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the                                                 site Software-Defined Storage        The Future of Data Centers: Achieving Agility in a Rapidly Shifting World

Stefan Bernbo is the founder and CEO of Compuverde. For 20 years, Stefan has designed and built numerous enterprise scale data storage solutions designed to be cost effective for storing huge data sets. From 2004 to 2010 Stefan worked within this field for Storegate, the wide-reaching Internet based storage solution for consumer and business markets, with high availability and scalability requirements. Previously, Stefan has worked with system and software architecture on several projects with Ericsson.

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Feature Article: July 2013

Data + Technology Today

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Why Data Still Matters

Libraries, archives and music catalogs that once resided in the physical world are now digitized and stored online in massive data farms around the world.  The sheer volume of online content is already astonishing at today’s levels, and is projected to grow even higher in the near future. In 2011, only seven percent of consumer content was stored on the Cloud. By 2016, Gartner Research estimates, the number will rise to 36 percent.


Cloud service providers tasked with storing this data are watching these trends grimly. Storage at these levels is highly expensive, and many of these cloud services – like streaming media or consumer cloud storage (like Dropbox) – are either free or close to it. To remain competitive, service providers are analyzing their existing storage infrastructures and researching ways to achieve greater efficiency to reduce costs.


One option service providers are looking into is software-defined storage. In this approach, features normally found in hardware are moved to the software layer, eliminating reliance on traditional, expensive server “appliances.”  


Software-Defined Storage: An Introduction

The expression “software-defined” has become something of a trendy catchphrase, but various electronic devices have existed as “software-defined” for ages. The personal computer, for example, can run many different kinds of operating systems or software regardless of the hardware platform, letting consumers create a totally custom-built machine. Linux or Windows, high-performance graphics card or not, the software-defined PC lets users decide what components they needed most and budget accordingly.


In spite of these clear advantages in flexibility, data centers have dragged their feet in adopting a software-defined approach. This hesitation is understandable: given the massive amount of infrastructure in data centers, the expenses required to switch systems represents a significant investment.


The Existing Conditions

To understand why software-defined storage represents such a departure for data centers, it is necessary to understand the storage status quo: appliances. An appliance is server hardware with proprietary software built in. The software is designed specifically for the hardware and vice versa, and is sold together as a complete package. Appliances offer the benefit of convenience and simplicity for data centers without specialized staff with the training to set up a custom server implementation in-house.  


However, since all hardware inevitably fails, appliances typically build in redundant components to anticipate failure and avoid data loss when failure occurs. These layers of identical hardware makes an appliance highly complex, especially since the software needed to manage the identical hardware layers and reroute data also adds complexity.  Subsequently, the cost per appliance is quite high. Service providers whose data centers are stocked with appliances can see projected costs skyrocket when calculating how to scale to accommodate the demand for cloud storage.


It is largely due to appliance cost issues at scale that service providers are beginning to investigate software-defined storage options. This is a big step, and is a sign that the old way of storing data won’t work for the tidal wave of storage that providers are facing today.


A New Way of Thinking

Data center administrators who find the concept of software-defined storage appealing are typically attracted to one or more of the following benefits:


1. Decreasing Costs

For appliances, like many solutions, convenience comes hand-in-hand with a high price. Appliances provide convenience in the form of a unified package, but their layers of complex software and high-powered hardware can contribute to significant costs for data centers that need to expand rapidly.


On the other side, software-defined storage separates the software from the hardware, allowing service providers the option of selecting less expensive commodity servers.  When paired with lightweight, effective software, the use of commodity servers can result in considerable cost savings for service providers looking for ways to accommodate their users’ increasing demand for online storage.


2. Elasticity

Every service provider has different needs. The data center for a small regional telco will have distinct storage needs that vary from a major international bank storing data from multiple countries. While appliances might be suitable for some of these needs, the benefits achieved with a software-defined solution could provide substantial advantages in economies of scale.


Software-defined storage provides administrators with the freedom to analyze the requirements of their business and to select the precise components and software that address their companies’ growth goals. While this method does require more technically trained staff, the flexibility presented by software-defined storage provides a simpler, less expensive and higher-performing data center for the organization’s needs.


3. Preparing for the Future

Budgets, network ecosystems and corporate concerns all change in response to current market demands. Having a vast, rigid storage environment, locked into infrastructure combinations determined by an external vendor, severely restricts the ability of the organization to respond quickly to market demands, much less anticipate them in a practical fashion.  


Globalization Within Software-Defined Storage

Companies with data centers all over the world can also benefit from software-defined storage in innovative –sometimes-unexpected – ways.


Considering that cloud services must be able to be accessed from all over the globe, service providers must place data centers worldwide to reduce load time. Global availability, however, comes with a number of challenges. First, load is active in the data center in a specific region. Making sure that this data saved in sync across all locations can be tricky. Similarly, companies are required to prevent data from either exiting certain countries or from being stored in others. Additionally, global data centers need to be flexible to accommodate localized disaster, such as a power failure, that puts any local data center offline. Lastly, if a local node fails, global data centers need to quickly redirect data to minimize downtime.


Though there are solutions that can currently resolve these issues, they do so in the application layer. Aiming to solve these problems that high up in the chain of the data center infrastructure, rather than solving them at the storage level, introduces a considerable amount of cost and complexity disadvantages. Solving these problems at the storage level can secure dividends in productivity, money and time.


Conclusion

The future of data storage has arrived.  There are strong trends indicating ever-increasing demands for inexpensive storage and if organizations continue relying on costly, inflexible appliances in their storage centers, they will be obliged to spend a substantial amount of money to create the storage volume needed to meet user demand.


Software-defined solutions suggest an appealing alternative to organizations looking to “future-proof” their data storage centers.  Because the hardware and software are independent investments, either one can be substituted out for a better, more suitable option as the market dictates, at the lowest possible cost.  

This is just the beginning of what lies ahead in the future of data center infrastructure. While recognizing the value of software-defined storage methods, countless companies are starting to examine the subsequent stage of data center execution. Service providers being confronted with these issues should take a serious look at a software-defined approach.


By Stefan Bernbo

Founder and CEO of Compuverde

VP Marketing, CA Technologies and author of Agile Marketing