As enterprises take advantage of new tools for developing applications, using software and streamlining infrastructure, buying the best cloud storage is an increasingly central concern. VMware SAS BU chief strategist Chuck Hollis recently estimated that companies spend $30 billion each year on storage hardware alone, with the figure likely substantially higher after factoring in software and services. However, even as storage attracts substantial attention from organizations, its basic technologies are changing rapidly, making it critical that buyers know what they're getting into.

Storage economics and software-defined technologies
Why is storage at the forefront of enterprise procurement strategies? Organizations expect a lot from their cloud hardware as they scale out data centers and internal systems to accommodate growing data volumes. Devices are expected to have good shelf life and a level of performance appropriate to the assigned workload, whether intensive computing operations or less demanding cold storage and archiving.

On top of that, media needs to be economical. While integrated appliances and proprietary technologies have their places, companies are looking for flexible alternatives that may involve industry-standard hardware paired with software that smartly orchestrates storage operations. Such combinations can save money while increasing functionality. Hollis highlighted these software-defined technologies in his blog post and stated they are new ways to implement storage.

"All things being equal, many IT shops are expressing the desire for storage to be implemented as software on their choice of familiar server hardware," wrote Hollis. "Maybe not everywhere, but they'd like to have that option. Their motivations are multiple: Simpler environments, perhaps less-expensive hardware, the ability to invest in functionality vs. proprietary hardware, and so on."

The emergence of software as a critical component of storage has wide-reaching implications. Take enterprise applications, for example. Today, many of them are limited to predefined pools of storage that they dip into as needed, meaning that even software that may handle erratic workloads has to be closely aligned with traditional infrastructure silos, which may constrain them.

Software enables more intelligent alignment of resources, so that application requirements are communicated to underlying infrastructure in real time. This more dynamic arrangement could be set up through changes to the hypervisor, since it's already the key layer between hardware and software. Ultimately, it may make sense to strive for converged software, in much the same way that organizations have been bringing disparate infrastructure closer together.

Using software like converged infrastructure in order to improve storage utilization
Converged infrastructure has already helped enterprises imitate the scalability and efficiency of major cloud service providers by using commodity components with intelligent software. Through the use of SDS controllers, software can do much the same for storage, enabling the integration of public cloud services (which provide more resources as needed) as well as the fuller utilization of existing hardware assets. In addition, new storage is easier to integrate and apply to suitable workloads, an increasingly important capability now that enterprise storage has become much more heterogeneous with the rise of SSDs and SSHDs.

More specifically, flash storage is excellent for Tier 0/1 workloads that require high performance, but it's less cost-effective for other tasks that could be accomplished just as well using HDDs or hybrid arrays. To ensure that SSD cycles aren't expended needlessly on lighter workloads, software-defined platforms can coordinate the distribution of data across flash and magnetic storage. Similarly, they can work with SSHDs that already extend NAND flash life by enabling some tasks to avoid flash altogether.

By using software to coordinate different devices, enterprises ensure more intelligent utilization of storage media and savings across the board. Flash use is optimized while low-cost HDDs are put to work for higher-tier tasks such as cold storage. Moreover, the use of software enables the gradual modernization of cloud infrastructure, with storage resources increasingly pooled together in a flexible way that resembles public cloud architectures.

What's next for the enterprise cloud storage market?
Software is just getting started, and new innovations are sure to emerge as flash storage and cloud computing services become more ingrained into enterprise IT practices. What will vendors need to do in order to stand out from the crowd and give organizations what is needed to succeed?

To start off, vendors must understand the situation that many enterprises are in as they move from legacy systems to the cloud. Despite the promise of new technologies, organizations are often slow to embrace change, which is understandable in light of how much data many of them have under management. Still, the poor economics of their current storage practices may spur them to switch course.

"Most enterprise storage customers tend to be conservative, and only a few of them are likely to rip out their existing infrastructure and replace it with a brand new product," wrote Sanbolic executive chairman Bill Stevenson for Enterprise Storage Forum. "The data housed within those storage arrays is a core business asset that has to be highly accessible, protected and managed effectively. However, as the cost of housing that data has been growing exponentially, an increasing number of these traditionally shy enterprise customers are opening up to the possibility of weaving in new technologies around the edges, especially if such technologies offer the real promise of improved enterprise data management."

Stevenson argued that vendors would have to offer products with specific capabilities that addressed these prevailing enterprise concerns. Perhaps most notably, he pointed to the need for hybrid and persistent HDD storage, both of which are essential for achieving acceptable economics for certain kinds of workloads. Today's cloud storage systems utilize many different kinds of media and vendors have to offer the right drives for each task.

Going forward, crafting an effective storage strategy will be less about buying and configuring a proprietary box and more about devising an entire architecture of disparate components. Commodity hardware will play an important role, as will the software that manages applications and storage volumes. Buyers should go into procurement seeking the storage devices and technologies that are right for their particular workloads, rather than look for a silver bullet solution that may not exist and would probably be too expensive if it did.

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