If you’re a midmarket customer, you should be tickled to death with what you see in the industry. The past couple of years have built up a tremendous amount of energy behind a trend taking the industry by storm: the idea of unified storage. Unified storage was initially championed largely by one major industry player –- NetApp -– and nearly every major competitor has since jumped in, too. This high rate of adoption is testament that unified storage has proven broadly attractive and delivered major value to customers. While that has been a boon to the enterprise customer, in the past 18 months the market has exploded with choices for the customer buying midrange and entry-level storage as well, and unified storage looks like the “name of the game.”

But in reality, the ball is just getting rolling, and there is much more to come. Frankly, the puzzle is only half solved with what we’ve had in the way of unified storage, and the real breakthroughs are just now starting to happen. Those breakthroughs will make a world of difference to businesses large and small.

Why is this? This is the year of truly scalable unified storage -– for everyone. In this article, we’ll take a look at the driving forces behind unified storage; the emerging capabilities of scalable, and more specifically scale-out, unified storage; and how those capabilities are going to make a difference to businesses of all shapes and sizes.

Unified Makes a Difference
If you’re doing IT, it doesn’t take an analyst to tell you that you’re facing tremendous data growth challenges. You likely know this just by showing up for work in the morning. But thanks to exploding data growth, data has drastically changed during the past few years. This has redefined the importance of the storage system in addressing data challenges.

Server virtualization is one example. The virtual workload has ballooned the average business data footprint as workloads have multiplied, and there is much more baseline OS data than ever before. This includes OS volumes and also the tools used to protect that data. The demand for IO has also ballooned, and major challenges around tasks like data protection have cropped up. In the midst of bigger IO demands, IO for moving backup data protection is limited. In turn, IT and vendors alike have turned to broader use of primary protection tools snapshots and replication that can protect local data with minimal IO overhead.

Meanwhile, increasing IT horsepower has brought on a deluge of data that is much richer than we ever expected, such as rich content behind core business processes, or new types of data for analytics. All of this data eats storage like candy, and it is apparent that the infrastructure needs a better approach to storage. Whether big or small, businesses are struggling beneath the amount and size of data that is scattered across MS SharePoint, file servers, web servers, MS Exchange servers, formal databases, accounting and ERP systems, and more.

Unified storage that can simultaneously address both block and file needs in a single system — in place of what used to be multiple systems — has quickly risen to become a serious contender in the storage market. Whether stored data is block or file, a unified storage system can provide a single point of management for storage volumes, snapshots, replication, and more. The resulting single yet holistic view drastically alters how storage is purchased, provisioned and managed. While NetApp paved the path for the rest of the market to follow, nearly everyone else has hooked their carts to the unified storage bandwagon, including EMC with the VNX, HP with IBRIX on top of its P4000 and 3PAR block platforms, and most recently, Dell integrating its Exanet NAS controllers to its EqualLogic storage systems. Meanwhile, in the midmarket, unified storage looks positioned for quick dominance, with a handful of vendors like Scale Computing and even EMC throwing down seriously attractive contenders for the SMB and SME’s precious storage dollars.

What Really Makes Storage Unified?
The problem with this longer-term trend in unifying storage systems is that traditional approaches to unified storage solve only half the problem. Unified storage doesn’t really seem unified at all if it still takes 10, 20, or 200 storage systems to deploy sufficient capacity and performance. IT will spend money for “unified” storage to consolidate two systems for better utilization, and then shortly discover that they need a second “unified” system because they ran out of performance or capacity. Then they face even more big upgrade costs to buy another system. This all-too-common approach is not really unified at all.

The challenge isn’t just inefficient floorspace. Challenges also include management and licensing of all the storage tools across all separate systems, stranded capacity, performance limitations for any single system workload, poor visibility into a complex infrastructure and perpetual data migration as storage systems age.

Fortunately, the market is finally seeing a broad selection of scalable storage –- including unified storage -– and those choices are finally available to every sized business. Such solutions are typically built with a scale-out architecture, and they deliver complete flexibility in scaling both capacity and performance. This means customers should be able to add more controller horsepower or more storage system capacity according to their needs. The remainder of 2012 looks like it will be dominated by vendors charging to market with scale-out unified storage, and this will redefine what unified storage is.

The first-level benefits are obvious and tremendous: the ability to store all of your data on one system and constantly grow it rather than replace it. This can outright transform the cost and complexity of business data storage by ending over-provisioning, and by addressing stranded capacity and storage system performance limitations. Organizations can also put an end to perpetual data migrations or buying more or different storage for every project. Meanwhile, the cost of managing a single storage system may be a fraction of what it costs to manage many different storage systems.

More Benefits Than Just Scale
The simplicity gains of migration-avoidance, single storage scale-out systems are very significant. They may easily reduce the per-gigabyte cost of storage by 50 percent or more over time. But there is even more to the scalability story, including highly significant capital cost and operational cost benefits.

