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unified storage

What is unified storage?

Unified storage, sometimes called network unified storage or multiprotocol storage, is a storage system that enables users to run and manage files and applications from a single device.

A unified storage architecture simultaneously enables storage of the file data and handles the block-based input/output (I/O) of enterprise applications. To this end, a multiprotocol storage system consolidates file- and block-based access in a single storage platform compared to traditional arrays that contain either one or the other. Unified storage is protocol-agnostic, allowing a range of different protocols to be used. This enables unified storage systems to be integrated into a broad range of applications. Unified storage also supports several operating systems, including Windows, macOS and Linux.

Unified storage uses standard file protocols to allow users and applications to access data consolidated on a single device. As its name implies, unified storage combines a variety of access protocols, such as Server Message Block and Network File System, and block-based protocols, such as Fiber Channel and Internet Small Computer System Interface, allowing users access to consolidated applications and storage.

Components of unified storage

A unified storage system includes the following general components:

  • Hardware. Data storage requires physical media, which in a unified storage system could be either hard disk drives or solid-state drives configured into arrays and managed by controllers to orchestrate the data flow between the drives and the rest of the system.
  • Software. A software interface is used to manage different types of data being stored in the system. Such an interface enables the support of different communications protocols and handles access management.
  • Network infrastructure. Scenarios using unified storage systems usually require rapid data transfer and optimized network infrastructure, including high-speed data connections.

Features of unified storage

Unified storage systems offer several high-value features, including the following:

  • Redundancy. Unified storage systems can include redundant arrays of independent disks (RAID), which protect data through the creation and maintenance of copies of the data. They're also friendly to other data replication techniques, preserving data in the event of hardware failure or accidental deletion.
  • Scalability. Unified storage scales easily, allowing the expansion of the system with additional storage devices.
  • Protocol support. Supporting a range of protocols enables unified storage systems to handle a broad range of data access requirements, increasing their connectivity to different platforms and applications and eliminating the need for multiple storage systems.

A comparison of block storage vs. file storage vs. unified storage

In considering unified storage, it's important to distinguish between the following data storage paradigms:

  • Block storage. This refers to the storage and management of large, fixed-sized blocks of data -- the type of data often found in databases and virtual machines.
  • File storage. This refers to the storage and maintenance of data in desktop and laptop systems where files are organized within folders and typically used to store documents and images.
  • Unified storage. Combining block storage and file storage results in unified storage -- the integration of protocols for both in a single storage platform.
Chart comparing block, file and unified storage.
Combining block storage and file storage results in unified storage -- the integration of protocols for both in a single storage platform.

Unified storage in hybrid and multi-cloud environments

Unified storage systems accommodate hybrid cloud environments, which typically include both on-premises infrastructure and cloud services. A unified system can integrate storage across the on-premises hardware and cloud platform(s) seamlessly and with high scalability, making the environment more flexible.

That same seamless integration, scalability and flexibility apply cloud-to-cloud, when the enterprise is using multiple cloud platforms. This greatly simplifies data management, mobility and governance -- all of which are generally challenging in a multi-cloud environment. Centralized data storage is difficult to manage in environments without it.

Utility with multiple protocols makes unified storage more useful in multi-cloud scenarios, since different cloud providers often have different preferred protocols.

Benefits of unified storage

Unified storage offers the following benefits:

  • A single point of management and administration. Unified storage frees administrators from having to manage multiple sets of tools and pools of disparate storage.
  • Cost savings. Unified storage offers cost savings by enabling adopters to consolidate storage over an existing network.
  • Less hardware to maintain. Unified storage minimizes hardware needs by combining separate storage platforms -- such as network-attached storage for file-based storage and disk arrays for block-based storage -- into a single device. This approach typically leads to streamlined and less costly maintenance, enabling staff members to focus on higher priority projects.
  • Simplified scalability. With a unified storage system, storage administrators can rely on and make decisions via a single dashboard that shows how much free capacity remains across the entire storage pool.
  • Advanced features. Added features and functionality, including replication and tiering capabilities, enable organizations to manage data more effectively across multiple platforms, including the cloud. Meanwhile, data encryption and access controls can reduce security risks by safeguarding both data at rest and in motion.
  • Longer application lifespans. With unified storage, applications specifically developed for a particular storage category can work with file-, block- and object-based data, even if the software was written to only work with a particular storage type. This can extend a legacy application's lifespan without the need for recoding.

Drawbacks of unified storage

Unified storage also has its downsides, including the following:

  • Performance issues. Unified storage often limits the level of control in file- versus block-based I/O, which can potentially lead to reduced or variable storage performance.
  • Unsuitable for mission-critical applications. Block-based data tends to require higher I/O compared to file-level data, which is more random and takes longer to service requests. Therefore, mission-critical applications should continue to be deployed on block-based storage systems and not on unified storage.

Use cases for unified storage

Unified storage is ideal for a broad range of use cases, including the following:

  • Enterprise data centers. Large-scale enterprise environments typically require many modes of data storage and are almost invariably hybrid or multi-cloud, making unified storage an attractive option.
  • Healthcare. As one of the most data-intensive verticals, healthcare environments require vast amounts of block storage as well as accommodation for an extensive range of file-based artifacts -- for which unified storage is ideal.
  • Research environments. As with healthcare, organizations performing a great deal of research generate high volumes of block-store data as well as a range of files.
  • Digital media companies. The requirements of digital media storage vary widely, and file-type artifacts can be unusually large. Unified storage is ideal for its handling of many protocols, making management of such data much easier.

Major unified storage vendors and products

Modern unified storage has evolved to include cloud and storage virtualization, combining on-premises systems with cloud storage. According to the 2023 "Gartner Magic Quadrant for Distributed File Systems and Object Storage," leaders and challengers in this market include the following vendors:

This was last updated in May 2024

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