happening now. Vive la revolution!

BIO: Rich Castagna is editorial director of the Storage Media Group.

* Click here for a sneak peek at what’s coming up in the August 2011 issue.

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