These days, pretty much the main topics on my mind are abstraction and simplicity. I’ve been considering abstraction a lot due to the multifaceted shift we’re seeing as companies attempt to harness the power of software and apply it toward solving complex hardware problems. With simplicity, I’m wearing my CIO hat and looking for ways that organizations can ease the pain of managing comprehensive technical environments and focus instead on solving business problems.
The software era
I’ve written a lot lately about the rise of software, which I see having its true roots ways back in the early 2000’s when a new upstart created a radical new way for systems administrators to run their servers via software. These “software defined servers” of course, were created by VMware and in the ensuing years, virtual servers have become the de facto standard platform on which new business-facing workloads are deployed.
Today, we’re seeing similar moves in networking and storage with companies including Nicira, Xsigo, and Nexenta bringing powerful software-based solutions to bear in an effort to solve complex technology problems.
The result, in theory, is the ability to leverage commodity hardware at lower costs with more flexibility. After all, it’s much easier to reprogram software than it is to rebuild a custom ASIC.
Assuming that the software-defined path for networking and storage resembles that of servers, companies have most definitely seen significant advantages from software and, I suspect, will continue to do so.
Another player enters the race
With some foundation set, I’m now going to shift focus to the emergence of software-defined storage. The current major player in this space is Nexenta, which provides the ability to abstract underlying commodity storage and infuse it with enterprise-grade storage features, such as deduplication, compression, and a whole lot more.
However, there’s another player that has entered the space that I believe has the potential to fundamentally change the storage market: Microsoft.
Windows Server 2012 is impressive
Microsoft pulled out the stops in Windows Server 2012. Although Windows 8 is questionable from an uptake perspective, I urge companies with the means to make the jump to Windows Server 2012. When it comes to storage capability, while Microsoft may not yet offer features on par with a company like Nexenta, the feature set in Windows Server 2012 can enable organizations to make use of more commodity, less expensive storage and offload significant storage management functions to the operating system.
The first and most obvious feature that speaks to this capability is Storage Spaces. According to Microsoft, “Storage Spaces provides a new class of sophisticated virtualization enhancements to the storage stack that you can use to pool multiple physical hard disk units together and provide feature-rich, highly resilient, and reliable storage arrays to your workloads.” By that very statement, Microsoft is acknowledging the software-defined nature of storage spaces and providing some idea about what it can do for an organization. Microsoft goes on to explain that Storage Spaces includes centralized management, storage aggregation, elastic capacity expansion, and even thin provisioning.
Next up, Microsoft has added deduplication to Windows Server 2012. Deduplication has traditionally been an enterprise-grade storage feature intended to reduce the disk space used by an organization’s data. Deduplication results in direct cost savings as a result of the achieved storage savings.
The underlying hardware means nothing if the overall environment isn’t capable of keeping up with the expected workload. To that end, Microsoft has also made massive improvements to the Server Message Block (SMB) protocol. SMB 3 includes major improvements that drastically impact both the performance and the reliability of storage-related network communications. Rather than try to repeat the list of features here, I’ll link to this TechNet article that explains it all.
The result: Administrators using SMB 3 can simply continue to use the structures they use today. SQL databases, Exchange and Hyper-V virtual machines can be stored on regular, everyday, SMB 3-enhanced file shares. This is Microsoft making these proclamations. There is major upside here from a simplicity and skills standpoint. There is no need to retrain people to manage complex storage and configure iSCSI and Fiber Channel connections. Just use a Windows file share and be done with it!
The risk for storage companies
Microsoft is certainly an entrenched player in the enterprise IT space. While I don’t believe that Microsoft is trying to compete with storage vendors, it’s clear that the company is attempting to make things simpler and less expensive with these powerful new “software defined storage” features.
Will there come a point at which companies look at their storage spend and start to consider Microsoft’s software set as an abstraction layer for less expensive commodity storage hardware? In discussions with some people looking at Windows Server 2012, I believe that this is already starting to happen in some quarters. I predict that storage companies will have to be on the defensive when it comes to Microsoft, or they may need to develop products that reduce the feature overlap with Windows Server 2012. This, too, would help to reduce overall costs and complexity in the IT environment.
Action Item: In the meantime, CIOs should take a critical look at Windows Server 2012 for what it brings to the table. If storage costs are decimating your budget, carefully consider whether or not you believe that Microsoft is up to the task of holding your company’s precious information assets. Do you believe that Storage Spaces and deduplication in Windows Server 2012 are ready for prime time? A decision to eschew traditional storage in favor of less expensive storage coupled with Windows Server 2012 is not a low risk one, but the potential payoff could be significant.
Don't forget that server virtualization used to be considered high risk, too.