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In recent years, the storage industry has moved from systems based on proprietary hardware to systems that take advantage of commodity x86 servers. The latter is more flexible: depending on the product architecture, increased freedom of infrastructure design comes with the separation between the control plane (where all the intelligence resides) and the data plane (where data is stored persistently). Moreover, hardware and software can be purchased separately during the acquisition process.
Software-defined storage (SDS) comes with some trade-offs, not the least of which is that installing, configuring, and tuning software requires more skill than simply installing an appliance does. It also imposes management overhead. This is why there are three different types of solutions in the market that claim to be software-defined:
- Software only: The software can be installed on any x86 hardware that complies within a compatibility matrix.
- Pre-installed and configured bundles: This solution is usually delivered by reseller partners or directly from large hardware vendors.
- Pre-configured appliances: In this case, the notion of software-defined is stretched as the solution looks much like any other appliance, even if based on commodity hardware.
Software-defined storage is a great opportunity for innovation and enables vendors to implement new technology more quickly than with a traditional approach. This is beneficial for users, and is the reason why most startups in the data storage space work on software-defined solutions instead of developing their own hardware. Using commodity components helps an organization to take advantage of standard operating systems and robust hardware platforms, with plenty of resources available for the most demanding tasks. This approach allows small storage vendors to concentrate their development efforts on new, innovative features instead of reinventing the wheel.
Even though SDS continues to grow mindshare, its benefits are most visible in highly demanding environments or when the organization’s available skills can cope with the additional management tasks and complexities that come with it. On the other hand, for most enterprise users, the difference between traditional storage arrays and software-defined solutions in Day-2 operations is minimal and doesn’t really impact infrastructure TCO.