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Leading Data Storage Trends: Solid State and Software Defined

Enterprise Storage ForumIf you know a college grad looking for a lucrative career, give them two words of advice: data storage. The data storage industry is not just healthy but downright robust for the foreseeable future. Wall Street may boom or go bust, real estate has off years, but data storage appears headed only upward.

The data storage industry enjoys an advantage that few industries can claim: the need for its services grows constantly, perpetually, as far as the eye can see. A staggering 90 percent of the world's data has been generated in the last two years. Research firm IDC claims that data grows at more than 50 percent annually – doubling every two years. The 1.75 billion smartphones in the world creates oceans of data, from retail transaction to geo-stats to app usage to storehouses of photos and video. Big Data tracks all this activity (and more), and creates still more data as it analyzes results.

That's a whole lot of data. And it all needs to be stored somewhere.

Given the ginormous amount of data we create, it's no surprise that the leading trends in data storage – the rise of solid state drives, and software defined storage – enable greater speed and flexibility. When you have a big fat lumbering elephant to handle, you want to handle him with as much speed and flexibility as his massive girth will allow.

The Rise of Solid State Drives

The need for speed is one of the factors fueling the rise of solid state drives. And SSD is, to be sure, on the rise. As the editor of Enterprise Storage Forum and InfoStor, never a day goes by when I don't get a press release trumpeting hot news in the flash sector: an acquisition or a new product. Clearly, flash is on a hyperbolic curve upward.

The traditional attitude about flash is that, sure, it's faster, but it's pricey. Some storage systems are set up to have only the storage tier that requires the fastest access rely on flash (or, sometimes compression and deduplication are assigned to flash). Other data is stored on old fashioned spinning disks, and deep storage rests on tape. The thinking has been: you can only afford to use SSDs for a limited sliver of your data handling. But this view is changing quickly. As storage industry experts noted in a panel discussion I moderated, the price will inevitably fall. As time goes on, it seems that less expensive SSDs get closer and closer.

To be sure, flash generates its own controversy. Enterprise Storage Forum columnist, Henry Newman, covered this in-depth in SSD vs. HDD Pricing: Seven Myths.

"However, the market forecasts presented by many prognosticators that enterprise SSD prices will soon be on par with HDD prices are built on several faulty assumptions," wrote Newman. "While it is true that the cost of NAND and SSDs have been going down over the past few years (and will continue to do so in general into the future), there is no proof that SSDs will match HDDs in price any time soon, especially when comparing high capacity storage options."

Indeed, as Newman wrote, it is SSD's very popularity that will keep the price afloat. "The historical SSD cost spike in 2009 and the flat to slightly upward trend of 2013 and early 2014 demonstrate that, as with any product or service in a capitalist economic system, SSD prices are impacted as much by economic trends and developments as by technological advances. The 2009 spike was the result of increasing demand (new need for flash in smartphones, tablets, and laptops) combined with the reduction in suppliers resulting from the recession."

Newman’s in-depth piece sparked a lively discussion – prompting more than 200 comments on Slashdot – including an excellent blog post by David Rosenthal, who opined that "flash will command a premium over hard disk prices so that the market directs the limited supply of flash to those applications, such as tablets, smartphones, and high-performance servers, where its added value is highest."

Is 'Software Defined Storage' a Marketing Term?

While solid state drive technology works to make the data storage faster (among other advantages), software defined storage (SDS) enables it to be more flexible. In theory, SDS lowers costs and lessens the enterprise's reliance on dumb hunks of metal. Because it's an emerging technology that offers these benefits, software defined storage is the buzzword du jour in the storage industry. If possible, it's an even hotter trend than flash.

It's also a far more confusing trend. As the technology gains more interest and vendors rush to slap it on both new and existing solutions, precisely defining it is hard to do – and open to argument. The term has so excited the marketing departments of storage vendors that Wikipedia claims that "Software-defined storage is... a marketing buzzword for promoting computer data storage technologies."

Creating this confusion is the relationship between hardware and software in software defined storage. SDS's big promise is that it's virtualization and then some – it transcends storage virtualization. Simple virtualization abstracts software from the underlying hardware, enabling far more flexible provision and scale out. SDS takes this a big leap further, pooling all hardware resources into a single unified unit, and adding an array of automation and monitoring tools. Not only can the data storage facility run on its own (sort of, but not really), the software is completely hardware agnostic. A true SDS solution doesn't relay on vendor X's hardware – a bona fide SDS solution monitors and controls a wildly heterogeneous data center, mixing commodity boxes and high-end proprietary hardware from legacy vendors.

In short, SDS fully liberates the software from the hardware. Hence the name, "software defined storage."

Confusion Around the Term Software Defined Storage

Storage hardware vendors, naturally, are taking a keen interest in SDS. If you've made a living selling your big metal boxes for years and years, and a technology comes along that makes the brand name on the box less important, what do you do? The logical strategy: brand your existing solutions – even those that combine proprietary hardware with software – as "software defined."

And therein is the confusion around the term software defined storage. Can you have a SDS solution that relies on a specific brand of hardware? Maybe. If that solution is interoperable in a heterogeneous data center then, well, you could make the argument that it's SDS.

Roughly speaking, the debate about the term's definition has two sides. On one side are the legacy vendors, who prefer a broader definition. On the other are the purists, typically start-ups who sell software only solutions that (they claim) will interoperate with any hardware. Long term, the winner will likely be those on the side of complete independence from the underlying hardware. This second method offers a lower cost environment, and it's also in keeping with the trend toward heterogeneity in the data center – which is a trend that even the most established legacy vendors now (grudgingly) support.


James Maguire



James Maguire is the Senior Managing Editor of Datamation, InfoStor and Enterprise Storage Forum.


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