Tear Down the Storage Bastille!

Storage BastilleAt the end of June, Antony Adshead at SearchStorage UK asked a good question: Why is the data storage industry locked in by hardware? After all, as he notes, a SAN or an array-based storage system, is simply a combination of hardware and software. How is it then that the “hugely wealthy empires” based on the lock-in imposed by proprietary controller software have not fallen to hardware-independent storage software?

Adshead didn’t actually get around to answering that question, reserving it for a future editorial. But when I ran across his article just a few days later, after getting back from the July 4th holiday here in the U.S., I thought the timing appropriate. July sees the commemoration of two upheavals that overthrew what might be called political lock-ins: the American and French revolutions. And, in reflecting on the relationship between the two revolutions and their goals, I see analogies with the coming overthrow of proprietary storage systems.

The American Revolution was fought in large part to liberate the colonies from the British Empire’s stifling mercantilist system, whose tariffs and regulations locked them into a subsidiary economic position in which they were forbidden to trade with countries other than Great Britain. The French Revolution, inspired to some degree by the successful American one, overthrew a stifling and inefficient monarchy that had bankrupted the state in a series of unsuccessful wars (although one of them helped liberate the American colonies).

Similarly, proprietary storage vendors lock their customers into the storage equivalent of mercantilism: although you’re not forbidden to use other vendors’ storage systems, lack of interoperability and specific features tied to each device impose a “management tariff” steep enough to discourage most customers from attempting to liberate their storage from vendor dependence. And, of course, the motivation for lock-in is competitive advantage and higher prices, which simply means that you end up paying for the “storage wars” between vendors.

But we’ve already seen a revolution separating hardware and software. It’s called server virtualization and it has largely succeeded in making hardware choice a secondary consideration when building server infrastructures. Just as the American Revolution helped inspire the French Revolution, the success of server virtualization-and the demands it makes on the storage infrastructure-is inspiring a number of vendors to storm the Bastille of proprietary storage armed with hardware-independent storage virtualization software.

The benefits this revolution brings make it unlikely, in my opinion, that the proprietary storage fortresses will survive much longer, although the intellectual capital of their vendors can make them players in the new world if they adapt quickly enough. The benefits of hardware-independent storage virtualization software include:

Lower capital expenses. You can buy storage hardware from any vendor, which makes it a buyer’s market, and you avoid the expense of “rip and replace” to bring your storage infrastructure up to the demands of server virtualization.

Longer life from your storage investments. Storage virtualization software endures over multiple generations of devices and enables you to move older storage hardware “down-tier” as you replace it with the latest and greatest. You can also use the software to extend the life of existing storage assets or repurpose older storage and add performance and new capabilities.

Lower operational expenses. We’ve seen cost reductions of up to 60% resulting from the ability to manage all storage resources as a single pool from a central console. Simplify administration and reduce provisioning times from days to minutes.

Better ROI from storage investments. Get more from each storage dollar by boosting your effective storage utilization rates to 90% with automated thin provisioning. “Just-in-time” storage means using only the space actually needed rather than having to over-buy to handle spikes and peak loads.

Enable non-stop business operations. Automated recovery, mirroring and replication features of such software make it much easier to build a high-availability, resilient storage infrastructure.

Improved Performance. You don’t need to trade off performance for flexibility. Smart storage virtualization software can leverage today’s fast CPUs and memory technologies to boost the performance of existing storage devices.

In the end, I think the proprietary storage device business model will meet a fate similar to that of the Bastille, which was torn down and its stones sold as souvenirs or used to construct the Pont de la Concorde. I don’t suppose we’ll see SAN souvenirs, but with hardware-independent storage virtualization software, proprietary systems and their rich feature set can become just another building block in an efficient, easily-managed, and cost effective storage infrastructure. And that’s as it should be.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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