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Software-defined storage solutions: A channel primer

Channel companies have an opportunity to help their customers deploy emerging software-defined storage technology, a pursuit that may also boost a partner's consulting revenue.

Storage costs have been bursting at the seams while IT budgets have been sewn tight. Software-defined storage  is an emerging technology that promises to help IT departments meet those two conflicting business drivers.

While software-defined storage, or SDS, solutions have the potential to alter storage economics, moving from the old to the new can be a challenge for many businesses. Channel partners may play a key role in helping companies clear that hurdle.  

With the growing interest in analytics, corporations are housing more information than ever before. In fact, market research firm IDC expects data volumes to double every two years until 2020 and reach 40,000 exabytes -- that's 40 trillion gigabytes, more than 5,200 gigabytes for each person on Earth.

However, IT budgets are growing at tepid rates: IDC projects that spending will increase 3.4% in 2017. The end result: "Businesses need to find ways to squeeze more out of their storage systems," noted Mark Campbell, vice president of research at Trace3, an IT solution provider based in Irvine, Calif.

What is SDS?

Enter SDS. Though the term lacks precision, its impact can be significant. Traditionally, it is storage solutions focused on system hardware: disk capacity, speeds and feeds. Vendors delivered special purpose, proprietary hardware that was expensive and difficult to maintain.

SDS' roots sprouted from the server virtualization garden. A software layer sits on top of commodity hardware and supports functions such as deduplication, replication, snapshots, and thin provisioning.

Mark Campbell, vice president of research, Trace3Mark Campbell

Customers benefit in two ways. First, the use of standard hardware lowers system costs. Second, software-defined storage solutions have a modern software foundation, one that supports a high degree of automation, so corporations reduce their mundane maintenance work via automation.

Cost savings attracted Capstone Investment Advisors, a global hedge fund managing $3.6 billion in assets, to SDS technology. A handful of years ago, the financial services company needed to upgrade its NetApp storage system. "A system upgrade would have cost a lot of money and locked us into a proprietary solution," explained Monty Hall, director of technology  at Capstone Investment Advisors.

Instead of taking the traditional route, the firm opted for an SDS from DataCore Software Corp. Derive Technologies, a DataCore channel partner based in New York, was also involved in the storage project. The SDS product cost less than half of what the NetApp system was priced at, and the new system is simpler to maintain, according to Hall.

Similar but different

While software-defined storage resembles server virtualization, one significant difference exists.

Server virtualization was a one-to-one system upgrade, but software-defined storage is a one-to-many change. Through the years, a variety of storage offerings arose to meet the processing needs for different types of data.

Scott Sinclair, senior analyst, Enterprise Strategy GroupScott Sinclair

"SDS concepts can be applied to various storage systems: file services, object systems, block storage and hyper-converged systems, explained Scott Sinclair, senior analyst at market research firm Enterprise Strategy Group Inc.

Lief Morin, president and CEO, Key Information SystemsLief Morin

The move to SDS, however, represents good news and bad news for resellers. On the downside, storage hardware revenue has been dropping  by a few percentage points in the past few years. But SDS also enables partners to make money in such areas as consulting and training.

"When moving to an SDS, businesses need to outline a sound data migration plan," said Lief Morin, CEO at Key Information Systems, a reseller with 75 employees.

Tips for deploying software-defined storage solutions

The channel can play a crucial role in helping businesses develop the skills needed to deploy and manage software-defined storage solutions. Here are a few ways partners can help their customers:

  • Find their storage key pressure points: What are customers currently spending on storage? What are their capacity needs and constraints? Then, determine how many applications are in play. If the growth is primarily coming from one monolithic application, traditional storage works well. But if the customer has a broad mix of applications, software-defined storage solutions make sense.   
  • Examine what analytics are needed. If the rise of big data is a pressing concern for the company, an SDS solution supporting technologies such as Apache Hadoop and MapReduce is a good fit. With such tools, enterprises directly store and share data rather than moving it among information silos.
    When moving to an SDS, businesses need to outline a sound data migration plan.
    Lief MorinCEO, Key Information Systems
  • Devise a deployment plan. Firms often start by moving noncritical workloads or new applications to an SDS platform, just in case they experience delays or downtime. After they gain experience and an understanding about the new storage platform, they can use it for mission- critical applications.
  • Decide how long the organization will need to maintain its data. Here, regulatory requirements may mandate that firms keep information longer than they would have traditionally maintained it. But with SDS, the task of setting and changing data retention polices is usually easier because automation reduces the amount of time involved.
  • Finally, determine the right level of data protection and replication. Which disaster recovery scenarios need to be covered? How much is the firm willing to pay to protect itself?

Software-defined storage solutions enable businesses to add storage without destroying their budgets. The technology's burgeoning acceptance means partners will generate less money from hardware sales but more from consulting services. Consequently, partners need to train themselves, and then their customers, in the new storage architecture.

Additional reporting by John Moore.

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