Not Your Father’s Primary Storage

Moving from block-first to flexible consumption

Primary storage refers to the technologies and methods involved in storing data persistently in a computing system. Traditionally, business critical functions in large enterprises have been concentrated in a few monolithic applications. To this end, primary storage has been synonymous with block storage, better suited to the relational databases they depended upon. 

Ideas around primary storage, data, and workloads have changed radically in recent years. Data is no longer coarsely categorized as structured or unstructured, but instead by the applications and business processes accessing it. Meanwhile technologies, architectures, and deployment models have evolved to support this broadening range of scenarios. 

Whilst block storage remains a core element of primary storage, file and object storage offer different characteristics. Agility, flexibility, and data mobility are key aspects of enterprise infrastructure strategies, including storage. Vendors are working to make their storage systems more open, and easier to integrate and operate across different environments. 

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Connectivity between storage, processing and the broader architecture has also evolved in enterprises. The latest protocols and technology, such as NVM Express (NVMe) over Fabric (NVMe-oF), are making access methods more nuanced. Whilst Fibre Channel (FC) networks remain common, converged Ethernet (supporting both storage and IP protocols) is becoming the standard for new deployments.

Enterprise organizations want to align storage with the rest of their infrastructure strategy, based on pressing requirements such as:

  • an agile, efficient infrastructure that can respond quickly to business needs
  • improved data mobility and integration with the cloud
  • support for larger numbers of applications and workloads
  • cloud-like consumption models.

So, how can they decide between the options and deliver a primary storage capability to fit their needs? We look at these questions in our Key Criteria report on Primary Storage; an accompanying Radar Report evaluates vendors in this space.

In evaluating vendors, we found that many ‘core’ storage features have become table stakes – such as scale-up or scale-out, software-defined configuration and operation, availability and resilience. However, several value-add capabilities differentiate vendor solutions, such as AI-based analytics which can be linked to threat management, self-driven storage, improved automation, and deeper Kubernetes integration.

It is feasible to select a vendor who delivers on most primary storage needs, but who can also offer the flexibility and interoperability required in today’s dynamic environments. End-user organizations can take advantage of end-to-end solutions that work seamlessly across on-premise and cloud infrastructures.

However, a one-size-fits-all solution doesn’t exist. Traditional high-end and mid-range storage arrays have been joined by software-defined and specialized solutions, not least to address questions of cost optimization, storage-as-a-service (STaaS) and the cloud consumption models that are increasingly in demand. Even if STaaS is nascent, some vendors have built compelling offerings that could transform the way storage is consumed.

For this reason, organizations should define an architecture that works for them, taking into account common and expected scenarios, as well as continuing to respond to the needs of their legacy applications, providing resilience and availability without unnecessary overheads. They should also take into account operational overheads, particularly in the light of STaaS. 

Among other differentiators, enterprises can look to vendors that offer comprehensive management capabilities, taking advantage of AI and machine learning. Such solutions should not only provide predictive analytics capabilities and proactive remediation, but storage should be self-managed to increase the capacity manageable by a single administrator. 

Also, like the entire technology industry, the primary storage sector is impacted by a volatile global situation, causing tight supply chain issues and impacting availability of key resources. Meanwhile, increasing energy costs and the impact of climate change are driving organizations to reevaluate the efficiency of their primary storage solutions from an energy consumption and carbon footprint perspective.

In conclusion, whilst the primary storage market remains a very mature space, we are not at the end-game. Enterprises should partner with vendors with a clear vision of dynamic, flexible delivery of (structured and unstructured) data at scale, whilst offering the licensing and financial models to support organizations as they shift further away from CapEx models and towards service based approaches.