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SDN Journal: Article

Future Proofing the Data Center

How to become agile in a rapidly changing storage world

More and more of our lives are lived online. Our music collections, bookshelves, vacation memories and more are increasingly digitized and uploaded into the cloud, the vast network of server farms that provide the bulk of online storage today. Research firm Gartner projects that by 2016, 36 percent of consumer content will be stored on the cloud, up from a mere seven percent in 2011.

Service providers, watching these trends with a wary eye, will be required to accommodate ever-increasing demands for storage as consumer appetites for cloud content storage continues to grow. To adapt, many service providers are exploring new options in data center architecture that will permit greater flexibility and control over hardware costs.

One such option is software-defined storage. By taking features typically found in hardware and moving them to the software layer, a software-defined approach to data center architecture eliminates the dependency on server "appliances" with software inextricably baked in.

Software-Defined Storage: A Primer
Although the term "software-defined" may seem like a recent buzzword, many everyday electronic devices - such as personal computers - have been "software-defined" for years. In the example of a PC, software can be installed on any hardware platform, allowing the user to custom-tailor both the hardware and the software according to his or her needs. For example, the average PC can use Linux as an operating system if the owner so chooses. This gives the user greater freedom to allocate his or her budget precisely as needed for the task at hand - whether towards a high-powered graphic design setup, for example, or a lightweight web browser.

Despite these clear benefits in flexibility, data centers are one of the last frontiers for software-defined technologies. The reluctance to embrace the trend can be traced - as it so often is - to the initial expenditures required to make the switch. Given the sheer level of infrastructure in service providers' data centers - giant warehouses in multiple locations across the globe - the outlays required to switch systems represents a very high investment indeed. Yet there is no denying the consumer trend toward ever-higher rates of online content storage.

The Status Quo
Existing data center architecture is comprised mainly of appliances. In industry parlance, an appliance is server hardware with proprietary, mandatory software baked in. The software is designed for the hardware and vice versa, and come tightly wedded together as a package. This can be a benefit for data centers without staff who specialize in server technology and therefore lack the tools necessary to configure a custom server deployment in-house. Yet since hardware inevitably fails (at a number of points within the machine), traditional appliances typically include multiple copies of expensive components to anticipate and prevent failure. These extra layers of identical hardware extract higher costs in energy usage, and add layers of complication to a single appliance. Because the actual cost per appliance is quite high compared with commodity servers, cost estimates often skyrocket when companies begin examining how to scale out their data centers.

It's due in large part to problems with appliances that data center administrators are beginning to consider software-defined storage approaches. "Software-defined" is far from a new concept. To the data center ecosystem, however - accustomed to appliances with mandatory, pre-set software - a software-defined approach was almost revolutionary.

Data center administrators interested in learning more about software-defined solutions are typically attracted initially to one or more of the following benefits:

1. Cost Reduction
As with many solutions, convenience comes with a price. Traditional appliances offer convenience in the form of a baked-in, standardized package, but the added costs associated with several layers of complicated, mandatory software coupled with high-powered hardware can lead to significant cost outlays for a data center that needs to scale rapidly.

Conversely, software-defined storage liberates the software from the hardware, allowing administrators to choose inexpensive commodity servers. When coupled with lightweight, efficient software solutions, the use of commodity servers can result in substantial cost savings for online service providers seeking ways to accommodate their users' growing demand for storage.

2. Flexibility
Not every data center is created equal. A telco servicing one particular area will have different storage needs than a major bank with branches in several countries, and a cloud services host provider will have different needs still. While appliances might be good enough for most of these needs, the benefits realized by fully uncoupling the software from the hardware can extract substantial gains in economy of scale.

Software-defined storage gives administrators the freedom to examine the needs of their business and to hand-select the specific components and software that best support their growth goals. While this approach does require more technically trained staff, the flexibility afforded by software-defined storage delivers a simpler, stronger and more tailored data center for the company's needs.

3. Future Proofing
Budgets, network environments and corporate priorities all change in response to market demands. Having an expansive, rigid network environment locked into configurations determined by an outside vendor severely curtails the ability of the organization to react nimbly to market demands, much less anticipate them in a proactive manner.

The future in storage is here. There are clear trends pointing to ever-increasing demands for cheap storage, and if companies continue to rely on expensive, inflexible appliances in their data centers, they will be forced to outlay significant funds to develop the storage capacity they need to meet customer demand.

Software-defined solutions offer an attractive alternative to companies looking to "future proof" their data centers. Since the hardware and the software are separate investments, either may be switched out to a better, more appropriate option as the market dictates, at minimal cost.

Software-Defined Storage and Globalization
Software-defined storage can also benefit companies with data centers all over the globe in novel - sometimes unexpected - ways.

Since cloud services need to be accessed from locations all over the world, service providers must be able to offer data centers located across the globe to minimize load time. With global availability, however, come a number of challenges. Load is active in the data center in a company's region. This creates a problem, since all data stored in all locations must be in sync. Also, companies often are required to restrict global data storage from either leaving certain countries (such as Germany), or being stored in others (such as Iran). In addition, global data centers must be resilient to localized disaster - such as a power outage - that puts a local server farm offline. Finally, if a local data center or server goes down, global data centers must reroute data quickly to available servers to minimize downtime.

While there are certainly solutions today that solve these problems, they do so at the application layer. Attempting to solve these issues that high up in the hierarchy of data center infrastructure - instead of solving them at the storage level - presents significant cost and complexity disadvantages. Solving these issues directly at the storage level can reap dividends in efficiency, time and cost savings.

Conclusion
These abilities represent just the beginning. Perceiving the potential of software-defined storage approaches, many organizations are beginning to explore the next phase of data center implementation. For data center administrators facing these types of challenges, a software-defined approach to storage is worth a serious look.

More Stories By Stefan Bernbo

Stefan Bernbo is the founder and CEO of Compuverde. For 20 years, he has designed and built numerous enterprise scale data storage solutions designed to be cost effective for storing huge data sets. From 2004 to 2010 Stefan worked within this field for Storegate, the wide-reaching Internet based storage solution for consumer and business markets, with the highest possible availability and scalability requirements. Previously, Stefan has worked with system and software architecture on several projects with Swedish giant Ericsson, the world-leading provider of telecommunications equipment and services to mobile and fixed network operators.

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