Surviving the Coming Storage War

By Michael Vizard  |  Posted 2008-03-28

Over the past decade, we’ve witnessed an amazing transformation in the way we think about enterprise storage.

Storage used to be little more than a peripheral hanging off our servers. Today, storage systems are the heart of our data centers, and we rely on ever-increasing I/O performance to drive applications that span the enterprise and the Internet.

As business processes continue to expand across the Web, we’re running into greater challenges when it comes to figuring out how to scale our storage assets.

Our first attempts gave birth to technologies such as network-attached storage devices and storage area networks. But as we continue to expand our need to share data, the next generation of storage technology will increasingly provide embedded storage services across wide area networks.

This fundamental change in how we think about and use storage is driving a host of networking companies, including F5 Networks and Cisco Systems, to deliver networking products that have embedded storage. For example, F5 recently released what amounts to a network operating system to manage multi-vendor storage environments based on technology it acquired when it purchased Acopia last year.

What makes this development interesting is how people like Stephen O’Neill, vice president of technology at online advertising consulting firm, are using this technology to better leverage their storage investments.

The F5 products essentially allow O’Neill’s IT team to easily manage large amounts of distributed data without having to hire a lot of additional storage engineers.

The most intriguing thing about this approach is that it requires two IT camps that have historically ignored each other to work a lot more closely together.

For years, the storage wonks in any IT organization tended to hang out in the data center, where their primary concern was optimizing the performance between the servers and storage subsystems.

In today’s distributed computing world, servers are using the network to directly call storage subsystems located anywhere in the enterprise. In order to be truly effective, however, the firmware that manages the storage I/O performance must become a service that resides on the network.

Because of all the different storage requirements, it isn’t practical to rely on one storage vendor to provide all the necessary storage components for your IT organization. Most customers will need a central point on the network to manage the diversity of products that make up their storage ecosystems.

This will require a significant cultural shift because the potential for paranoia over the ultimate intentions of people with different skill sets is immense.

That could easily result in individuals deciding to protect their territory at all costs. In the face of competing vendor claims, senior IT leaders will have to effectively manage the political challenge of bringing their network and storage specialists together to create a new architecture for handling large volumes of distributed data in a cost-effective manner.

In the current IT environment it’s all about how quickly data can be made available to any user anywhere in the world—regardless of where the data center is.

In that model, the I/O performance of the storage systems is what will ultimately define the success or failure of the IT organization in the eyes of the user. To achieve that performance goal, IT organizations will need to strike the right balance between their traditional storage suppliers and networking vendors.

Unfortunately, vendors probably won’t be much help in that effort. The possibility that their products could become commodities will drive storage vendors to acquire more network technology, while networking companies will look for opportunities to expand their wares into the storage arena. In fact, it’s conceivable that this trend could ultimately lead to a blockbuster merger that unites, for example, a Cisco with an EMC.

The trick for customers is to keep their vendors’ battles for storage supremacy from spilling into their data centers. The best way to prevent that is to bring those respective teams together now. Then, when the time comes to pick strategic vendor partners, the people in your IT organization will remember that they really work for you, as opposed to serving as proxies in a series of vendor wars in which they have no real stake.