5 bitter truths about software-defined storage

Software-defined storage can deliver great agility and cost savings -- if you watch for these caveats

I happened upon the notion of software-defined storage several years ago when I was still leading software engineering at Dell’s storage business unit. One of the benefits of working at a place so large is that there are usually quite a few people around championing all sorts of new ideas because they might involve selling more servers. You get to review a lot of far-out stuff. With this in mind, it wasn’t without some skepticism that I listened to the following pitch from one of my colleagues: “Take the storage-controller firmware and get it to run on Linux as a virtual machine. We can bundle it with our servers and sell a ton of it.”

I asked how such a thing would be supported. Truthfully, I probably said something like, “Are you going to call us when the commodity gizmos in your boxes have a bug that causes the customer to lose data?” This caused my colleague to ponder support questions and other practical realities. However, the idea kept coming back from all corners of the organization.

The basic idea -- running a storage array on a piece of commodity-server hardware -- acquired the name software-defined storage (SDS), and over the next year, we spent a large amount of time researching how to develop the concept without compromising the requirements of enterprise infrastructure. Meanwhile, a number companies quickly seized on the concept’s immaturity to christen their products as SDS. The proponents of the idea got their inspiration from the similarly named software-defined networking, which is a related concept but, as I’ll discuss later, fundamentally different in a few significant ways.

Although we spent a great deal of time and money talking to customers and building an SDS product, it became obvious that we would not be able to meet the criteria to take it to market. That said, the team acquired a lot of knowledge in the process. Below is a summary of the learnings of some of the world’s smartest data storage engineers as they attempted to grapple with this concept, why the rest of the storage industry continued to catch on, and how you can use those engineers’ insights to inform your next enterprise storage purchasing decision.

1. There’s no standard definition of SDS

A particularly vexing part of SDS is that its marketing has gotten way ahead of its definition. Unlike its cousin SDN, which has all sorts of detailed architectures and associated manifestos, the definition of SDS depends largely on the person explaining it. The promise of SDS is that it will enable enterprise IT to provide a more on-demand and agile experience for business users who rely on IT infrastructure. But beyond this basic definition, every vendor seems to have its own product vision. Is SDS a virtual machine that runs storage-array firmware? A cloud gateway? Perhaps it’s Linux running on a standard Intel server with NFS? The answer could be yes to all of these questions, depending on who’s selling.

In many ways, SDN is simpler to understand. Network switches have been closed systems for decades. Leading networking vendors had their own proprietary operating systems, as well as custom hardware that usually included complex ASIC technology to align costs -- and profit margins -- with business expectations. Only recently has the market evolved to the point where a reference hardware platform for switching could be specified.

Now, SDN is fundamentally doing to networking what the PC did to computing in the 1980s: It’s allowing software to be developed independently of hardware. History shows that if you unbundle the two, wonderful things can happen.

The analogy for storage breaks down here, because for the most part, storage arrays have already been running on reference Intel x86 hardware platforms for a long time. A switch is a much more constrained platform. There aren’t multivendor add-in cards. There isn’t a third-party BIOS to manage. There aren’t NIC cards from different providers.

Oh yes, one more thing: There aren’t any disks. When you’re shopping for a commercially available storage array, it may appear to be more of a rebundling of commodity components than anything like a closed system -- and you wouldn’t be wrong to make this assumption.

As frustrating as this fact might seem, recognizing it can give your business the upper hand during a storage purchase. Use your understanding to gauge the fairness of a system’s costs, knowing that many of its components are priced independently by many retailers, and work with partners, such as systems integrators, to help your team design and execute the SDS approach that’s right for you.

2. Becoming your own hardware vendor probably isn’t a realistic option

Recently, I was reminded of my admittedly ambivalent view on SDS while I was traveling and meeting with customers and partners. I had a number of interesting conversations that, upon further reflection, indicated some cause for alarm. People seem to want free advice on what kind of SSDs to buy and which servers are most reliable. I’m always happy to chat about hardware topics, but to be honest, my recommendations have a useful life of about six months. Assembling and integrating systems requires a far more deliberate research strategy than having a beer with me. However, many storage and IT pros are attempting a do-it-yourself approach to SDS.

When shopping for a new storage platform, you’ll likely need to outsource assistance. Don’t join the ranks of organizations that have learned this lesson the hard way. If you’re an enterprise IT shop and have 20 people testing disk drives and fixing open source bugs, it’s likely you’re already overinvested in an expensive, noncore activity.

