Storage Array Vendors: Consolidation Time?

I could have titled the article as “All Quiet on the Storage Vendor Front.” It has indeed been very quiet the past few months. The main reason according to me is that lot of consolidation happening on the products front. The battle lines have been clearly drawn. Each of the major vendors is preparing for the battle ahead, sharpening their weapons and adding more potent weapons to their armory.  This metaphor doesn’t hold in the strict sense of the word because in the market the battle never stops. So I should actually be saying that the foot soldiers are fighting it out in the field, the headquarters back home is developing those bazookas which will blow out their opposition and break down customer resistance.

What are the companies working on? The trends of a year or two back are now necessities of life. Snapshots, Thin Provisioning, Deduplication are taken for granted . I don’t think there is any secondary storage device which does not offer compression. And no major array vendoris without Thin Provisioning in his array.  Storage efficiency in form of Dedupe / Compression appears in primary storage as well. Usage of SSDs has percolated and all arrays have started providing SSD option either as top tier storage or as a high performing cache.

The preparation for future according to me is in sectors like Scale Out NAS, Integration with VMware and Cloud play. This is what most companies are doing. Given that cloud will need large amount of storage and virtualization, it is  easy to see why better storage performance with respect to VMware is needed. As the cloud grows, the storage has to scale. Scaling  horizontally through scale out solutions is preferred to vertical scaling. All major storage vendors have a scale out solution in place. The recent news was Hitachi acquiring BlueArc, a company specializing in Scale Out NAS. Hitachi and BlueArc used to work together earlier. EMC has Islion, NetApp has its own scale out solution, HP has IBRIX, IBM has SONAS and now Hitachi has BlueArc. (The news today was that Red Hat has bought Gluster for $136 million. As more news seeps in, we will know what Red Hat is planning to do with Gluster. )

Trying to join this group of senior storage vendors is Dell. The acquisition of EqualLogic has given them leadership in the iSCSI space. They have Exanet, which is Scalable NAS. They also bought Compellent (storage array) and Ocarina for Datadeduplication. Everyone is watching with interest the Dell strategy as they try making inroads into the Enterprise. In short now, the big players have their NAS, SAN, Unified storage and Scale Out solutions in place.

Integration with VMware is another  area where every vendor is concentrating on.  Performance of storage is a major issue of server virtualization. The CPUs do a good job in running VMs but when all these VMs are accessing the same array, performance gets impacted. This is because the hypervisor does a lot of activities related to storage. Hypervisor doing storage work is not an optimal solution since many of the arrays have the intelligence to perform these activities, like say, zeroing out free blocks.  VMware came up with a set of APIs (vAAI: VMware APIs for Array Integration) which will allow to offload some of the storage activities on to the array.  From what I understand, this will be achieved by the arrays supporting a set of SCSI-3 commands like block copy etc. While many arrays claim integration with VMware, you need to check if they are supporting these APIs. This is because VMware integration is claimed even if the array just supports only vMotion. Here is an article which tries to cut through the FUD with respect to VMWare integration. Read the Dot Hill article.

As Server virtualization makes inroads into the Enterprise, the performance of the storage array vis-a-vis VMware will become very important. (I keep mentioning VMware here because they are the dominant vendor in this space. This will apply to other hypervisors like Hyper-V, Xen etc, as well.) Similarly, performance of the array in a virtualized server environment and the ability of the arrays to scale out will be important considerations for the cloud. That’s why you see lot of effort going on from  array vendors and server virtualization vendors in ensuring that storage arrays  are closely integrated with server virtualization.

As they enter into a era of Server virtualization and Cloud, all the major players have the products they need to build good solutions for the Enterprises. One thing I notice is that almost all vendors have lot of different products in their portfolio. There is an ongoing effort going to consolidate the portfolio. It will interesting to observe how the vendors will use their products to build the best solution for the customer.

On a different note: If you Bangalore based, Storage and/or Linux kernel expert/ developer, I have some exciting startup opportunities for you. If interested, contact me at yagnavalky at gmail dot com.