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Unifying storage

/ 6 June, 2010

With storage it’s just like with everything else: there are different approaches. Take a bike, a two seater, a wagon, an SUV and a beach buggy. No doubt, all of them will get you from A to B. However, when it comes to performance, usability, comfort, capacity, operating cost and safety, you immediately know the score. Very similar in storage: Traditional enterprise storage requires a different system for each storage function. One storage architecture might be deployed for primary network-attached storage (NAS), another for storage area networks (SANs), with extra platforms for backup storage, archive and compliance. Due to the obvious complexity and cost of this approach, storage vendors have begun to promote Unified Storage.

What makes Unified Storage so appealing? It’s the idea of a simplified and nearly infinitely scalable data infrastructure. The idea has become even more appealing with server virtualisation and consolidation being in the minds of every IT professional. Successful deployments depend on a sharable and protected networked storage infrastructure that is capable of eliminating storage “silos” deriving from the specific data storage habits of applications and operating systems. Unified Storage seems to be the ideal architecture to solve this problem.

However, to make the most out of it, IT professionals as well as corporate buyers should take a closer look. If Unified Storage just implies the ability to support both NAS and SAN bundled under a single product family name and inside a single cabinet, the deployment falls short of the idea’s promises. A bundle solution of separate SAN and NAS components each with its own user interface and data protection mechanism delivers at best physical disks as its common base. When the disks do not even belong to a single storage pool, but are dedicated to either SAN or NAS, there is not enough flexibility to quickly reallocate storage for use with different protocols.

Integration is crucial

The crucial part is integration. The more you can get of it, the better it will be for your infrastructure and your company—from increased flexibility and improved agility to significant cost reductions. And this can be seen from a technical as well as a business perspective.

Looking at typical enterprise challenges and objectives, the need for a Unified Storage architecture is obvious. Many data centers have grown organically over time. New storage systems and servers have been set up for each new application or project, often with little consideration for what existed before. Also, the situation may have been complicated by mergers and acquisitions and the need to bring together disparate infrastructures. Most organisations have the reality of managing multiple vendors and architectures, actually calling it an administrative nightmare may often reflect the situation much better.

How can a Unified Storage solution help solve this challenges? There are many thing to consider, but the foundation is the creation of a common storage pool that can be networked and shared across a diverse set of applications with a common set of management processes. And it should integrate multiprotocol support for NAS and SAN for all applications in a single storage platform. The ability to run new protocols such as Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) is emerging. And this brings us to another point: As it’s all set up within the same system, customers have the choice of protocol. And they can change their mind—even if they are just looking for an iSCSI SAN storage right now, the option for consolidating files is already there. Or add FCoE to introduce FC SAN to Ethernet and start to set up a unified fabric in your data center.

Deep protocol integration that goes way through to the storage OS will provide the best results. Other storage features must be included within the same OS such as virtualisation, storage capacity provisioning, data protection, management and application integration. That way you are guaranteed they will work as expected and regardless of the protocol.

A storage pool with storage virtualisation technology applied to it, opens up new dimensions of provisioning allowing you to non-disruptively grow and shrink volumes as needs change. This contrasts sharply with the sizing guesswork of traditional approaches often leading to unused capacity. The industry norm for storage utilisation ranges from 25% to 35%. Flexible provisioning methods can improve the utilisation rates to 70% and up—even over 100% in some cases!