Software Defined Storage: So Many Definitions

By James Maguire

“Our definition is an orchestration layer, and a stand alone piece of software than can go on any server or any hypervisor,” Degen says. The focus is on maximum interoperability. “We’re not closing it down so we say we’re the only show in town.”

Left Hand Networks, a SAN company that HP acquired in 2008, developed software to enable a virtual SAN appliance to run as a VMware virtual machine, allowing it to scale up to dozens of nodes. The software was later ported to the Microsoft Hyper-V platform. Degen points to Left Hand’s deep integration with both VMware and Hyper-V – which is the kind of flexibility that admins expect of todays’ SDS solutions.

HP’s StoreVirtual product, which is based on the LeftHand operating system, offers storage federation and allows data to travel across both physical and virtual locations. HP touts StoreVirtual’s “software-defined storage VSA software,” a phrase that combines both earlier and more recent terminology in ways that highlights how these terms are evolving.  

Competing with HP and other legacy vendors are startups like Maxta, whose Maxta Storage Platform (MxSP) solution exited stealth mode in November 2013. The company received $10 million in funding from VC firm Andreessen Horowitz. MxSP’s goal is to “eliminate storage arrays,” Maxta CEO Yoram Novick told InfoStor reporter Pedro Hernandez.

Maxta “runs on commodity hardware and leverages server-side flash (PCIe-based and SSDs) and hard disk drives to provide a shared pool of storage capacity for virtual machines (VMs).” It offers "all the enterprise capabilities that you expect from an enterprise solution," including data deduplication, inline compression, snapshots, replication and cloning capabilities.

Maxta is hypervisor agnostic and so (if the company’s PR is to believed) it seamlessly integrates with server virtualization applications, allowing admins in heterogeneous environments to quickly manage and configure storage.

Who Leads in Software Defined Storage?

As to what companies will lead the enterprise into the promised land of SDS, the sector is currently still too fractured and ill-defined to make a safe bet.

“There’s no way to have a leader if you don’t have a clear definition,” Miniman says. “Every vendor loves to say, ‘We are the leader in this space we just created.’”

Indeed, notes Bowker, at this point it’s not even clear what kind of vendor will dominate software defined storage. “The most interesting thing about SDS is, Who wins that race? Is it going to be a storage hardware player, or is it going to be a VMware, or a Microsoft, somebody actually at the hypervisor layer as opposed to that hardware piece?” he says. “The race is yet to be won, and participants such as VMware will be just as aggressive in SDS as some of the traditional storage vendors.”

To be sure, market activity is fast and furious, with venture capital flowing into storage virtualization firms, each with their own view on what SDS means. Companies like OSNexus and Nexenta are springing up. In January, Nutanix, a San Jose, Calif.-based storage virtualization specialist, announced that it had raised $101 million in what the company called "the largest single financing round in the history of the converged infrastructure market." The only type of storage firm that is attracting a similar level of hot money are flash-based outfits. And it’s one of the great truths of the IT industry that software trumps hardware, so look for SDS funding to pull ahead of flash funding in the years ahead.

Enterprises, being big ships, will feel reluctance as they mull moving beyond storage virtualization into full-featured SDS. It’s a complex step, and companies aren’t eager to migrate from an expensive legacy investment that essentially works as is.  

“There’s an existing hardware storage basis that a lot of these companies still have to maintain,” Bowker notes. That’s true for vendors as well as customers. “EMC is a good example of that. They have a significant portion of VMware [installs], obviously, so they’re going to have to still defend their existing storage basis inside of traditional EMC storage accounts, even bolted to VMware. At the same time, they’re going to evolve their storage system as well, to map closer to what VMware does closer to SDS and SDDC (software defined data center).”

Long term, though, the direction points only one way.

“It comes down to two things: it’s how you manage your data center and the economics of storage,” Bowker says. “If you can deliver a software defined layer in your datacenter with server virtualization that takes advantage of local, direct-attached, commodity-based storage, then SDS makes a lot of sense. Getting people to transition away from enterprise-class RAID storage is going to be a tipping point to move to a software defined look at things.”  

The trend is inevitable, he notes. “You’re going to have those traditional storage vendors do [SDS], and the virtualization vendors doing it, and it is going to come together, and ultimately, there won’t be a choice for customers. It will be the way that storage is ultimately handled, architected inside the data center.”

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

This article was originally published on February 24, 2014

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