Thin Provisioning: Shedding the storage flab

The first step in the implementation of any storage system is the allocation of capacity to servers and applications.Thin provisioning separates the logical representation of storage from the underlying physical disk arrays, making it possible to allocate more storage capacity to applications than is physically installed. Says Surajit Sen, director Channels, Marketing & Alliances, NetApp India, From a technical standpoint, the physical storage (disk blocks) are allocated only on actual writes unlike in traditional provisioning where the disk blocks are reserved in advance for each file system or LUN.

To put it simply, Thin provisioning addresses the fundamental problem of allocated-but-unused storage. In the heydays, CIOs used to look at the storage forecast requirement for the next 2 years (taking into account 35-50% growth typically) and thereafter arrive at the required capacity and purchase storage. The actual requirement however may be far lesser but the CIOs had to put up with huge capex costs involved. It wasnt uncommon to find a good amount of storage capacity effectively underutilized and beneath the management radar. This is fat provisioning implying that the CIOs had to manage resources even though they may be under-utilized.

Says Anand Naik, director, technology sales, India & SAARC, Symantec,With enterprise IT under pressure today to do so much with so little, there is rapid adoption of virtualization to help allow more to be done with less. Quoting the Symantecs 2011 Virtualization and Evolution to the Cloud Survey India findings, he further adds that the adoption of server virtualization is widespread, with 57% of Indian firms implementing server virtualization versus just 45% globally.

Defining thin provisioning, Naik adds that its a best practice for organizations to optimize their existing storage infrastructure before procuring new storagethis is where thin provisioning comes in. Thin provisioning is a solution that increases storage allocation efficiency and thereby more effectively leverages a shared pool of storage capacity.

According to Deepak Verma, regional head, presales, EMC India, fat provisioning was not driving efficiency, it was more of a deadlock provisioning wherein in thin provisioning you intelligently align and provision storage; in technical terms it prevents over-allocation or over-subscription. With thin provisioning coming as a standard feature in all IBM storage product range, no wonder more than 60% of the storage opportunities that came last year to IBM inquired about it.

No longer the preserve of a select few, almost all storage vendors be it NetApp, IBM, EMC, HP, or Hitachi Data Systems have some or the other flavor of thin provisioning. In fact its become a mandatory technology for virtualized storage arrays so much so that vendors like Dell have started integrating it as part of their standard storage feature and its become an integral part of NetApps storage arrays and isnt charged separately.

With the explosive growth in information, customers want to reduce capital expenditure, with thin provisioning one can reduce capex. Organizations today want to understand storage utilization since resources get wasted and add to it the cost of administration management, reason enough to go for thin, says Varma of EMC.

In the post-recession phase, customers are becoming increasingly conscious of their investment in storage and data centers. And for those customers who have already deployed virtualization and are seeing benefits like lowering costs, etc, want to experience the same in storage as well by lowering the physical storage capacity. The initial acquisition costs goes up, since you are providing storage on an as is basis although applications may not require it at one go and with associated costs like power, cooling, and managing personnel costs, CIOs are forced to consider thin, says Sitaram Venkat, national manager, enterprise solutions marketing, Dell India.

Even while there is some measure of fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the maturity and efficacy of thin provisioning in enterprise environments existing, Indian CIOs are betting big on this technology because of the huge benefits it offers. Also, while some businesses have been taking advantage of thin provisioning for quite some time, not all implementations are created equal. Therefore successful implementation relies on an approach in which thin provisioning technology is integrated seamlessly within the storage system architecture. Sen says, NetApp has been shipping this technology for over 5 years and has seen significant adoption within its install base, the technology is now mature and ready for mass adoption.

Indian customers are cautious primarily because they do not have much idea of their planned data growth. And with most vendors provisioning it on a license fee, customers tend to see this as a proprietary lock-in.

Sandeep Dutta, vice president, storage, systems, and technology group, IBM India/SA feels that even though it is vertical agnostic, be it SAN or NAS one is seeing the Indian market adopting it at a fast rate especially among the SMBs since they have started seeing IT from a strategic point of view, thin provisioning becomes the base layer on which they are doing things.

Where is the Market Headed?

Enterprises today are not just looking at server and storage virtualization but are also eying the possibility of a centralized management of all related IT infrastructures along with it for ease of management. Coming to storage virtualization, while mission-critical applications are still preferred on a thick/fat provisioning storage system, other applications are increasingly being deployed with thin provisioning, adds Sen.

With the growth in the digital data, there is a growing pressure on enterprise IT to manage it and contain it. Also the rising storage costs are not efficient when it comes to shrinking IT budgets and add to it the rapid growth is technologies like virtualization and cloud computing further compounding the situation, says Naik.

Thin provisioning is a concept that will increasingly find favor as the cost savings are huge in the short-to-medium term for organizations, especially when relating to applications that are essential, used daily, but not mission-critical. The business benefits are quite tangible to ignore:

  • Improved storage utilization. Its not unusual for businesses to improve storage utilization dramatically.
  • Reduced capital expenses as by leveraging thin provisioning, youll be able to purchase less storage up front, as well as over the life cycle of your systems.
  • Reduced operating expenses. Since youll use less disk capacity, youll also use less data center space and power. Another benefit will come in the form of lower software license fees for products with capacity based licensing. And, perhaps most significantly, with greatly simplified capacity planning and provisioning, your administrative dollars can be reduced or applied to higher-level business tasks.
  • Since thin provisioning enables a decoupling of new application deployment and the addition of new users from the asset procurement process, it is possible to react more quickly to organizational growth.
  • The storage-on-demand model allows you to react quickly to competitive threats because products and services may be enhanced and expanded in scope without significant change in the supporting IT infrastructure. And thin provisioning can be combined with a policy based hierarchy of service-level priorities to ensure that storage space is optimized for your business.

Customers are wary of storage costs since it constitutes 20% of the IT budget and going forward thin provisioning will become standard feature in all data centers, says Venkat of Dell.

Thin provisioning is gaining traction since it addresses the fundamental problem of allocated-but-unused storage, giving administrators the ability to allocate virtual volumes without purchasing or reserving storage up front. The bottom line is that this technology is gaining significant popularity since it offers substantial savings in resources such as cost and time. It is also positioned to solve the complexity of current storage infrastructures.

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