Unified Storage: One device to rule them all

-Unified Storage has all the trappings of a trend in making and is all set to disrupt conventional storage topologies

-Silos and device heterogeneity are the twin enemies that plague IT infrastructures

-Concepts like unified storage offer hope towards achieving homogeneity

-Unified storage is not a ‘Magic Wand’ but with a right strategy and long term vision dividends can be reaped

-Time has come for enterprises to experiment with radical technologies and leverage the ‘data deluge’ to their advantage

 

Enterprise computing is at the crossroads of many disruptions and some of these are impacting the foundations of enterprise IT infrastructure. While cloud broke the conventions and ushered in the thought that IT assets need not reside in-premise, but can be anywhere, and yet can be controlled as if it is your own asset residing inside of organization. Another technology that is capturing the attention of IT decision-makers in a big way is ‘unified storage’.

Over the years, the enterprise storage evolution has progressed steadily-from DAS to NAS to SAN and beyond. In the mid-2000, one heard aggressive concepts like Information Life Cycle Management (ILM) and how it can benefit the organization from creating order out of the chaotic world of unstructured data.

 

But 2005, now looks like a distant past and thanks to unbelievable spike in storage that was kick started by Web 2.0 new apps and user-driven data et al-these had created a big data deluge never seen before and many large to mid-sized CIOs are struggling to put in place an effective storage management plan that is pro-active rather than reactive.

Ground Realities

According to industry experts, organizations today are creating, leveraging, and storing more information than ever before. According to experts by 2020, data will grow to 35 zetabytes, 44 times the amount of digital information stored today.

Businesses will be responsible for 80% of this information and as IT organizations upgrade their technology infrastructures, 2x the amount of data will be created during the process. So, clearly we need newer storage management approaches like unified storage.

Monish Darda, co-founder and CTO, ICERTIS says, “Unified storage has been around for some time now. CIOs have always been cautious when it comes to new storage technology adoption because of the effect storage has on operations. But some of the compelling advantages of unified storage are making CIOs strongly consider and adopt unified storage, especially for systems that are not mission-critical. With increasing data storage requirements and a proliferation of storage devices in the data center, unified storage does promise simplification of storage management, and in general, the technology is mature enough to deliver on this promise.”

Every major storage vendor now has a unified storage offering, and that seems to validate the demand-driven economics of storage. Darda further adds, “I like to compare the economics of unified storage with the economics of compute virtualization-you sacrifice up to 30% of the underlying hardware’s compute capability for reasons driven by flexibility, ease of management, fast re-purposing characteristics and hardware commoditization. The same reasons hold true for the economics of unified storage-in general, the performance loss of such storage is outweighed by its advantages, providing RoI that is significant if you can strike a good balance with traditional file and block stores and a unified storage layer.”

Performance vs Manageability

But like any progressive technology, unified storage is growing and there are some fine prints as well. For instance, organizations need to consider a whole lot performance versus ease of management benefits deliverables of this technology. For instance, whenever things get networked, there is always a performance issue. The same applies to the unified storage as well. Darda says, “Unified storage suffers from the performance versus generalization balance and needs specific use cases and expertise to minimize performance impact. The second issue is that you generally need a higher level of process maturity in storage management for managing unified storage effectively to secure your RoI.”

Skepticism apart, with increasing data, growing trend, and momentum towards big data, the performance downers can be intelligently managed. For instance, when we talk about big data, the success depends on making data into actionable insights and profit from such insights.

So an enterprise, in order to derive benefit from big data, need to adopt unified storage as it makes more sense than banking on heterogenous storage with scattered-across pools of data. However unified storage alone will not help realize big data, but it is clearly an enabler.

Experts say that there have been discussions around cases where unified storage can be useful for a big data analytics application that needs data from heterogenous storage sources like file and block storage. In such scenarios, the emphasis is really more about improved storage manageability than a case for big data.

“One scenario that is really an edge case today but can become relevant in the future as big data analytics goes mainstream is when you will need to seamlessly select storage (SSD vs SAS drives) and dynamically add compute VMs to improve analytics performance on demand-the abstraction that unified storage offers can be a big benefit to such scenarios,” aver experts.

Points of Proof

Let us look at a successful example on unified storage. Take the case of Indiabulls that is growing rapidly-the 13 storage silos and the multiple applications that depended on them began to slow down. It decided to consolidate and to make it nimbler. It opted for a solution from EMC for unified storage.

The problem Indiabulls was facing was related to structured and unstructured data that grew substantially and the group lacked a centralized file storage system, I/O requirements for various systems began emerging as a challenge. Few applications, for instance, require excellent response times of nearly 3 to 4 milliseconds from the underlying storage.

But with the increase in the user base and data size, response time slowed to over 10 milliseconds. This proved detrimental to business-critical applications such as online transaction processing (OLTP) systems-clearly, lower response times meant a loss of revenue.

According to sources, systems could not scale-out as there was a limitation to support different kinds of hard disks. This meant procuring higher cost Fiber Channel (FC) hard disks only, even for requirements where a low-cost, high-capacity near line-Serial Attached SCSI (NL-SAS) disk could have sufficed.