Right sized capabilities.
One benefit is the ability to buy the right storage system for your business out of the gate. This can translate into hard dollar benefits by doing away with the practice of overpaying for extra capacity or performance just because that is the way the vendor’s configuration choices work. For unified storage, this is particularly important, as unified storage faces a more complex set of storage interactions that are less predictable and less understood by the storage practitioner. Consequently, businesses often over-provision and under-utilize to make sure they do not run into performance limitations that might cause problems across this bigger footprint of stored data. Scale-out unified storage can be right-sized without fear of running out of capacity or performance. In turn, scale-out storage customers typically spend less on buying their storage upfront, and they make better storage investments over the long term.

Pay as you grow.
The ability to buy storage on a pay-as-you-grow basis carries benefit beyond purely migration avoidance. There is tremendous financial benefit for the business in deferring capital expenses into the future. Based on an idea of the time value of money, deferred capital expenses cost less over time, and the storage team can be a hero in the CFO’s eyes. Meanwhile, ever-increasing capacity and storage horsepower will inevitably mean you get more value for your storage dollar in the future — what may buy you 10TB or 1,000 IOs today, may buy you 20TB or 1,500 IOs a year from now. With the right scale-out architecture, that capacity can be added to the same single system.

Serious flexibility.
Finally, scale-out also provides the business with serious capabilities well beyond a single storage system. For some tasks, such as disaster recovery (DR), the business will require more than a single storage system. The flexibility found in scale-out systems will make it possible to meet those other demands more efficiently and more cost effectively. DR sites often sit idly by with wasted resources when traditional storage architectures require oversized, matching configurations. For certain, scale-out solutions can reduce the complexity of a central site by making it possible to replicate data from only a single system. But simultaneously, scale-out storage can make it possible to easily right-size the remote site, while still building in enough horsepower to handle failover in a disaster. This not only saves capital and management expense, but it might also be the secret ingredient to making a DR solution realistic for a particular business — and the value of avoiding a single disaster may equal the entire value of a business. Flexibility benefits don’t stop with DR. Anywhere another storage system is required, such as in the branch office, right-sizing any storage system that uses the same tools and technology as the data center means capital cost savings and serious management savings.

The benefits have hard dollar value.
The cost implications here are significant. Businesses needlessly spend significant dollars and management hours thanks to the wasted capacity scattered across many non-scalable storage systems. Businesses pay at least as much per gigabyte to migrate data as they do to acquire their primary storage system capacity. This is because of the time and effort, business disruption, and specialized tools required for data migration every time a storage system is replaced. Right-sizing storage and deferring capacity and performance additions into the future will in our estimation trim the capital costs of storage capacity and IO by as much as half when considered over a span of years. Meanwhile, serious storage flexibility may make effective DR infrastructure realistic for your business. That alone can carry nearly immeasurable value.

Vendors Get Serious
During the past few years, a number of vendors have been steadily selling scale-out unified solutions to new customers. But the number of vendors in the market has exploded over the past 18 months, with more vendors and solutions for all types of customers. In the enterprise, NetApp continues to chase after more serious scale-out. Its cluster-mode architecture looks like tightly coupled federation, which should fundamentally improve the way the enterprise manages unified storage. HP has simultaneously brought a wide range of product pairings to market that offer scale-out and unified storage support, such as its scale-out X9000 file technology delivered on top of 3PAR scale-out block storage and HP server hardware. Meanwhile, EMC has a specialized set of technology in Isilon that also offers both block and file, and it can scale to extremes. IBM may seem absent but between products like Scale-out NAS, V7000, and SVC, it offers a number of products that can be combined in really interesting and clever ways to meet most needs, if a little less unified than the other major incumbents.

We see an even more fascinating turn of events in the mid-market. A few pioneers are turning to the idea of both unified and scale-out storage, believing that the mid-market can find tremendous value in this pairing. As one example, Dell’s EqualLogic in the past year has begun offering the Fluid File System NAS controller that can be added onto its scale-out PS storage systems.

Another vendor rapidly becoming well known in the small and medium business market is Scale Computing. Scale Computing has a multi-year leap on truly unified scale-out storage offerings for the mid-market, and it is redefining the conversation. Specifically, Scale Computing is delivering a uniquely SME-focused unified storage system (iSCSI, NFS, CIFS) with the granular, small step scale-out required for SMEs in both price and capacity. This scale-out can still grow to extremes, and Scale has a track record to prove its capabilities.

Figure 1: The Total Cost of Non-scale

It is notable that there are only two vendors that really stand out as scale-out and unified storage in this market. There is tremendous energy focused on storage for the SME market –- more so than we’ve ever seen before. Most solutions are focused on simultaneously delivering better performance and better capacity, and they integrate a number of technologies like cloud, auto-tiering, SSD, and compression and dedupe. Yet few tackle both file and block. When they do, they usually compromise granular scalability, perhaps by electing traditional dual-controller architecture instead. It is clear that the challenges in building good scale-out and unified architectures are not easily overcome. There’s clearly tremendous value, and the potential solutions on the market that have tackled the challenges clearly merit consideration when making storage investments. Scale-out unified storage stands poised to change future investments for a long time to come.