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This article is part of our Essential Guide: Software-defined storage market: Fact or fiction

What is software-defined storage, you ask? Ask Hillary

If you're still trying to figure out the answer to this software-defined storage riddle, you're not alone.

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Even if you don't catch all of my columns, you've probably been inadvertently exposed to at least one of my rants about the term -- and dubious product category -- software-defined storage.

I've been grappling with that one for a while now. Is it just the good ol' marketing machine churning out its buzziest nomenclature to make fairly boring "old" products seem cool, hip and oh-so 21st century? Or is it that we're on round two (three? four?) of storage virtualization -- since it didn't exactly capture the imagination of storage managers with that old moniker, maybe latching onto the software-defined trend could kindle some interest. That tactic seems to have worked with HSM/ILM/tiering, although new techs and much improved tools may also have been pivotal to its revived interest and widespread deployments.

Then there's the open source angle to software-defined storage, kind of like the People's Republic of Storage. It's a more democratic distribution of storage technology, assuming your shop has the chops to wrangle that sometimes ornery code into something resembling an honest to goodness enterprise storage array.

No matter what angle I approached the software-defined storage question from I still couldn't figure it out. But then I received a press release that was practically a sign from above; its headline captured my attention, held me transfixed and gave me new hope I could unravel the Gordian Knot that software-defined storage had become for me:

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Deliver Keynote Address at Nexenta OpenSDx Summit

Why hadn't I thought of that? I had done a ton of research on the matter, interviewed vendors, and bugged analysts and consultants for answers, but I never thought of asking an ex-Secretary of State -- or an ex-Senator or even an ex-First Lady, for that matter -- to tell me the meaning of software-defined storage.

Nexenta, which in the same press release described itself as "the global leader of Software-Defined Storage (SDS)," must know something the rest of us don't: Hillary knows software-defined storage. I can't tell you what a relief it is to know that someone does.

At least Nexenta is trying to shed some light on the issue, while other vendors continue to stir up a blurry vision of just what SDS is. One company -- I won't reveal the name because they're not alone in this kind of obfuscation -- just rolled out a new storage product it touts as software-defined storage. Right. But this software-defined storage product takes up 2U in a rack and can hold approximately 48 TB or so of capacity. Those are pretty strange specs for software ...

I believe the vendor when it says it's done some special magic with its controller software, but the product comes in a metal box with boards, wires, processors and memory, so I don't imagine it's any more software-defined than a traditional storage array.

That's the sort of stuff that makes this whole software-defined storage thing so hard to understand. Is it, indeed, just a new name for an old-fashioned array? Or is the category defined by those software-only products that meet up with hardware on the data center floor rather than in the storage vendor's factory? Or is storage virtualization resurrected and renamed?

As skeptical as I am about how these things are being marketed, I actually think software-defined storage is a good idea and maybe even a great idea. It's just not a very new idea, and it's possible that vendor attempts to make it seem like a fresh-off-the-drawing-board storage tech might be having a boomerang effect as confused users stand back to wait for the smoke to clear.

For me, just knowing that Hillary Clinton is addressing a gang of software-defined acolytes helps clear some of that marketing haze away. Next time I'm stumped about a storage issue, I'll just call Hill. And if she's busy running for president or something, maybe Bill will know.

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

This was last published in September 2014

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