The state of unified (block and file) storage

Posted on December 03, 2010


 By Randy Kerns, Evaluator Group

December 3, 2010 -- Unified storage – the combination of block-based and file-based storage in the same system with common management – continues to be a focus for some vendors.  Evaluator Group has written about the value of unified storage to end users in previous communications (see “Unified or Un-unified?” blog post by John Webster) and continues to see more movement in this area by vendors.  Keeping an eye on this technology from a customer perspective, it is useful to do a checkpoint on the progress towards unified storage in the industry.

Unified storage has been successfully promoted to IT, particularly by vendors such as NetApp. The value of having the flexibility to choose whether a storage system is block- or file-based, or both, was not lost on end users.  Some of the key attributes of unified storage that have evolved over time include:

  • Centralized, common management for both block and file storage
  • Capabilities to handle the different I/O access characteristics, especially in regard to the caching that is performed in the storage system
  • Advanced feature integration for snapshots and remote replication
  • The ability to handle multiple host interfaces, such as Fibre Channel and iSCSI for block access and Ethernet with NFS and CIFS for file access
  • The ability to repurpose a storage system as needed between block and file access.

Not all unified storage systems meet all of the key attributes identified above. However, new capabilities are starting to be differentiating considerations as well.  These new capabilities add to the value for end users, assuming the features are applicable in their environments.  By adding new capabilities, vendors hope to distinguish themselves and gain a competitive advantage – at least for a time.  Some of these new capabilities include:

  • Automated tiering within the storage system, where data is automatically migrated between tiers 
  • The increased use of solid-state disk (SSD) devices as a tier of storage providing significantly higher performance levels
  • The ability to cascade snapshots that are read/write capable, which is especially useful in Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) environments. 

In general, the value of unified storage is becoming well understood.  The need for common management and flexibility in configuration is highly valued by end users.  This may reach a point in the near future where unified storage functionality becomes a check box item for a storage purchase.

Randy Kerns is a senior strategist with the Evaluator Group research and consulting firm.

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