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Storage systems and virtualization - your fate is to disaggregate

Storage analyst Tony Asaro says that today most storage systems are discrete, individual systems that are islands. Disaggregating the storage controller from the disk enclosures creates storage pools with greater flexibility, scalability and a leap in efficiency that should become the new way to implement storage networks.


The value of a storage system is in its software and controller architecture. The most important thing to customers is that the storage is reliable, so their data is well-protected and accessible when needed. Performance is also important, since the user experience and/or application needs to be efficient and productive. If not, operations, productivity and revenue can all be adversely impacted. Data replication is essential in the event of data corruption, accidental deletions or major disasters. Increasingly, being able to move data between different tiers of storage is becoming critical in order to improve IT efficiencies. And yet, there are many customers who buy as well as many vendors who sell storage based on the cost per GB. While there are some vendors trying to position their value based on their software and not disk capacity, this is more the exception and not the rule.

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The most widespread and popular approach to storage systems is a fully integrated product that includes the intelligent storage controller and the disk enclosure. Ultimately, hard disk drives cannot be taken out of the equation. The disk drives represent a huge cost as a percentage of the storage system. While the disk drives increase overall revenue, they actually eat into profits. Storage system vendors know this and yet, in order to make their revenue goals, they need to keep selling disks.

If the value of a storage system is in its software and controller architecture and not in the disks, then cost should be more focused on the former and not the latter. An integrated product bolts the storage controller and disk enclosures together as a single and inseparable entity. However, disaggregating the storage controller from the disk enclosure offers greater value to both the customers and to the vendors. Dividing the storage controller and disk enclosures into constituent parts separates them physically and therefore enables a reinvention of how we acquire and manage storage. Virtualization is the glue that logically connects the physically discrete components into a single virtual system and enables greater usage and economy than can be achieved with traditionally integrated storage systems.

The vision is to separate intelligence from commodity. Certainly, the disk enclosures provide an important function and must be reliable and offer varying price/performance options. But the storage controllers provide the intelligence and should leverage disk enclosures as a storage pool, obtaining capacity as needed, moving and copying data across different tiers and providing different protection levels based on the class of data. The traditional one-for-one ratio of intelligent storage controllers to captive disk enclosures is inefficient and not sustainable over time.

Disaggregating storage controllers from disk enclosures is already taking place. Storage virtualization products are available from a number of the large and small storage vendors. These products are basically storage controllers that manage external heterogeneous storage. In environments that have existing storage networks, these storage virtualization products are being used to solve tactical problems that are causing a great deal of pain. A storage virtualization product can consolidate the management of multiple storage systems as if they were one logical system. Additionally, the storage virtualization product can move data between different storage systems transparently, providing capacity and load balancing.

Companies that are either implementing new storage networks or are willing (and able) to re-architect their environments can combine an intelligent storage controller with lower cost "dumb" JBOD or RAID disk enclosures. Consider the implications of using an intelligent storage controller and separate disk enclosures. Disk enclosures can be added as needed. They can be shared among different storage controllers. Data can be moved to and from tiers with different performance and protection levels. More disks can be easily added to this very fluid pool of resources. More storage controllers can be added as needed and leverage the same storage pool.

The intelligent storage controller should have the ability to create virtual storage systems. In other words, the system administrator should be able to carve off resources including host ports, cache memory and capacity, creating virtual storage systems for applications, departments and business units. Additionally, quality of service policies should be provided to better leverage the storage resources. This creates a utility model and enables scalable consolidation.

Storage vendors should not be in the business of selling capacity. Most, if not all, storage system vendors only pay lip service to this idea. There are many ways to add value to customers by providing better approaches to store, manage, move and access data. Disaggregating the intelligent storage controllers from disk enclosures seems obvious and practical, and yet it changes the business of storage dramatically. It is a bold step to take, and yet, over time it will be requisite. The question is: Will you be a follower or a leader in this new inevitable landscape?

The views and opinions expressed by this author do not necessarily reflect those of nor any other TechTarget affiliate.

About the author: Tony Asaro is the senior analyst for Enterprise Strategy Group.


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