Storage devices such as hard disk drives may be seen as commodities, although storage systems that businesses depend on are clearly not commodities. Systems that store the most critical information inside data centers are complex and sophisticated, developed by companies that put their intellectual property into them. Storage systems are hardened over time with usage and support from engineering teams.
This does not mean the best storage systems appear complex. Far from it. It takes great effort to make a complex system responsible for storing and retrieving what is arguably the most valuable asset for a business to present itself as simple. Simple in this case means that it can be administered by someone who is not a specialist in the system and can operate in an optimal state automatically.
The underlying complexity in a storage system resides in several areas and there is variation in the more successful products in use. “Special” implementations to improve performance are the most often cited in promotional material. There are many different caching, tiering, and data management techniques used, and they continue to change as new technologies are added.
Special features such as snapshots, remote replication, data migration, and storage virtualization are complex to implement with the integrity and performance to work flawlessly every time. The basic functions of reliability, availability, and maintaining data integrity are expected but require extensive development and testing to handle the different conditions that can occur.
Controlling complexity can be difficult in storage systems. Features or capabilities added to an existing design that were not anticipated in the original architecture add complexity and make it increasingly difficult to make iterative refinements. A good example of this is the thin provisioning capability that was added to existing designs versus newer systems that were initially designed for thin provisioning.
When thin provisioning was added to established systems, it had limitations around mapping RAID groups and expanding by adding more disks. Many of these add-on implementations were subsequently updated with improved designs.
Maturity is crucial in a storage system. Certain situations occur only after wide usage over time. A system platform that has been used for an extended period will be more stable and customers will have greater confidence in it. The investment by the vendor in continuing a storage system with updates and long-term support is a distinguishing characteristic for systems that IT can depend upon. The critical nature of storing and protecting information is why the support and continuity is so important.
Devices may be seen as commodity but storage systems, given their importance in protecting information, are definitely not. When IT chooses a storage system, it should be one that includes the intellectual investments to meet their critical demands.
(Randy Kerns is Senior Strategist at Evaluator Group, an IT analyst firm).