Software-defined storage redefines modern data management
Christian Perry, Senior Analyst and Content Manager
SEP 10, 2014 01:06 AM
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TBR Perspective

Data center transformation is no longer an option for only the brave or well-funded. Software-defined storage (SDS) is transforming data management into a simpler, less costly and more approachable option for customers compared to traditional models. Because the SDS approach is progressing more rapidly and at a more customer-accessible level than other technologies, such as networking, it will help define the overall software-defined data center movement that is in motion.

Thanks to the innovative inroads paved by server virtualization, data center customers increasingly focus transformation investments on other infrastructure elements such as networking and storage. Software-defined networking (SDN) represents the next step in the software-defined evolution for many, but SDS is leading the charge for the software-defined data center. In turn, vendors are aggressively positioning to capitalize on customer demand for better storage management and more effective utilization of analytics and other business-transforming trends.

As data storage demands skyrocket to accommodate the influx of devices connected to today's data centers, the premise of buying complex, pricey storage arrays is quickly growing outdated, if not outright unreasonable. Traditional storage arrays retain business value now and in the foreseeable future, but data center customers consider alternatives to traditional infrastructure as a regular course of business, rather than an outlying piece of an overall hardware purchase strategy.

SDS will substantially alter how data center owners and administrators approach data management and access and how vendors evolve their storage portfolios. Customer adoption will accelerate through 2015, particularly in data centers that require array upgrades or grapple with expanded workload requirements that pressure capacity and management capabilities.

Opportunities fuel a widening vendor landscape

Storage has ballooned literally and figuratively into a major concern for data center managers and administrators. While TBR commends storage array vendors for their efforts in recent years to help customers better manage expanded data requirements, the emergence and popularity of cloud services has shown customers better methods for managing data. Now, with the emergence of SDS, customers can deploy similar technologies and methods on premises to create a more cohesive, manageable storage ecosystem.

In a basic SDS environment, the software control layer is abstracted from the hardware, which allows for pooling of storage resources from physical storage systems; this allows data centers to keep data on arrays and other systems, rather than undergoing the slow, expensive task of physically moving data from system to system when necessary for projects, new branch locations and other requirements. SDS often is described as storage virtualization, but storage virtualization is a component of a full SDS environment, which may also include OpenStack, virtual volumes and parallel network file systems (NFS).

The market opportunity is so wide for SDS that most major storage vendors have invested in the technology. Due to the ability to enter this market with a software-only solution, multiple pure-play vendors are also in the mix. The heterogeneous nature of today's data centers breeds buyers who consider purchasing new technologies and new brands — or, at least, brands new to their environments. Still, navigating the wide range of SDS offerings can be a daunting task. Following is an overview of the vendors and their offerings.


Easily one of the most widely marketed and discussed products on the market is EMC's ViPR, an open architecture designed to ease storage management, automation, delivery and access. EMC builds the ViPR value proposition around challenges inherent in a mixed workload environment, including high costs to store unstructured data, proliferation of data silos, slow (or no) deployment of big data analytics, complex workflows and public cloud storage — where EMC claims service providers are "taking advantage" of a platform suited primarily for cloud-scale workloads. ViPR delivers file, block and object storage services with replication, compression and high availability. Due to EMC's position as a leading provider of enterprise storage arrays, it often messages the "unique" capabilities of storage arrays as part of ViPR's overall benefits.


Since its 2008 acquisition of LeftHand Networks, a vendor of virtualized iSCSI storage products, HP has continually expanded its StoreVirtual portfolio of hardware and software products. Included in the portfolio are several rack-based hardware products controlled by the LeftHand operating system. Also included is the StoreVirtual virtual storage appliance (VSA), a software-based solution optimized for VMware vSphere and Microsoft Hyper-V; HP says it has shipped over 500,000 VSAs to date. In August HP rolled out a major update to StoreVirtual, including integration with Helion OpenStack, support for the Linux kernel and an updated Cinder (OpenStack) interface.


Billing itself as the inventor of SDS solutions, Nexenta is recognized as a leading provider of virtualized storage software solutions, including NexentaStor, its storage operating system and storage-optimized file system based on OpenSolaris/OpenStorage ZFS technology. Nexenta aggressively leverages the channel through its Nextenta Partner Program, which includes VARs, system integrators, service providers and value-added distributors. It also partners with key hardware vendors, including Dell, which sells solutions based on Dell hardware and Nexenta software.


The de-facto pioneer of x86 server virtualization, VMware heavily invests in storage virtualization technologies and products as part of its broad software-defined data center vision. Although VMware is one of EMC's federated businesses, the software vendor positions its SDS portfolio as the antithesis of a bottom-up, array-centric approach. VMware, with SDS products such as Virtual SAN, Virtual Volumes, vCenter Site Recovery Manager and vSphere Data Protection Advanced, uses a wide partner base to expand the footprint of its SDS portfolio. For example, VMware announced at VMworld 2014 in August NetApp as a key design partner for Virtual Volumes.


With its SmartCloud Virtual Storage Center, IBM delivers SDS in a platform that is available in three deployment options. The standard version has no usage restrictions, while the entry version has a lower price and is restricted for use in low-capacity IBM SAN Volume Controller environments. IBM also offers a reduced-priced, restricted-use option designed to manage IBM Storwize and its virtualized external storage. Although IBM touts the integration of time-tested technologies such as Tivoli and its SAN Volume controller, its primary value proposition is based on improving ROI and extending the life of storage systems.


NetApp increasingly positions its widely used Data ONTAP storage operating system as an entry point into a software-defined data center, particularly through its clustering capabilities. NetApp defines itself as a software vendor, despite its position as a top network-attached storage (NAS) hardware vendor, and its continued investment in SDS positions it well in a storage market becoming increasingly commoditized. Recently, NetApp has worked more closely with VMware to integrate Data ONTAP, FlexArray software and OnCommand management with VMware's vSphere and VCloud suite.

Forecast: Disruption

Years after the concept emerged, the software-defined data center remains grounded in illusion. The promise of fully virtualized and software-defined infrastructure — compute, storage, networking and security — delivered as an easier-to-manage service is alluring in an age when data center owners face unprecedented complexity. However, data center owners must take a long-term, incremental approach to deploying these technologies, and greenfield data centers must wait for portfolio expansion and maturation before considering building a fully software-defined environment.

Although vendor technologies and data center infrastructures cannot support end-to-end control layer abstraction, there are immediate opportunities for data centers to deploy supportive solutions. Due to rapid innovation and a burgeoning selection of off-the-shelf technologies, storage is a prime target for software definition. SDS can be easily integrated with hypervisors to pool storage from a variety of sources, including SAN, NAS, RAM, flash and other storage.

Hardware remains a critical component of storage infrastructures, but how data center customers manage that hardware will quickly evolve in the coming years. TBR believes, within three years, SDS will render expensive, proprietary storage arrays irrelevant for most data centers. Instead, customers will more often opt for SDS technologies that provide more flexibility over storage ecosystems, regardless of the hardware that lies beneath them.


Technology Business Research, Inc. is a leading independent technology market research and consulting firm specializing in the business and financial analyses of hardware, software, professional services, telecom and enterprise network vendors, and operators. Serving a global clientele, TBR provides timely and actionable market research and business intelligence in a format that is uniquely tailored to clients' needs. Our analysts are available to further address client-specific issues or information needs on an inquiry or proprietary consulting basis. 

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