The Lowdown on Software-Defined Storage in the Data Center

Software-defined is a popular buzzword these days. As market momentum and vendor product releases continue to expand the software-defined universe, IT pros are left to ponder what's hype, what's real right now and what's (hopefully) still to come. Software-defined networking (SDN) compliant hardware and software is currently available from networking vendors large and small, though not all products labeled as SDN are truly interoperable, as one would expect. SDN was the first technology to develop into an official standard, and though that standard is still not fully cooked, there is enough agreement on the basics of SDN that interoperable products are now commercially available from many vendors.

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Software-Defined Data Centers and Software-Defined Storage
The much-vaunted software-defined data center (SDDC) has the potential to offer customers the holy grail of a lights-out, fully-automated, minimally staffed, self-healing and provisioning data center infrastructure running on generic, yet high-performance, hardware. Software-defined storage (SDS) is a key technological underpinning of the SDDC, though currently without a well-defined underlying SDS standard. But the lack of an SDS standard has not prevented vendors—ranging from start-ups to multinational storage conglomerates—from releasing storage technology that abides by these five general attributes of software-based storage:

  • A decoupling of the data and control planes of storage hardware, much like SDN

  • Virtualization of the data pool and path

  • APIs that support programmable provisioning and automation of storage resources within the SDS "stack"

  • Storage expandability that supports scaling out, rather than scaling up as found in traditional storage technologies

  • Enhanced management of storage infrastructure via a policy-based service management interface

What Is SDS?
By decoupling the control and data planes of your storage, you can then leverage commodity, generic storage hardware that is much cheaper to purchase than traditional storage technologies. SDS can also serve to extend the capabilities of traditional proprietary storage hardware. SDS services and capabilities can be deployed as a physical server, a virtual server, or as a converged hardware appliance that includes both compute and storage resources. Whatever approach you choose, most SDS can virtualize the underlying pool of storage resources so that dissimilar storage hardware can be aggregated and presented to applications as a monolithic storage subsystem. The data path can be based on block, object or file interfaces, or, in some cases, all three interfaces. This is an important consideration if your applications and existing infrastructure require a specific type of data interface.

SDS Standards (Or the Lack Thereof)
Currently, software and hardware products that meet our definition of SDS can be found in product offerings from many companies, though without a settled SDS standard, it is not safe to assume that those products will interoperate gracefully. That said, by carefully selecting an appropriate SDS-based architecture and compatible products, you can still enjoy cost-effective storage solutions that offer unparalleled flexibility and capabilities for automating storage deployments and management.

SDS is indeed the future of data center storage, so you should become familiar with SDS concepts and terminology. As with any project, building a detailed requirements list and carefully evaluating all possible products meeting those requirements will help you judge the applicability of SDS in your specific situation. But rest assured that the flexibility and cost-savings potential of SDS means that you should be considering SDS as a foundational technology for your soon-to-be software-defined data center.

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