Software-defined storage: a crossroads for businesses?

As technology has advanced, so too has the need to enhance storage capabilities. The increasing scale of workload applications and the ever-growing amount of data held within organisations have skyrocketed.

As a result, have traditional, often costly, storage methods had their day? Now, the impetus for many organisations has to be focused on reducing cost while increasing efficiency, scalability and flexibility with regard to the storage solution they choose.

Software-defined storage, or SDS, provides a solution that meets the current needs of organisations looking to manage the explosion of data passing through their networks in a cost-efficient manner.

SDS is an innovative approach to the storage of data, whereby the programming that controls storage-
related tasks is decoupled from physical storage infrastructure.

>See also: Software is redefining IT infrastructure

This emphasis on storage-related services is part of a general movement across industry to provide businesses with a cheap and flexible approach to data storage through programming.

Those vendors who associate their products with SDS must provide software that runs and shares storage assets across all workloads, whether storage is virtualised or not.

Without the physical constraints of hardware, SDS can really thrive. It means that storage capabilities are more fluid and allow an organisation to truly take advantage of the increasing flux of data that is so crucial in this age of digital disruption.

On top of flexibility, efficiency and cost-effectiveness, SDS also simplifies the storage process by providing the ability to, for example, automate policy-based management to ensure the smooth running of future company endeavours.

The data lives on a software layer and overcomes the restraints of hardware, allowing the software to manage ‘hardware failures, expansions, data availability, data migration and upgrades’, according to Boyan Ivanov, CEO of StorPool.

The SDS market, like many other new technologies integrated into business operations, is constantly evolving as it is at a relatively early stage. Start-ups are increasingly creating their own SDS innovations, while some argue that the technology is currently not ready to manage enterprise-level storage capabilities.

There is some disagreement, which will be discussed later in this piece, over whether in the near future traditional IT should be abandoned or whether it should be integrated alongside SDS. Ultimately, it boils down to company preference, and which workloads are suited to the various storage methods.

Why SDS?

Before getting to the great debate of traditional IT storage versus SDS, it is important to understand why a company might opt for software-
defined storage in more detail.

Ivanov suggests that organisations looking to employ SDS have two main goals. The first, is ‘to allow companies to build faster and more reliable clouds that can be up to ten times cheaper’. Indeed, the IDC calculates that organisations using SDS will incur costs that are on average 50% lower thanks to IT infrastructure cost reductions and avoidances; IT staff efficiencies in terms of deploying, maintaining and supporting SDS; and the reduced impact of unplanned outages on users.

>See also: Enterprise storage in 2017: trends and challenges

Second, continues Ivanov, is to effectively manage the data storm currently battering companies’ networks. Is there any evidence to corroborate this? According to research by Dell EMC, IT teams using SDS spend 75% less time dealing with storage-related help desk tickets and 83% less time provisioning storage.

In addition, the report’s results showed that business applications are delivered in less time (32% faster) and the interval between user or customer requests for applications or services being made and delivery is shortened by 26%.

Sean Horne, CTO UK&I and senior director EMEA Executive Briefing Programme at Dell EMC, suggests, ‘The underlying cause for this is the virtualisation of the physical resources available to an SDS layer.

‘This allows dynamic movement of application data without the need for any intervention from storage admins. Otherwise, admins are constantly monitoring and migrating data off storage arrays as they become full.’

Traditional storage area networks (SANs), as alluded to earlier, are – in some instances – not as well equipped to keep up with the progression of technology demands.

Mark Lomas, technical architect at Probrand, refers to this while explaining the adoption of SDS: ‘The rise of cloud, consolidation and the ability to migrate from one environment to another are just some of the influences at play.

‘Crucially, many vendors are now licensing their storage operating systems to run on other platforms – on servers or in the cloud – allowing businesses to consolidate areas such as virtualisation, as well as reducing their physical footprint.’

The benefits are evident, and it is easy to see why so many organisations are considering SDS as part of their storage strategy. But, as with any techno-cultural change, it is not without its challenges.

Are you ready?

It is generally accepted that organisations are moving at a significantly slower pace than technology. As a result, embracing new practices, both in a technological and cultural sense, takes time.

Indeed, regarding SDS, this has been the case for those businesses that have adopted it. For those that haven’t – the vast majority – this will always be the case, especially for the enterprise.

If a business is a longstanding enterprise that has lots of legacy infrastructure and applications, it’s an even greater challenge, which needs a lot more planning and preparation.

