Is the era of storage systems (arrays) facing disruption? Do the expensive monolithic chassis sellers need to find new ways to make money? Do the investors betting on newer storage array startups need to cash in now? Although it may feel unlikely in the near term, the perfect storm may not be that far away.
Let us think about how storage arrays came to solve problems for IT. There were two distinct transformations in this industry:
There are three innovation drivers in the storage system industry. The first is the performance throughput and capacity of the underlying storage unit, the disk. The second is the interconnect bandwidth between host and storage system. The last is the value added storage management system (the storage array controller and its software).
At this point, the disks are getting faster in performance, smaller in form factor and larger in capacity. In the 1990s we saw disks with a few gigabytes of capacity. Now disks are typically a few terabytes. However, the mechanical components have pushed the hard drive to 15k RPM limit after which data integrity becomes questionable. Now Solid State Disks (SSDs) and flash have increased the performance expectations without the limits of mechanical components; however SSD capacity is quite limiting and hence cannot be simply replaced to serve the storage needs.
The interconnect bandwidth has outperformed hard disk capacity and throughput. From 40Mbps for SCSI-1 interconnects, now we are at multiple 10Gbps across compute nodes. Thus, we have 250 to 1000x faster interconnects! The arrays today can serve several petabytes from a given interconnect to multiple hosts.
In order to solve the throughput limitations of the spinning disks, several startups appeared with innovative solutions. Generally, the techniques are in using SSD/Flash in conjunction with hard disks or instead of hard disks. The SSD/Flash layer acts as the cache for the host and software in the array writes to spinning-disks asynchronously. Or they replace hard drives with SSD entirely and solve the capacity limitations using software (e.g. use deduplication).
While these are indeed good solutions that may prolong the life of storage systems, there are three other trends working against purpose built storage systems. A perfect storm from these three waves may devalue the role of storage systems in data centers when organizations demand agility and simplicity for IT workloads:
If the perfect storm becomes the reality, the modern data centers will have no place for purpose-built storage systems. The current expensive monolithic chassis-based storage vendors and upstarts need to disrupt their own solutions for survival. Vendors with software-defined solutions would dominate the mainstream. The journey to an agile data center would require redefining the way storage is delivered and consumed. It is not sufficient to redefine marketing messages to sell the same wine in a new bottle; something we are starting to see from incumbents.
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