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The yin and yang of data storage technologies

I feel like that little girl in "The Exorcist" whose head spins around; it's hard to keep an eye on where storage is headed these days.

According to Rich Castagna, it's so hard to tell where data storage technologies are headed these days that he feels like the little girl in The Exorcist whose head spins around.

A couple of months ago, I wrote about how the storage landscape was changing rapidly with new players appearing, a slew of acquisitions, and a few vendors giving up the ghost and getting out of the game entirely. It seemed like a scary time to be storage shopping, but I suggested that the volatility was a sign of a healthy, evolving storage ecosystem. I guess I'm just an optimistic guy.

Lately, I've seen other signs that seem to indicate that the storage sphere I called healthy just might be a bit schizophrenic.

Two of the most watched -- and if you believe the vendors, most active -- data storage technologies seem to be at polar odds with each other. One is my favorite whipping boy, software-defined storage (SDS), and the other is the concept of hyper-convergence. Just to refresh your memory, hyper-convergence is where a single vendor (or maybe a collection of partner vendors) crams storage, servers, networks and hypervisors into a single rack. Hyper-convergence's appeal is that (theoretically, at least) you just have to roll it onto the raised floor, uncrate it and plug it in, and you're in instant production mode. I've exaggerated just a bit, but that's essentially the value proposition for these bundles.

And despite hyper-convergence sounding like a 21st-century name for what used to be known as a minicomputer a few decades ago, it's probably a pretty enticing option for smaller companies that may lack IT resources or enterprises that need quick and easy solutions for remote offices. You could just as easily call it hyper-convenience because that's what these boxes are all about.

Such convenience and the promise of out-of-the-box productivity means no tinkering under the hood for storage or server jockeys; even some of the virtualization staff's job is taken care of. No mess, no fuss … it's just plain easy.

Now let's do a quick 180 and look at the other "hot" storage technology. While it apparently has as many meanings as vendors peddling it, regardless of who's selling it, SDS does have one common factor: separating the control software from the hardware that holds the data. Mostly, it's being sold as a software solution, often neatly wrapped up in a "pre-fab" virtual machine (VM). Just download it and fire it up.

SDS sounds almost as convenient as those hyper-converged packages, right? Well, not quite. You're only firing up the software; the hardware part is up to you. So if you're willing to roll the '68 Camaro you've been restoring for the last 10 years out of the garage and out of the way, you can roll up your sleeves and start cobbling together your own array based on that downloaded SDS VM. While the software might be separated from the hardware, you're not.

It's kind of wild that the storage industry is all abuzz about products that pop out of the box, batteries included and are immediately productive. At the same time, there's equal excitement about products that are essentially just Step 1 of a complex, do-it-yourself array process. What happened to everything in between? Is it just too dull to talk about that stuff or are the media hype machines otherwise occupied?

Yet another bizarre reversal of storage tech logic was reported by SearchStorage senior writer Carol Sliwa. It seems that Facebook, with its zillions of users and exabytes -- no, more like yottabytes -- of data, needs the appropriate media to put some of that data into cold storage, or as some people refer to it, deep archive. That makes sense; there's no reason to use expensive spinning disk storage to store 11 billion pictures of five-year-olds blowing out birthday candles. Sounds like a job for tape, right? Nope. Apparently, Facebook doesn't "like" tape. Facebook executives recently announced that its cold storage archive will be stored on optical disks controlled by new high-capacity libraries. While we hope this doesn't mean tape will be "unliked" by thousands of Facebook users, we're scratching our heads over the optical disk choice. Tape offers higher capacities and a shelf life comparable to optical, although you can't use tapes as coasters like optical disks or fling them around like Frisbees.

If that announcement wasn't strange enough, Facebook capped it off by saying they eventually want their archive to be housed on solid-state storage. It's an interesting concept that definitely puts them at the vanguard of ... uh, something. Instead of using the cheapest, longest-lasting, highest-capacity media for archive, opt for the most expensive, lowest capacity and so on.

Is this just the yin and yang of storage that we're seeing? A couple of instances that demonstrate what a flexible and broad market it really is? Or is there a full moon tonight?

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

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