A seismic shift is about to hit the SAN

VMware says VSAN will simplify storage in the virtual environment. If this is simplifying things, what happens when they try to make things hard? Nick Booth takes the temperature among VMware-watchers

This week VMware is launching its much talked-about VSAN, its first software-defined storage product.

So what do we know about VSAN?

VMware’s blurb refers to “radically simple hypervisor-converged storage” that offers a “high performance storage tier optimised for virtual environments that is simple, resilient and efficient and reduces the total cost of ownership.”

The case for a full SAN is collapsing as cloud computing takes off, making VSAN a reaction to market dynamics, according to Clive Longbottom, senior researcher at market analyst Quocirca.

These days every server a company buys has its own storage, because the foundations of the cloud are changing, he explains. Companies like Nutanix have created new ways of building the networking, computing and storage infrastructure, so they’re all bundled into modules that can be rapidly assembled, says Longbottom. Since each server has its own storage, the feedback that analysts get from users is that they want to make use of their existing storage.

“Vendors like Nutanix are making a market from aggregating all the direct attached storage and virtualising it for usage as a single, dynamic pool,” says Longbottom.

The dominant storage vendors like EMC have had to change, he says. “The approach used to be you’ve bought Symmetrix – congrats – you will now have to keep on buying it.”

Now, thanks to the buying power that software defined storage has given them, the end users are liberated from this controlling relationship. As a divorce looms, suddenly the old bullying vendors are becoming more attentive. “It is now more a case of asking what you really need – and how they can make sure that you buy from them, not someone else?”

VMware’s response to this dynamic to try and make all storage appear as a SAN and to define that SAN from within its own hypervisor software, says the analyst. The cats are all out of the bag, and now they’re trying to bundle them right back in.

“The VSAN becomes a way of taking any storage that is available and making it all appear as a SAN,” says Longbottom. Since everyone seems to be buying their cloud technology from pre-integrated boxes, which bundle all the elements together already, the best way vendors like EMC can prove they still do something valuable is to show they can manage the systems more effectively.

“Many vendors can make storage systems that are cheaper than EMC. The key is to make them work, to enable data to be moved around effectively and to ensure that it is done with the highest levels of data availability and lowest levels of latency. The VSAN, covered by an overarching software toolset, is the way forward – and EMC and VMware are playing for that toolset,” says Longbottom.

VMware claims it is providing a new tier of hypervisor-converged storage by pooling all the internal magnetic disks and flash devices from industry-standard x86 servers into one shared data store.

"Many storage and server resellers have become complacent"

Steve Kaplan, Nutanix

Questions remain. Will it work faster and more efficiently? Will these economies be neutralised when the users find they’re tied into one vendor all over again? As resellers, do you care?

VSAN performs up to 2 million IOPS (input/output operations per second) on a 32 node cluster, according to VMware’s own internal benchmarks. How will this compare with independent testing? We’ll have to wait and see, but Steve Kaplan, Nutanix’s VP of channel sales, says a shift is about to hit the SAN.

“For some time now many storage and server resellers, particularly the larger ones, have become complacent. It took them years to implement a virtualisation practice. The datacentre infrastructure revolution is not likely to be so forgiving,” says Kaplan.

Why? VMware VSAN, for example, commoditises servers so VARs will struggle to differentiate brand-name servers that share the same ready node certification as the cheap super micros, he argues. Without the supplementary margin from servers and storage, many virtualisation partners will struggle to survive on software alone.

On one hand though, VMware’s introduction of VSAN validates software-defined storage. At the same time it will force resellers to reevaluate their loyalty to datacentre behemoths who, according to Kaplan, are peddling outdated architectures.

More on software-defined storage

He would say that, of course, because Nutanix has had Ban the SAN as a slogan since it started shipping product two years ago. Many of the new vendors coming into this market, like Nexenta, argue that SAN-less architecture will take over the enterprise datacentre.

“Our partners are already enjoying extraordinary success by bringing a better infrastructure alternative to their virtualised customers,” claims Kaplan.

But not everyone thinks SAN is doomed. Alex Bordei, product manager at Bigstep, says VMware is uniquely positioned to use its pre-existing features in another way and to turn it into a commercial product.

“The fact that we now have yet another storage solution, alongside EMC, 3PAR, Hitachi and many others, shows us that the landscape is changing. The incumbents didn’t realise that infrastructures are now fluid in a way that does not match the way most of the solutions out there are built,” he says.

As a channel player, isn’t it confusing when a company starts a fight with itself? VMware already offers Vblock with Cisco and EMC?

“Vblock is just an aging attempt to provide a complete stack. If you can’t cannibalise your own products when the time is right, there will always be somebody else to do it for you,” says Bordei.

“The storage industry is going to be changed by software-defined storage.”

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