Re’em Hazan, technical sales director at Infinidat, shares this view: ‘SDS technologies today are not mature enough for enterprise-level high-end storage solutions. It may be adequate for mid-tier and low-end storage, but it is still a far cry from being able to manage and service organisations’ most critical, IO-intensive data and applications.’

>See also: Flash storage: transforming the storage industry

Hazan also feels that, because of a lack of hardware standardisation, ‘the ‘SDS vendors are not in a position to provide secured SLAs and performance guarantees, especially when they have little knowledge of the type of hardware organisations are using to host the data’.

Hazan’s SDS scepticism is not unfounded, and perhaps backed up by the rate at which this storage capability is being adopted.

Currently, adoption rates are still relatively low – between 5% and 15% (roughly one in ten), depending on the analyses available. The trend has not quite taken off yet, despite the clear advantages seen by those who use it, mainly for the reasons illuminated by Hazan.

However, the rate of adoption is predicted to increase dramatically, and there will be a big shift in the market: from that 5-15% to 56% within the next 12 months. This prediction comes from open source software company SUSE, which suggests this is a reaction to the 30% growth of storage requirements predicted by two-thirds mof storage decision-makers.

‘Now even bricks-and-mortar businesses, those that are more cautious about adopting new technologies, are opting for SDS,’ suggests Ivanov. While Hazan believes there are many challenges holding back SDS, Horne disagrees. ‘The only challenge with implementing SDS,’ he suggests, ‘is having the courage to start. Because it is such a fundamental shift in the way storage is delivered, there are a number of myths that have emerged over time, about the performance or agility of an SDS platform, that need to be overcome.

‘After these are dispelled, an initial SDS deployment can be up in a matter of hours. Once applications are migrated to it, the pain ends, and most never look back, expanding the business’s use of SDS to encompass a greater proportion of its estate. IT teams will also need to think about what to do with the time the storage managers will now have.’

>See also: How workload analysis is changing the storage purchasing process

Ultimately, an inherent fear of the unknown might be holding businesses back from truly transforming their storage capabilities. However, it is an entirely individual process, with the correct design and implementation just one of many strategic factors depending on the organisation, their goals and capabilities.

For example, does a business have a short-term goal with plans to scale after six months, or a long-term goal? Will they embrace software-defined infrastructure or wander down the traditional IT path?

‘The challenges,’ suggests Lomas, ‘will depend on whether you’re going for a traditional IT stack, hyper- convergence or software-defined’.

Out with the old?

It seems that businesses are at a storage solution crossroads. For the larger enterprise, maintaining legacy infrastructure is the safer bet, but for smaller organisations – those that have already started to adopt SDS – a software-defined approach is not only achievable but necessary.

The same is true of the enterprise, and as storage demands increase, a software-defined, or at the very least a hybrid, storage solution will be fundamental to remaining competitive in a disrupted world.

Larger enterprises recognise this and as a result have begun to invest in software-defined infrastructures (SDIs). According to Ivanov, ‘Some are working towards a 100% SDI model in the next two years, and they are aggressively executing that strategy.

This is a big shift compared with the past few years and will obviously have an enormous effect on the sales and adoption rates of SDS.’ Customers of SDS vendors are beginning to recognise the immense benefits of choosing a software- defined storage approach over the traditional, legacy storage.

>See also: 5 hot topics for information management in 2017

As more and more successful SDS implementations gather pace, so too will the rate of its adoption. Ivanov shares the view of SUSE that 56% of organisations will have adopted SDS by 2018, and goes one step further, suggesting that ‘all new general storage deployments and will be “the new SAN” by 2020’.

The transition from traditional hardware to flexible software from a storage perspective is inevitable, for all the right reasons. SDS will certainly help define the future of the storage industry, and the market is ready.

In an interesting closing note, Ivanov suggests that should the inevitable rise of SDS adoption take off, it is the vendors who deliver a vertical SDS solution that will suffer. The whole point of embracing a software-defined storage solution is to increase flexibility and efficiency when dealing with data.

‘As the SDS market becomes more mainstream,’ says Ivanov, ‘customers are starting to look for horizontal solutions that won’t lock them into working with a particular vendor or ecosystem.’

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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is a former editor for Information Age (from 2018 to 2022) before moving on to become Global Head of Brand Journalism at HCLTech. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and...

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