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Software-defined storage benefits to sway SDS holdouts

Software-defined storage is often misunderstood, yet the technology offers some advantages over traditional storage systems for many organizations.

Software-defined storage benefits many organizations because it provides an effective, affordable solution to most capacity, performance and management challenges. Yet, many organizations remain hesitant to tap into the technology, largely due to its unconventional, unfamiliar nature.

SDS is focused on policy-driven automated provisioning and data storage management.

"SDS creates an abstraction of storage resources to form resource pools across different implementations," said Kong Yang, head geek at SolarWinds, an enterprise IT infrastructure management software vendor.

Companies can expect to realize multiple software-defined storage benefits, including scalability, simplicity at scale -- similar to what the public cloud offers -- and the use of commodity storage hardware.

"These are especially important considerations, since, in many organizations, data growth is outpacing the IT budgets available to manage it," he said. "At the same time, SDS removes the need for a storage administrator with specific operational knowledge about a specific storage vendor -- an increasingly important requirement as software-defined trends create more vendor-agnostic environments and IT professionals are increasingly generalist experts."

SDS offers inherent simplicity by delivering a single management plane, said Lief Morin, CEO of Key Information Systems, a converged infrastructure solutions provider.

"A single, scalable, programmatically deployed architecture allows for minimal human intervention in the provisioning process, improving resiliency and reducing costs," he said. "This is similar to the promise of the cloud: agility, flexibility and hardware independence."

Another one of many software-defined storage benefits is that the adopter gets to choose the hardware platform.

"All of a sudden, the entire x86 Intel server market is open for business, rather than vendor-chosen chassis and firmware-locked drives," said Andrew Hatfield, cloud storage and big data practice lead for Red Hat, an open source software provider. SDS adopters are unshackled from a storage vendor's supply chain and technology decisions.

"Your storage solutions become more agile and responsive to change, as well as competition and economies of scale," Hatfield said. "Pit your server vendors against each other, and make them give you the best deal, instead of begging for marginal discounts on million-dollar investments where the vendor can afford to give away 40% or more."

Reliability is another important software-defined storage benefit.

"In a traditional approach, a single controller upgrade, replacement or failure will cause downtime and outages that affect the entire enterprise," said Shawn Smucker, product manager for the office of the CTO at data protection software provider Commvault.

"In an SDS environment, any server in the software-defined pool can be replaced or upgraded with virtually no impact on services running in the pool, minimizing any risk to the data or business functionality."

And unlike traditional storage systems, which are limited by a maximum capacity, SDS lifts the lid off of capacity concerns.

"At some point, the controller simply cannot scale up and manage more storage," Smucker said. "Software-defined storage is advantageous [because] it is able to seamlessly scale out to hundreds of petabytes of storage, while your data remains in one place."

Who gets the most out of software-defined storage benefits?

SDS is most often deployed by large enterprises, but virtually any organization that must manage large volumes of data is a good SDS candidate.

"Medium-sized business can leverage SDS by utilizing prebuilt SDS appliances and still gain the benefit of larger organizations," Morin said. "Some SDS vendors provide validated/supported appliances."

Organizations that can reap the most software-defined storage benefits are those with large amounts of unstructured or semistructured data.

"If your organization is investing in big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence, IoT [internet of things], private cloud, video or media lakes, data lakes or long-term archive solutions, you are likely better off investing in scale-out software-defined storage," Hatfield said.

As traditional SAN and NAS installations grow, they require additional management staff. On the other hand, as few as one or two staff members can easily manage SDS deployments, even when storing multiple petabytes across multiple locations.

"This is primarily because of the availability of automation, such as Ansible and Puppet, combined with SDS solutions often being designed to treat failed components as a common operating state as opposed to an uncommon event requiring urgent resolution," Hatfield said.

The best way for an organization to approach SDS is to compare its current storage systems against evolving storage needs (PDF).

"Businesses that rapidly acquire a surplus of data, find themselves reaching capacity limits or have an out-of-date system that is nearing end of life will benefit from an SDS solution, [because] expanding storage in a traditional environment is risky, costly and inflexible," Smucker said.

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