The Death of SAN?

the death of SAN

How Hyperconverged Infrastructure, the Cloud, and Software-Defined-Storage have changed the future of the Data Centre

SAN (Storage Area Network) has been predicted to fall multiple times over the last decade. But, this has never happened — the fundamental system is too useful. What has happened is that SAN has adapted to new technology. But, the lines are blurring so much that it may be becoming hard to talk about distinct types of storage networks at all.  

The data centre, in general, is being used in new ways as VDI systems have moved day-to-day compute and storage into centralised networks. This has happened at the same time as distributed storage solutions have come into fashion as a means of handling the explosion in storage requirements fueled by both the random I/O patterns of VDI and the increasing data reliant applications of modern business.

The problem that has arisen for SAN is connectivity across distances and the explosion of ad hoc storage devices. Administrators can end up managing multiple SANs, a NAS and server-side DAS. This can create a headache, not least because many SAN and NAS vendors use proprietary management tools. Hyperconverged Infrastructure [HCI] and Cloud solutions have further complicated integration issues.

This article is a guide to what is changing in data storage and the future of the data centre. It will stake out definitions around HCI/SDS and offer advice about the future of networks, the Cloud, and how to best integrate the latest technology into existing solutions to improve your data storage outcomes.

The Future of The Data Centre: Has Data Storage Changed?

The short answer is yes, the long answer is kind of.

Hyperconvergence is a new type of hardware. It is the collapsing of previously distinct provisions for CPU, networking, memory and storage into a single and interchangeable piece of kit.

This hardware development has been accompanied by the growth of software-based management tools that unify your command and control capabilities over storage units — virtualized or not. These programs aren’t dramatically different from the management software previously available — but, they are significantly improved operationally.

It is now possible to centrally control several different storage networks in the same way you could previously control multiple segments of a single network. The future of the data centre revolves around more flexible hardware and increased centralised control over distributed networks.

Staking out Definitions Around the Future of the Data Centre

It is important to think about these phenomena separately. They are easily confused because the ‘hyperconverged’ hardware is software defined in so much as the designation of different components is done virtually. These hardware platforms also come with software management packages that can be used to manage non-hyperconverged hardware.

Hyperconverged infrastructure [HCI] is a more specific term that directly references the hardware component of hyperconvergence.

Hyperconverged architecture, more accurately referred to as Software-defined-storage [SDS] is a distinct way to describe the trend towards unified and virtual control systems for data storage and the development of storage software that is truly hardware agnostic*.

Together, these developments have added flexibility to the data centre and changed how storage networks operate. However, the foundations of the networks are still there.

The Future of the Data Centre: How Has SAN Changed?

There are three broad changes being made that are impacting the future of the data centre in addition to the introduction of hyperconverged hardware.

  • One is to use TCP/IP networking to augment LAN networks traditionally used in SAN to add NAS features to SAN systems. It is now easier than ever before to connect multiple SANs using FCoIP or related technology.
  • The second and newer idea is to move a lot of the data storage back to higher capacity Flash servers — increasing speed by moving data closer to the processor. But, this is still using much of the same technology and will still utilise traditional SAN. It is essentially augmenting SAN with server-side DAS.  
  • The third is to use HCI for the CPU, storage and networking hardware that forms the underlying structure of a SAN.  

These solutions, independently or together, depending on the vendor and/or specifics, are sometimes called Server SAN, vSAN, Integrated SAN or Unified SAN. This is a category of products over which there are few solid definitions. It broadly covers distributed storage systems and a range of software products designed to handle their management*. However, none of this means that everything is fundamentally different  

Basically, these systems enable users to upgrade management tools and hardware separately. They are often partially dependent on hypervisors and virtual drives laid over multiple storage units that enable unified management. HCI has introduced a new hardware choice, but it hasn’t changed the fundamental network. That change has been pushed further by the new hybrid-SANs that have emerged out of the fusion of SAN, NAS and DAS capabilities — either as singularly controlled SDS entities, or amorphous data storage systems that have to be managed separately.

