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Evolution of storage technology ending one-size-fits-all approach

Some storage vendors want you to think that one type of storage will work for all scenarios and enterprises. Thanks to changes in storage technology that's not always the case.

It seems like storage is all over the place these days, in every sense of each of those words. It only took the world at large a couple of decades to realize the critical role storage plays in everything. And now, that newfound appreciation has generated a lot more interest in data storage and infrastructure in general, which has -- in turn -- helped launch a raft of new ideas and approaches to storage technology. Today, the evolution of storage technology has created more alternative architectures for storing data than ever.

Sci-fi storage on the horizon

Even the medium on which data is stored is in play now, mirroring the kind of research and product development activity that proliferated in the early days of tape and HDDs. And it's not just the flash vs. hard drive battle that has become a prominent refrain in the vendor-hype soundtrack that gets played and replayed in data centers. It's an even more granular rethinking of how data should be stored, like the well-publicized tests where data has been stored on DNA. That's about as radical a reassessment of storage media imaginable, and yet, more recent tinkering in the storage lab has yielded processes that are capable of storing data on a single atom.

Still marveling over the potential of atom-sized storage devices, I came across a news item that described how scientists at the University of Glasgow have created a type of synthetic skin that can be used to convert solar energy into electrical energy. So, with such a highly portable, and wearable, source of power along with atomic storage, all we need is for those research masterminds to cook up a way to shrink an x86 server down to atom size -- Moore's law to the extreme (even if it takes two atoms). That would be the ultimate in hyper-converged infrastructure (ultra-super-hyper-converged).

The future is now

Sci-fi aside, your storage needs are probably a little too urgent to wait for futuristic technology. The immediate number of options available is a little bewildering. And, of course, every vendor thinks their product is the answer to all your company's storage needs, no matter how varied they are.

All-flash arrays vs. hybrid? Converged vs. hyper-converged? Block, file or object? Those are probably the most pressing issues to consider if you're shopping for storage. There are plenty of good options to update a storage environment; all feature some rock-solid storage technologies, and each has its own benefits and drawbacks. The potential stumbling block, however, is trying to simplify things a little too much, thinking that single system architectures will be appropriate for all applications and workloads.

Too much data, too few resources

Most data centers have excess amounts of data to manage and dwindling supplies of resources to do so with, so the idea of a unified architecture that can span all apps, workloads and use cases has become undeniably attractive. The problem is there's really no such thing in the storage world that offers a realistic one-size-fits-all approach to infrastructure. The holy grail of single-pane-of-glass storage management is nearly as elusive as it was a decade ago, despite the evolution of storage technology.

When shopping for IT gear, common wisdom used to be: Buy best-of-breed and then sweat the details to get it all to work together. It might've resulted in a few twists and turns on the road to productivity, but it was eventually worth the worry and work when the top-of-the-line components finally got in step with one another and clicked as a unit.

The evolution of storage technology means there's little reason to exert that kind of effort these days, with hypervisor-based systems that neatly merge server and storage management and storage arrays that sport sophisticated configuration and management apps or "software-only" storage systems that don't require any specialized hardware at all.

Best-of-need vs. best-of-breed

So the focus has shifted to more of a "best-of-need" purchasing perspective. It's pretty safe to assume most storage system choices will provide the basic services required by enterprises, but because they come in so many shapes and forms now, it's more critical to determine which shape best fits the hole you need to plug in your infrastructure.

Applying that philosophy will likely result in a mix of system types in most organizations. And that's not a bad thing.

Hyper-converged systems are great for a variety of applications, but for mission-critical apps key to a business' competitiveness, a bare-metal approach might be better, with resources isolated from other apps that might steal IOPS from the main fare.

All-flash arrays are another example where best-of-need may outweigh best-of-breed thinking. Everyone wants the speed, space saving and cool running of solid-state storage, but not everyone really needs it. All-flash gets the lion's share of headlines, but hybrid arrays still outsell their flashy cousins by a wide margin. Why? Because for many applications, HDDs are good enough -- and good enough is, well, good enough in a lot of cases.

The fact that the evolution of storage technology has brought on so many storage options and some of them veer radically from traditional shared storage scenarios is great news. But don't be lulled into thinking that your data center needs to be built around a single architecture. 

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