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Specialized types of storage media make purchase decisions more complex

The business of picking the right media for the data has become nothing less than a critical task.

Choice is good, right? Whether you're making small decisions like what kind of cereal to buy or bigger ones like who to vote for in the next election, it's nice to have a variety of options. Usually, the more alternatives you have, the better you feel about making a selection. At the very least, you feel as if you're exercising your free will.

But having more choices can also mean there's a greater chance that you'll end up making the wrong decision. So you can play it safe and limit yourself to a couple of options, or you can gamble a bit by exploring more possibilities. It's kind of like betting on black or red in roulette vs. plunking your chips down on a single number. The former choice is a safe 50-50 proposition, but the latter can pay off big time.

I'll refrain from some major metaphor mangling by equating a roulette table with storage media choices, but considering the wide -- and ever-growing -- range of devices on which you can park your company's data, the business of picking the right media for that data has become nothing less than a critical task.

More media choices than ever

Just a few years ago, storage media buyers had only a handful of choices: fast-spinning disks vs. slower, more capacious ones, and tape. That might be simplifying it a bit, but the point is that storage purchasers and architects didn't have a lot to choose from media-wise, so the focus typically shifted to other speed-and-feed specs like throughput. After that, storage administrators got under the hood to do some serious tinkering such as short-stroking scads of disks to satisfy performance-hungry apps.

Today's storage media landscape has been radically revamped with new technologies and extensions to older techs. These days, few shops will even consider the costly alternative of short-stroking, opting instead to add some high-performance solid-state storage to the mix. But deciding on a flash storage pick-me-up has become a pretty complex process in itself, with a dizzying array (pardon the pun) of flash types and implementations to choose from. You'll have to decide between hybrid and all-flash arrays, and whether you'll use flash for caching or persistent storage. Even if you decide to take what might seem like a simple approach by plugging the flash directly into a server, you'll still have to sift through a number of choices: PCIe-based solid-state storage, SAS/SATA form factors or flash that fits into a server's memory DIMM slots.

Older techs revived, revised and repurposed

If you're expecting to get some respite from decision-making in the hard disk drive (HDD) world, think again. Even being stuck in a rotational speed time warp of 15K rpm since 2000, disk manufacturers have managed to create hard disks with a range of performance characteristics by making better use of a disk's embedded DRAM or augmenting it by tossing in a bit of flash for snappier reads.

Interestingly, as they become overshadowed by flash on the performance front, HDDs are becoming more and more specialized as their capacities steadily increase. Western Digital's HGST division recently released a new drive that combines shingled magnetic recording (SMR) and its HelioSeal technology that replaces the plain-old air in the drive with helium to achieve a mind-boggling 8 TB capacity. HGST has positioned these new HDDs for cold, or archive, storage to make the best use of their spaciousness and relatively poky performance. The company even went as far as racking a bunch of these drives in a box they call an Active Archive.

Even tape continues its inexorable march toward higher capacities and throughputs and, in doing so, its use cases have veered sharply from backup to archive, big data and streaming media applications. The LTO consortium of HP, IBM and Quantum recently extended its roadmap that leads from the current LTO-6 spec all the way out to LTO-9 and LTO-10. The group says LTO-9 will have a 25 TB capacity and LTO-10 will trump that with a jaw-dropping 48 TB capacity. Data transfer rates will get jacked up significantly too, further enhancing LTO's place in the archiving ecosphere. With capacities on that scale, maybe LTFS will finally take off and further fuel the revival of tape as a serious storage media alternative.

Media with a meaning

This is all pretty good stuff, even though it makes the once simple process of configuring storage a thornier task with more variables than ever. On the plus side, as storage media get more specialized, there should be less need to force fit kludgey configurations that never quite fill the bill. You can effectively match high-performance apps with equally highly performing storage, less critical apps with hard drives that perform adequately, and apps that can stand a little latency with extreme capacity disks or tape.

On the minus side, besides the additional work you'll have to do up front, you're likely to forfeit some deployment flexibility. With media tailored to fill certain roles, repurposing them later might not be possible.

Good or bad, the rapidly expanding world of storage media will make purchasing decisions a little more complex, so some pre-purchase preparation is in order.

About the author:
Rich Castagna is TechTarget's VP of Editorial/Storage Media Group.

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