– Stefan Bernbo, founder and CEO of Compuverde, says:
As our lives become increasingly digitized, the ability to store and access important information online has become necessary.  With the emergence of the “cloud,” data can now be accessed from any location, at any time.  At just seven percent in 2011, the amount of consumer content stored in the cloud by 2016 will rise to a 1/3.  Storage providers will need to accommodate increased demands of the growing consumer storage market. To do so, many service providers are investigating new options in data center architecture that allow for adaptability and control of hardware costs.

Software-defined storage is a way to meet these new demands. A software-defined approach to data center architecture moves features typically found in hardware to the software layer, eliminating the reliance on expensive server “appliances” with built-in software.

Explaining the buzzword

“Software-defined” has become a recent buzzword, even though many everyday electronic devices have been software-defined for years. For example, users who purchase PCs can install software on any hardware platform, allowing them to tailor both the hardware and software accordingly. This approach allows for a more precise budget allocation; a machine used for web browsing, for instance, does not have nearly the same requirements as a high-powered graphic design setup.

Despite the flexibility of software-defined technologies, data centers are one of the last sectors to embrace this trend. The reluctance to switch is due largely to upfront costs. There is no denying the move towards an increase in online storage, but changing systems with such complex infrastructure involves high levels of investment right out of the gate.

Storage Today

Appliances — server hardware that comes prepackaged with proprietary, mandatory software —are the benchmark in the current storage market. Both the software and hardware come in one convenient, bundled package. This consolidation can benefit data centers that do not employ administrators with the skills necessary to configure a custom server.

Manufacturers of traditional appliances typically include multiple required layers of expensive back-up mechanisms designed to prevent failures. These extra copies of hardware generate higher energy costs and add excess complexity. Compared to commodity servers, the actual cost per appliance is quite high. When companies begin exploring how to scale up their data centers, the projected cost of appliances makes budget estimates grow exponentially.

These problems with appliances are influencing IT professionals to consider a software-defined storage approach. Software-defined may not be a new concept, but for data centers where appliances are the status quo, a software-defined approach is groundbreaking.

Typical appliance-based systems generally suffer from the following issues:

  1. Increased Costs

The convenience of appliances carries a significant disadvantage. Traditionally, appliances offer a built-in software package. However, the added costs associated with multiple back-up layers of hardware and software lead to significant expenses for a data center that needs to accommodate rapidly growing storage demands.

Software-defined storage unties the knot between software and hardware, letting data centers utilize inexpensive commodity servers. When used with efficient, software-defined solutions, commodity servers lead to considerable savings for online service providers.

  1. Inflexibility

Naturally, every data center will have different storage requirements. A major international bank differs greatly from a cloud services provider, yet both have important storage needs. Appliances might meet most of these needs, but software-defined storage can produce substantial gains in economies of scale.

Using appliances with built in software prevents users from customizing based on the individual needs of a company.  Fully uncoupling software from hardware gives administrators the freedom to customize specific components to meet the needs of their business and reinforce their growth goals. While this method does require hiring more technically trained staff, the flexibility afforded by software-defined solutions pays for itself in the long run.

  1. Slow to React

A rigid network environment built on appliances severely limits the ability of an organization to react to market demands. The storage market can rapidly change corporate budgets, network environments and priorities. Appliances do not allow data centers to anticipate or even respond to these changes in a proactive manner.

The continually-growing demands for cheap storage and reliance on expensive, inflexible appliances will force data centers to develop the storage capacity they need to meet customer demand. Software-defined storage presents an attractive alternative to companies looking to “future-proof” their data centers. Since the software and hardware are separate objects, either may be upgraded at any time with minimal cost.

The Global Stage

Software-defined storage can also benefit global companies. Since cloud services need to be accessed from international locations, storage providers must host data centers located across the globe to minimize load time. Load is active in the data center in a company’s region, which is problematic, since data from every location must be synchronized. Additionally, companies are often required to restrict global data storage from transferring between certain regions. Another important consideration for global companies is that global data centers must be prepared for local disasters such as power outages. If a local data center or server goes down, global servers must reroute data quickly to available data centers to minimize downtime.

The solutions that currently exist to fix these problems work in the application layer. Solving these issues through a system that makes up the foundation of data center infrastructure—rather than at the storage level—incurs great costs. The ability to resolve these issues directly at the storage level can save significant time and money.

The Future

The future of storage is here. The improved capabilities provided by software-defined storage are just the beginning.  Many companies are beginning to investigate the potential of software-defined storage in data center implementation. For data center administrators facing the challenge of scalability, software-defined storage is the clear answer.

About the Author:

Stefan Bernbo is the founder and CEO of Compuverde. For 20 years, Stefan has designed and built numerous enterprise scale data storage solutions designed to be cost effective for storing huge data sets. From 2004 to 2010 Stefan worked within this field for Storegate, the wide-reaching Internet based storage solution for consumer and business markets, with the highest possible availability and scalability requirements. Previously, Stefan has worked with system and software architecture on several projects with Swedish giant Ericsson, the world-leading provider of telecommunications equipment and services to mobile and fixed network operators.