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Forget software-defined storage; we need software-concealed storage

Software-defined storage? Not for me, says Editorial Director Rich Castagna, who thinks we need less software with our storage.

Instead of software-defined storage, says Rich Castagna, we should have software-concealed storage that puts all that plumbing and exceptional functionality under the covers.

If I hear the term software-defined storage one more time, I'm going to jump out of a plane without a parachute, surf down Niagara Falls without a board and then stand in front of a speeding freight train.

Am I just a wee bit frustrated with the way the phrase software-defined storage is tossed around these days? Uh-huh. And tossed seems to be an understatement, as we're getting peppered with that nasty phrase from all angles these days.

I nearly went off the rails railing about this in a previous editorial less than a year ago, and here I am ready to poke holes in the whole software-defined storage thing once again. In fact, you're probably wondering what I find so particularly nettling about this latest adventure ride into the wonderland called storage marketing.

First, I defy anyone to show me storage that's not defined by software. (That is unless you're talking about the shoebox, shipping crate and Tupperware kind of storage.) All storage needs software -- gobs of it usually -- from the lowest levels nestled on chips inside drives up to the servers and other clients that access the storage. And it's always been that way. What has happened, though, is that storage systems, especially when they became shared resources, ended up with lots of very complicated and arcane software plastered all over them. Then, with each and every new generation of systems, we got more and more software -- from snapshots to replication to thin provisioning and beyond. Arrays became so encrusted with software that it was hard to remember there was actually some hardware underneath.

With all those features, and the software to dial them up and down, the process of owning and using storage became complex enough to require storage jockeys with special expertise to configure and maintain the systems.

To herald a new world order for data storage with the phrase software-defined storage is missing the point, because that expression is far too broad, and probably even misleading, in today's environment. There's really no uniform or useful definition of software-defined storage. That makes it a non-issue for most storage managers and it's the main reason why storage marketers have so fondly embraced it as the buzzword du jour heading into 2014.

Actually, software might be doing too much defining of storage. If users are frustrated, it could be because they're getting tired of having to push and pull so many levers to get stuff done before the virtual server they're configuring storage for flits off to some other virtual realm. Software isn't the solution to whatever storage problems you're running into, it's part of the cause of those problems.

Rather than something called software-defined storage, maybe what we're actually looking for is software-concealed storage. We don't need, or have time for, so many controls and exposed bells and whistles. The less we have to fiddle with, the better. A couple of recent Read/Write columns in Storage magazine did a terrific job of describing how storage needs to evolve: Arun Taneja wrote about how antiquated LUN technology is becoming, and Taneja Group senior analyst Mike Matchett opined that storage will have to move up the stack.

It's an obvious but no less apt analogy to compare today's storage systems with early personal computing endeavors. You may be too young to recall, but once upon a time when you turned a PC on all you got was a mostly blank screen with a C: in the upper-left corner and a blinking cursor. You had to know what to do: the DOS commands and proper syntax to execute those commands. There were no windows, just blank space and you. There was plenty of software between you and the bits and pieces of hardware sitting on the desk, but you had to know how to get those things to do something.

Today, we don't even type. We touch, tap and swipe, and the software under the covers does our bidding. We know there's software there, but we don't see it. Or care.

That's what we need with storage -- software-concealed storage. Put all that great plumbing and exceptional functionality under the covers and let's get back to basics.

It's not a far-fetched idea at all. Some upstart storage vendors are already on the road to software-concealed storage, but the laggards are -- as usual -- the big storage dudes. They dragged their heels with thin provisioning, are still dragging their heels with primary dedupe and now they give a lot of lip service to this new storage paradigm without really delivering anything very new. We don't need to see more software, we need to see less.

About the author: 
Rich Castagna is editorial director of TechTarget's Storage Media Group.

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