  • Network technology has opened up the door for SANs to operate more like a NAS
  • Convergence of SAN, NAS and DAS technology is making hybrid SAN solutions the path towards the future of the data centre

Software-Defined-Storage [SDS] and the Future of the Data Centre   

The real driver of change is proprietary software-defined-storage that enables the easy management of storage, reprovisioning of hardware, and single point control over a multitude of systems

Developments in software have gone further than simply providing centralised control. A decade ago, a whole company could be founded on providing quality snapshots, compression, deduplication, data protection or hybrid/tiered storage solutions. These have broadly become minimum barriers to entry in the modern market. This applies to the hyperconverged, converged and traditional data centre products.

Companies like Nimble, NetApp and EMC provide their software services independently of hardware purchases, and there is a move across the industry to accommodate a multitude of hardware choices under a single command and control system. In a way, all the moves to unify hardware have accompanied software changes that make it easier than ever to mix-and-match like the traditional legacy approach.

  • Advanced write/read techniques, built-in backup systems and compression/deduplication have become industry standard
  • Software platforms are now routinely sold as independent resources
  • Easier than ever to mix-and-match hardware choices

The goal is to make truly hardware agnostic software systems that can centrally control multiple hardware and network configuration from multiple vendors. All of these storage innovations are sometimes called hyperscaling — a term to describe a system optimised to use any and all technology to maximise capacity*.

Hyperscaling also integrates the other disruptor — the Cloud.

Thinking About the Cloud in the Future of The Data Centre

Cloud storage is the true replacement for SAN, and other NAS or DAS devices and networks — potentially staking out an entirely alien future of the data centre. Cloud services will no doubt play a growing role in future storage solutions. Many SAN and NAS providers already operate hybrid-Cloud options.

The primary issue with Cloud storage is reliability and speed — similar concerns to the use of NAS instead of SAN. However, bandwidth problems are injected into Cloud as well — making it a problematic sole solution for data-heavy businesses. Security deficiencies also become a problem with public Cloud offerings.

Depending on your access requirements, network speeds and bandwidth usage, these issues may not be a problem. However, it is somewhat inconceivable that physical drives will be entirely displaced in the foreseeable future. Looking at your own specific requirements and existing infrastructure is your best bet. But, even Cloud exclusive companies will likely need some internal storage capabilities. SAN is still a fantastic solution for this.

Summary: The Future of the Data Centre Will Likely Be More Distributed Yet Easier To Control — But That Doesn’t Mean the End of SAN

Software-defined-storage and hyperconverged infrastructure hint at a future of truly task agnostic hardware and hardware agnostic control systems. The challenge right now is integrating HCI with existing infrastructure. However, SDS already goes a long way towards solving that problem.

Picking a single proprietary piece of software to manage disparate hardware provisions moves the one permanent choice away from hardware and to administration. This is a powerful option most businesses should pursue.

Although HCI is not perfect, there are obvious foreshadowings of the future of storage within the concept. The major flaw with anything ‘off-the-shelf’ is that there are often redundancies or inefficiencies in the design — particularly when compared to what you will actually use it for. However, as technology improves and costs decrease, this becomes an easily accommodatable problem that brings advantages into convenience.

What has really happened is that it is a lot easier to tie multiple storage solutions together in a unified platform. That is what SAN has always been about, only now it’s not just servers in a network — it’s multiple networks.

Hyperconvergence has provided SAN with scalable hardware optimised for nothing but suited for everything. Getting the administration right with software-defined-storage is the piece needed to make it actually convenient.

Sources:

* Software-defined storage (SDS)
* Storage arrays are dying: Meet their replacement
* Hyperscale storage

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Rob Townsend

Rob is a co-founder at Nexstor and has dedicated his career to helping a range of organisations from SME to Enterprise to get ahead of the game when it comes to their compute, storage and data needs.

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