In terms of scalability, the RAID group expansion within the systems emerged as a major pain point. Only 16 disks of the same size, speed, and number could be accommodated in a single RAID group. If this symmetry was not maintained, the overall performance was impacted significantly.

So clearly, the problem Indiabulls was facing related to its inability to consolidate multiple storage technologies into a single or two tiers, and as a result the group witnessed a proliferation of multiple storage subsystems.

Quips Tejinderpal Singh Miglani, CIO of the Indiabulls Group and the CEO of IB technology solutions (the group’s IT services arm), “As we scaled both vertically and horizontally, our growth began to burden its underlying IT infrastructure. At the time, Indiabulls’ infrastructure, especially its storage subsystem, addressed the needs of business adequately. But in time, we faced problems like manageability, scalability, performance, and costs crept up on the organization. Moreover the older storage systems were based on Fiber Channel Arbitrated Loop (FC-AL). This meant that as the number of disks increased on the one-way loop on ring topology, the back-end input/output operations per second (IOPS) got delayed.”

The company addressed its teething storage problems and data growth pangs by consolidating the group’s 13 storage silos and migrate to an ecosystem of 3 systems of EMC’s unified product range on VNX series. “The IB technology team spent a lot of time analyzing the current setup and preparing a comprehensive project plan. Required buy-in from project owners, other stakeholders. Risks were assessed and impacts analyzed. Most probable risks were mitigated and fall-back plans were made ready,” says the company’s CIO.

Sources say that new system not only introduced the much required NL-SAS disks to the enterprise, but also a host of new features such as thin provisioning, Fully Automated Storage Tiering (FAST), solid state disk-based cache, compression, and de-duplication. It also helped in achieving bi-directional disaster recovery.

The above case amply demonstrates the wide-ranging benefits of unified storage and no wonder vendors like EMC, NetApp, HDS, IBM, Dell, and HP are locking horns in a battle. From an India perspective, the phenomenon of unified storage is just about starting in a big way.

What’s in Store?

When we spoke to experts during DQ Top20, they said that as a concept, unified storage has remained and talked about for years, but it hit the ground over last year and indeed it has created a taxonomic change in the industry. The network storage industry is composed of NAS and SAN and this difference is blurring with unified storage that brings in a whole lot of unique deliverables to the table.

The trend we noticed during the DQ Top20 exercise is that the industry is moving towards one unified storage platform and no longer predominantly divided on NAS or SAN lines and it is up to the enterprises to leverage NAS/SAN in one single platform. Powering the era of unified storage is the need for simplicity, manageability and scalability.

“IT organizations in mid-sized and large enterprises are struggling with a deluge of data and increasingly diverse data management needs. They require storage solutions that meet their growth requirements while simplifying operations, reducing the total cost structure, and quickly adapting to changing business needs,” said Richard Villars, vice president, information and cloud research, IDC, reflecting on the unified storage phenomenon.

Any enterprise looking at a one box unified approach yet able to scale and discover scattered data assets-both unstructured and structured and wanting to create a meaningful insight out of data deluge-then unified storage is the apt technology for them to realize that goal. n

Uppers

The USP of unified storage lays its ability to bring a whole deal of storage management functionality on one single device. It’s an integrated storage that concurrently supports Fiber Channel (FC), Fiber-Channel-over-Ethernet (FCoE), IP Storage Area Networks (iSCSI) and NAS data protocols. So clearly, that’s NAS and SAN in one single box.
– Ushers in simplified storage management
– Offers better insight and discovery for big data analytics
– Provide speedy data retrieval, high scalability, and organization flexibility thereby giving long-term RoI
– Weeds out silos and provides a single view of data assets

CIOs Take:

 

“Unified storage will bring in a rather new perspective and encourage CIOs to rethink the enterprise application deployment. It will simplify the storage management and administration and will be a very cost-effective solution for enterprises. Not all applications in the industry will be able to exploit unified storage benefits. It is new to the industry and adoption needs to be taken cautiously”
-Chella Namasivayam, CIO, iGATE

“As we scaled both vertically and horizontally, our growth began to burden its underlying IT infrastructure. But in time we faced problems like manageability, scalability, performance, and costs crept up on the organization. Unified storage has helped us consolidate on our storage silos”
-Tejinderpal Singh Miglani, CIO, Indiabulls

“With increasing data storage requirements and a proliferation of storage devices in the data center, unified storage does promise simplification of storage management, and in general, the technology is mature enough to deliver on this promise”
-Monish Darda, co-founder and CTO, ICERTIS

 

Downers

If you compare independent block and file system with that of unified storage, there are certainly some issues:
– Variable performance as it is a NAS and SAN converged device and hence issues relating to file and block based need to be sorted out
– Upfront cost will be higher when used for high performance apps
– Need to train the system by studying the pattern to arrive at performance consistency

 

Leading experts compare the economics of unified storage with the economics of compute virtualization-you sacrifice up to 30% of the underlying hardware’s compute capability for reasons driven by flexibility, ease of management, fast re-purposing characteristics, and hardware commoditization

Experts term unified storage as a key enabler for leveraging big data better. But many believe that the system’s ability to marry block and file storage ushers in simplified storage management and that is more important that big data use cases

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