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Unified Storage – A Genuine Product Category?

Unified Storage – A Genuine Product Category?

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This week Hitachi launched their entry into the Unified storage array marketplace (press release).  Hitachi Unified Storage (or HUS) as it will be known, takes AMS2xxx arrays and BlueArc NAS gateway/heads, combining them together to produce a unified platform.  We’ll come back to Hitachi in a later post, but in the meantime, I think it is worth questioning whether Unified is a genuine category or not.

Defining Unified

The word “unified” in Unified Storage is meant to mean a unification of the common access protocols; block and file. Typically, many arrays cover only a subset of available storage access methods – CIFS/NFS, iSCSI and/or Fibre Channel. However, take a look “under the hood” and you will see that many of these products – from a physical perspective – are not unified at all.  EMC’s VNX is a marketing triumph, bringing the CLARiiON and unloved Celerra platforms together into what is sold as a magical single product.  In truth it’s far from that, with the two separate products still existing in physically separate shelves, albeit with a shiny new bezel.  Having a single management interface, of course does help to complete the illusion.

Probably the only big vendor selling a true unified platform is Netapp.  They have pretty much always offered the standard range of protocols, including iSCSI at no extra cost.  However, even this platform isn’t a perfect solution; in previous years I’ve done performance and capacity comparisions of Netapp versus the competition for block storage and found it significantly lacking in horsepower, something I know they’ve worked on in recent years.

Should we care if the hardware isn’t fully integrated?  Does it matter that we’re putting components together like a 1970′s hi-fi system?  Well, like everything, it depends.  Building a hi-fi system out of individual components is pretty straightforward; the standards and links between each piece are well defined and consistent.  Pulling together NAS gateways and storage from different vendors is fraught with support issues and taking a single “unified” product guarantees support is from a “single throat to choke”, even if each piece isn’t best of breed.  It also means simplified management too.

Market Positioning

Unified storage products are great for smaller organisations, especially those without dedicated storage teams.  However where performance and scale are important, unified arrays are probably not the optimum solution.  As with everything in IT, there’s no right or wrong way, just many shades of grey.

About Chris M Evans

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  • HoosierStorageGuy

    I think the fact that we are seeing multiple vendors get into the space fully solidifies it as being a genuine category. Earlier this year IBM entered (which I wrote about here http://bit.ly/opBEyh), now HDS, and Dell is in the game too with DSFS. If it wasn’t a legitimate market, we wouldn’t see these players entering. Of course there is still a lot of ambiguity into what Unified really means. My own personal definition is the addition of File to an existing Block array must come from a true purpose-built NAS OS (i.e. not a Windows Storage Server or Linux server running SAMBA). Part of my logic is it’s this fact that delayed so many other entrants from entering the Unified space. EMC and NTAP have had purpose-built NAS operating systems for some time. Everyone else had to acquire one or develop from scratch, which takes years. Ideally, the file and block components should be managed with a single GUI and be able to share a common storage pool with Block data (not all the players above have hit this mark yet). Previous versions of EMC’s NS did not do this as an example, but now they can be managed with one GUI and the NAS datamovers can use a LUN from a VNX storage pool rather than have their own dedicated RAID groups. Without a doubt I agree that NTAP was and is the most “unified” of all, but all methods have pros/cons and “it depends” is the most common answer when it comes to the question of “Which is better?”.

  • ChrisMaki

    Just an FYI, NetApp no longer includes iSCSI for free, well not exactly. You now get one protocol for free, one of NFS, CIFS, iSCSI or FC.

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