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Monday, January 21, 2013

Seven Shifts in the Storage

If you're in the IT industry, you're intimately familiar with technology shifts: you've seen plenty of them, and there are undoubtedly many more to come.

That's what keeps things interesting ...

Of all the foundational infrastructure technologies; none appears to be changing faster than storage. From a macroeconomic perspective, the shift to digital business models means information: orders of magnitude more of it gathered, analyzed and acted on.
More storage, please.

And, on a more pragmatic note, when IT budgets are cramped, one of the first categories that always comes under intense scrutiny is -- you guessed it -- storage.

One of the questions I get asked is -- what are the big shifts currently going on in the storage world?
I thought my answer was worth sharing -- see if you agree.

Shifts Abound
Knowing that something is changing, and doing something about it, turn out to be two very different activities.

7speedFor EMC as a storage vendor, we are very mindful of each and every one of these shifts, and are investing heavily along these lines.
To not do so -- and do so aggressively -- means failing to keep pace with technology evolution; a fate we would not want to suffer like so many of our colleagues.
For our customers and partners, the challenge is a bit different: not all of this can be put into practice due to multiple real-world constraints.
That's where the notion of a strategy comes in: here's an idealized end-state; and here are some progressive steps we can take to always make sure we're moving in the right direction.
If anything, I hope you find some of this useful fodder for your own strategy moving forward.

#1) Storage Media

The first key shift is in storage media: tape has been largely replaced by disk, and traditional uses for disks are quickly being replaced by flash storage. With regards to tape, inline deduplication technology (e.g. EMC Data Domain) has lowered the cost of using disk for backup and archive to the point where disk-based data protection solutions are often now both faster and cheaper than their tape predecessors.

EMC_vfcacheFor primary storage, the promise of flash instead of disk is simple: vastly more performance at lower cost.
As a result, flash is quickly finding its way into the entire storage hierarchy: in the server (EMC VFcache) in the storage network (Project Thunder) and in the array (EMC FAST) -- all orchestrated by software that ensures the right data is in the right place at the right time.

The use of multi-core processors and inline deduplication is now making possible all-flash storage arrays (XtremIO) that can compete effectively with hybrid flash/disk combinations.

And, of course, the core SLC and MLC flash technologies (as they are on a semiconductor technology curve) will continue to get ever cheaper, denser and more cost effective.

#2) Technology Base

The second key shift is around the technology base. Previously, storage arrays used proprietary or customized hardware to achieve superior performance and availability.
ServerfarmThis has quickly given way to the use of industry standard components running advanced software, shifting the value proposition away from hardware and towards modern storage software stacks.

Look inside any modern storage array, it's essentially a specialized server built from familiar components that represent the very best in price/performance -- running an amazingly sophisticated software stack.

Hardware still plays a role -- of course -- but it is less pronounced over time. Take this idea to its logical extreme, and it's not hard to imagine rich, virtualized software stacks running on very standardized hardware.
All EMC storage products reflect this philosophy.

#3) Architecture

Isilon-droidThe third key shift is architectural: in a world of big data, scale-out storage architectures are demanded.
With scale-out, multiple modules are clustered into progressively larger configurations that behave as a single unit from a performance, capacity and management perspective.

Can we always make bigger, traditional scale-up storage arrays? Of course. Will they be enough to keep up with even bigger data growth and performance requirements? Not so well.

This design theme can be seen in EMC products such as VMAX (scale-out block storage), Isilon (scale-out NAS storage) and Atmos (scale-out object storage).

#4) Convergence

Vblock_2The fourth key shift is convergence: storage, network and servers are growing together, largely in response for even greater efficiencies.

One current example of this theme is the popular VCE Vblock, a tightly-integrated enterprise cloud platform built on converged infrastructure from Cisco, VMware and EMC.
Future technology directions point to even more variations of converged storage / compute / memory modules that auto-configure and seamlessly redistribute workloads.
The implication is clear: over time, we'll be thinking less about storage as a standalone component, and more as part of a converged environment.

#5) Distance

The fifth key shift is the need to overcome distance: storage in data centers increasingly demand geographical separation for protection, performance or resource balancing concerns. There's just too much information pouring in (and being globally consumed) to simply assume it all can be sent to (and distributed from) a small number of centralized locations.

Enter the new world of federated architectures: infrastructure, data services, etc.

Newer EMC technologies (VPLEX, Atmos), are able to geographically distribute data without being disruptive to applications or management operations: a capability that is becoming increasingly important.

#6) Management And Orchestration

ConductorThe sixth key shift is management and orchestration: storage resources are increasingly presented as a dynamic and variable service to other layers of the IT stack: hypervisor, middleware, application, etc.

This leads to a new management and operations model that demands new tools and methodologies (EMC Unisphere and ProSphere, EMC DataBridge, VMware vCenter Operations Manager, etc.).

While there will always be value in managing storage as a self-contained domain; the path forward lies in producing and orchestrating storage services that are consumed by others, which leads us to ...

#7) Consumption Model

Vending_machineThe IT model has started to shift to an "as a service model". IT owns the relationship, and builds or brokers a variable service catalog to meet requirements.

The technology discussion quickly morphs into a service delivery discussion, and the storage domain is not immune from this shift.
This shift has two components: a re-thinking about how storage teams are organized and measured (service delivery); and an increasing attractiveness of brokered (e.g. external) storage services.

New models mean new roles and new skills -- and the modern storage IT professional looks very different than the ones from just a few years ago.

Challenges -- Or Opportunities?
I meet with more than my fair share of customers and partners who look at all of this storage stuff like it's one big, honkin' headache: rapid technology shifts, an information deluge, limited budget and a shortage of skills and talent.
Where's the magical silver bullet?

I haven't found one yet. But there is a hard choice to be made ...
Road_middleDo you -- the IT leader -- want to invest in the capabilities to get really good at this storage stuff? Service catalogs, management and orchestration, federation -- all that?
Or, in the final consideration, do you choose to invest your resources elsewhere, and just bring in someone to do it all for you, and deliver a service that's efficient and easy to consume?
That's not a philosophical discussion, it's becoming a hard-nosed business decision. There's only so much resource available for the IT team; and choices have to be made around where to invest, and where to externalize.
But this much is clear -- you can only sit in the middle of the road for so long ...


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