Unbundling storage software and hardware requires someone to spend a lot of time and money to create new bundles. Furthermore, they will have to repeat this process regularly to keep pace with supply-chain changes. In some cases of exquisite irony, companies have needed to hire hardware groups to implement their SDS.

Building hardware bundles for storage can carry a seven-digit annual price tag, and you have to buy a lot of capacity to justify that expense. For some businesses, this may make sense as a long-run investment. A number of huge Web businesses are building out their own infrastructure, but they are the minority. If you’re still considering the do-it-yourself route, consider the following factors regarding the way hardware relates to storage:

  • Getting high performance and availability requires a lot of tuning. The correct processors, memory, disks, operating system settings, drivers, firmware, and bug fixes take a lot of time to select, assemble, and test. Small variations will create huge differences in performance and reliability results. Real engineering needs to be done here.
  • For off-the-shelf servers, the market life of a working configuration could be as short as three months. The chances that you can purchase the exact same configuration in a year are nearly zero. This means all of your engineering work may be in vain because some part of the hardware or software stack you selected will become obsolete and replaced with something that doesn’t work as well. Drivers get refreshed on a quarterly basis; semiconductors become obsolete annually. SSDs seem to be a yearly thing. At any point in time, one or more of your painstakingly selected components will reach the end of its life.

If this level of training, maintenance, and operational planning doesn’t appeal to your business, seek a third-party partner that can help manage the process.

3. Vendors aren’t thinking about your performance requirements

Today, some system vendors are bundling SDS solutions without breaking out individual components and their prices. There may be all sorts of rationalizations for this, but in general, it has become a way to hide additional costs and make it more difficult to draw an apples-to-apples comparison of two competing platforms. This tactic also becomes another way to prevent a buyer from stabilizing the bill of materials for a system.

Don’t think of SDS as an extension of your servers that you can buy and figure out how to manage later. Many SDS providers will sell you a software package and provide a hardware compatibility list, from which you can buy any choice of servers. The process may sound easy, but every vendor’s standards for performance won’t necessarily align with your system, and most vendors won’t provide the degree of customization and tuning you’ll need for SDS to be successful. Unless you have a high-volume relationship with your system’s vendor, you don’t have much control over its parts. If your vendor’s choice for components doesn’t meet your performance requirements, it's going to be hard to send back the system.

When making new storage decisions, you need the resources and diligence to track the costs, requirements, and supply-chain dynamics of every component in your system. Consider how your team would approach these tasks and whether you would need to hire additional staff or a systems integrator to help manage your infrastructure.

4. There’s no universal measurement system for agility and ROI

Business agility is the new currency for valuing technology in the enterprise. Being able to quickly spin up and spin down resources to move them around while avoiding procedural hassles translates to financial benefits and competitive advantage. Increased agility is what virtualization delivered and compute clouds promise. However, for enterprise IT to enhance its value to the rest of the business, IT teams need to find ways to enable their organizations to be more flexible and responsive -- and this criterion adds a new dimension to the calculus for your ROI.

How do you measure this “agility” thing? From the conversations I’ve had, everyone is measuring themselves on how much cheaper their disk drives are. That’s great, but consider the incremental agility you are delivering to your company as you ponder the failure rates of SAS versus SATA drives. Will doing all of this work introduce new levels of flexibility to the business, or is it simply making the status quo incrementally cheaper? Will the business be able to do something that was previously difficult or impossible? In the case of SDS, you’ll need to continue tracking its ROI in six months or a year when your hardware may need to be replaced or redesigned to prove your project’s value to the rest of your organization.

5. Making SDS work requires work

When you return to the basic idea of SDS -- running a storage array on commodity hardware -- the results of such an initiative will likely prove its value to your immediate team, while supporting overall growth for your organization. Your storage infrastructure and hardware components have specific requirements, and when your hardware/software platform is tailored to meet them, you’re going to see cost and performance benefits. Depending on your scale and your specific requirements, the savings can be significant.

In many ways, the enterprise IT community began fully recognizing the value of SDS when it was adopted by Facebook, Google, and other major Web organizations -- companies that assembled their own systems and used the resulting technical advantages to propel further advancements. As long as you’re mindful of the bitter truths, and the caveats you’ll need to avoid, SDS can help your company harness the same kinds of efficiency and momentum.

Laz Vekiarides is chief technology officer of ClearSky Data.

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