Midrange storage SAN market analysis

Midrange storage has matured into one encompassing fully featured SANs with easy-to-use management interfaces for larger SMBs. But where is that market heading now?

The midrange storage market for SANs is one that has been driven by the needs of smaller organisations that lack dedicated storage teams but require enterprise levels of features in their midrange storage arrays. Over the past few years the market has matured, although vendors are still adding increasingly sophisticated features to products aimed at the higher end of the SMB market.

In this podcast, SearchStorage.co.UK Assistant Site Editor Fran Sales talks to SearchStorage.co.UK Bureau Chief Antony Adshead about the state of the midrange storage market and where it’s heading. He discusses threats to that market from other forms of storage that respond to the needs of server and desktop virtualisation. Read the transcript or listen to the podcast below.

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Midrange storage SAN market analysis

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SearchStorage.co.UK: What is driving the midrange storage market?

Adshead: The big picture here is, it is a market driven by the need for enterprise-level features with an ease of use dictated by a lack of specialised storage teams among SMB organisations.

How did we get to that? Well, The SAN used to be the preserve of the enterprise, where you had big storage subsystems for big data needs, usually using Fibre Channel, and with the IT department skills to manage them. And while this was the case in the enterprise, the SMB would be largely direct-attached storage. The shift to SAN from DAS among the SMB sector is something we’ve seen over the past few years and it’s arguable that it is even still taking place.

The drivers for the midrange SAN market, in short, are the needs of server and, more lately, desktop virtualisation. [You now get] many servers in one physical box or a whole host of virtual desktops, and onboard DAS just isn’t efficient for all those I/Os taking place. So, shared storage is what’s needed, especially nowadays among SMBs, [which] will often have complex and large data requirements -- for example in online operations or financial transactions -- that make them very similar to an enterprise.

The result is, in terms of midrange SAN products, that vendors are selling fully featured SANs that are easy to manage. That means they have a full range of drive options, from SATA to SAS and Fibre Channel, to give a full range of capacity and throughput capabilities. Also, of course, there is SSD, which is particularly useful when coupled with virtualisation.

Other features we also find [in midrange SANs] are storage tiering, thin provisioning and replication, which are the kind of thing that can be switched on with the purchase of additional licenses. There are also a number of protocol options and speeds that the vendors are offering, including being able to add unified storage capability to the SAN. Increasingly also we’re seeing VMware integration built into the controller OS. This gives linkages to the vStorage APIs for Array Integration (VAAI), for example, the vStorage APIs for Storage Awareness (VASA) and the vCenter storage plug-ins.

The crucial point with all these things is that they’re fully featured SAN-type subsystems but with easier management and provisioning interfaces, such EMC’s Unisphere on [its] VNX products and those IBM brought in with Storwize.

SearchStorage.co.UK: Where is the midrange storage (SAN) market heading, and what are the threats to midrange SANs from other forms of storage?

Adshead: So, the midrange SAN as we see it now is a storage subsystem with the type of enterprise features we just described, but without the giant capacities of true enterprise systems and with easy-to-use management interfaces.

So, where’s that market heading? Well, in the longer term, server and desktop virtualisation are driving other changes.

And the key factor here is the extreme random I/O needs of these types of virtualisation. In fact, what we’re seeing are pressures that could ultimately spell the end of the SAN as we know it.

What we’re seeing now is the addition of SSD to speed things up at the server, for example, such as the products from Fusion-io. And there are clever ways of making SSD work with server memory, which Fusion and others do, and methods of speeding up the way in which I/O requests to storage happen, such as with the product from Virsto.

But what we’re also seeing are hardware products that combine servers and storage and operate in a grid-like way, such as Nutanix. There’s also EMC’s Project Lightning, which hasn’t seen the light of day in terms of products yet. Likewise with Dell, [which] mentioned last week that [it has] a project in the pipeline to bring about some form of grid-type use of SSD in its products.

So, while the needs of virtualisation led initially to the near ubiquity of shared storage, what we’re seeing now is that the random I/O needs of virtualisation are leading to the types of ideas, technologically speaking, that put the storage and server much closer together, a sort of clustered DAS, if you like.

It’s a blip on the radar right now but seems to be a significant one. It could all come to nothing if the cloud really takes off of course, which is highly likely to do at some point when bandwidth is not a problem and security worries are resolved. And who knows what storage systems will look like then? It’s certainly an interesting time to be in storage.

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