5 Questions to Ask When Shopping for Unified Storage

By Fred Oh

Unified storage has emerged as a leading technology for data center managers because it promises to bring together three traditionally siloed types of storage into a single solution, thus streamlining the process of managing, finding, and accessing stored content. Using unified storage, IT managers can find and access a group of files (such as a batch of similar documents), an individual file (such as a Word document), or an object (such as a file with intelligent metadata) using the same management tool for each type of data storage to make the process of finding content easy and efficient. That's an invaluable service for IT to offer users in an enterprise's lines of business.

In this utopian content management world, storage managers can set specific service level agreements (SLAs) with their storage vendors for accessing these files while meeting performance, scalability, and reliability requirements to ensure their enterprises run smoothly.

There are many flavors of unified storage available as established players and newcomers alike compete to become the market leader. As a result, some vendors are strong in one area of unified storage (such as block) but not in others (such as file or object storage). No two vendor offerings are created equal, leading to customer confusion about what's possible, necessary, and valuable.

This situation reminds me of the early days of the cloud discussion. This article covers the top five questions your business should ask when evaluating unified storage vendors and their offerings so you don't have to compromise on performance, scalability, or cost efficiency.

Question #1: What's the vendor's data management approach?

The ability to consolidate block, file, and object data on the same storage system and manage it from the same management interface is vital. Furthermore, as data gets older, IT managers need to be able to automatically migrate data to an archive tier and quickly access it to make it searchable to meet compliance requirements. Many unified systems don't offer a single pool of storage to be archived or allocated out to file applications, nor do they allow IT administrators to manage from the same framework. When there are two management interfaces, users are forced to jump from system to system, which means they can't replicate the same actions across each system. Due to the flexibility in supporting multiple data types, migrations become much more simplified as well.

On the flip side, systems that provide management through a single software tool offer more administrative efficiencies and capabilities that those that don't. These include simplified installation and configuration, improved performance and health monitoring of the entire storage system, and streamlined service and support users just don't get otherwise.

Question #2: Does the unified product effectively handle object data?

In addition to managing block and file data types, the system has to be able to manage object data types to be most effective. Unstructured data comes into organizations over the Web as files or objects. But, as more data enters the system, larger file systems and scalable block systems won't be enough, and organizations will have to integrate and manage file, block and object data types within the same platform. Object-based file systems and large object stores enable IT managers to achieve petabyte scale. Unified systems that are able to store and manage files, blocks and objects are also more space efficient and cost effective than the traditional siloed approaches of managing object data alone. A system that manages all three data types also allows users to manage one dynamically provisioned storage pool, which makes it easier to adjust storage capacity for each type of data as needed, increases utilization, and extends the life of your storage assets.

Question #3: How scalable is the unified product you are considering?

It's important to take scalability into consideration when shopping for unified storage because scalability means better performance – period. Few systems offer the flexibility to grow and shrink storage capacity for the appropriate data type without having to resort to dreaded silos or compromise on performance. Systems with scalability are thus able to handle larger data sets in a way that makes data easier to manage and offers less erratic and more predictable performance. This means organizations don't have to predict whether growth will be in block, file or object data, because they can deploy the footprint and expand capacity, changing as they need to.

Replication can also be a performance challenge for organizations trying to manage capacity, but solutions with snapshot-based file cloning capabilities help solve this issue. File clones allow users to save storage capacity while decreasing the time it takes to make copies of data for test and development environments. Another time saver related to space efficient snapshots is scalability to manage large volumes, which allows users to manage growth quickly by supporting large file systems and millions of files. IT managers will find that a balance of scalability in capacity, performance, replication and volumes will help extend their unified storage purchase further.

Question #4: How well does the unified product integrate with the rest of the vendor's portfolio?

Given that the overall goal of unified storage is efficient, easy-to-provision, centralized storage and management of different types of content and files, the fragmentation I see in the industry is still surprisingly high. Separate management systems and silos add complexity to systems that are supposed to simplify the overwhelming data growth that all organizations are facing. Choosing a unified storage system that easily integrates with the rest of the vendor's portfolio sounds like a no-brainer but it's easier said than done. Smooth integration allows for easier management of storage regardless of the nuances of the underlying physical devices that are serving up the storage. Other benefits include cost savings and the ability to manage external storage with the same interface.

Question #5: How does the product meet SLAs for critical business applications?

The threat of failing to meet data- or content-based service level objectives for customers could result in financial and legal penalties, so it's extremely important for IT managers – especially enterprise customers with stringent requirements – to research these areas to determine how effective vendors will be at addressing each organization's individual needs. Product capabilities and quality are an important factor, but it's also important that the vendor have a reputation for reliability and global service and support.

In summary, the challenge of storing and managing exponentially growing amounts of data is affecting all organizations. The unified storage market is thus becoming a crowded space as vendors try to cash in on a solution. With so many options, IT managers need to ask the right questions when evaluating unified systems. The right system can help organizations deal with growth, have the flexibility to adopt to change, manage costs, simplify the process and meet SLAs. This in turn allows IT administrators to turn their attention to advancing the business and delivering new, value-added services and applications to employees.

Fred Oh is a senior product marketing manager at Hitachi Data Systems. Fred was once a Unix kernel developer and now has over 25 years of storage and server marketing experience. He's also an avid Star Wars fan. You can contact the author at Fred.Oh@hds.com or follow him on Twitter: @FredHDS.