Virtual Storage and Software Defined Storage: Beyond the Hype and Confusion

Virtual Storage and Software Defined Storage: Beyond the Hype and Confusion

March 14

The storage vertical is undergoing radical change and picking up some interesting buzzwords along the way. If you follow this space, two buzzy words you’ve probably encountered by now are virtual storage and software defined storage. The offerings distributed by the vendors in these markets generally do two things: make each concept sound identical to the other, and totally confuse the heck out of anyone who may be trying to make sense of them.

With this post, we aim to peel beneath the mystique of both virtual storage and software defined storage, and determine if they’re two different ideas, or simply the same technology bearing two different names for the sake of marketability.

Virtual Storage in a Nutshell

Also known as storage virtualization, virtual storage is the process of taking multiple storage devices and combining them into one unified storage device. The integrated storage unit offers centralization that enables all physical devices connected to the network to be managed from one interface. This process takes place via software, or an appliance that combines software and hardware to abstract the internal functionality of those devices and integrate them into a single environment where they can be independently controlled.

Virtual storage is associated with three main benefits:

1. Improved storage capacity and utilization

2. Easier storage management

3. Less downtime and better availability

Virtual storage offers a dream IT scenario by sort of masking the naturally complex task of managing a robust storage area network. As a result, administrators can perform tasks such as archiving, backup, and recovery easier, and in much less time.

Software Defined Storage Defined

Marketed as a data center solution, software defined storage can be explained in many convoluted ways. However, it’s fairly easy to understand when realizing how it actually works. At the core, software defined storage decouples software functionality from underlying network storage devices, which it places in a centralized container or controller. That centralized access gives administrators visibility of physical and virtual resources, while allowing them to provision individual devices as needed. Sound pretty familiar, right?

Software-defined storage is known for three main benefits:

1. Extending the capabilities of existing storage mediums both physical and virtual

2. Simplifying the management of storage infrastructures

3. Reducing the cost of manually provisioning large storage environments 

Virtual storage and software defined storage have two things in common. First, they abstract. functionality from physical hardware to give IT administrators a better handle over storage management. Second, they allow organizations to build platforms out of products made by different vendors. For example, you can have a SAN comprised of storage devices manufactured by Dell, EMC, and NetApp, all managed by the virtual storage or software defined storage solution you purchase from a service provider like IBM or Nutanix.

Differences in Marketing Literature

The clearest distinction between virtual storage and software defined storage may lie in the products and how they’re marketed. VMware is a perfect example in this case because they offer products in both categories. vSphere, one of VMware’s leading server virtualization products, creates a virtualized environment that runs on an abstract layer used to manage and optimize physical storage resources. Its strengths are improved storage resource utilization, better uptime, and easier management of day to day operations.

Billed as a hypervisor for storage applications, VMware’s Virtual SAN performs many of the exact same tasks, yet targets slightly different needs. Like Vsphere, which it integrations with seamlessly, it simplifies storage management by automating several of the grueling manual tasks administrators encounter. It’s also advertised as improving scalability and providing better performance than virtual machines. Vsphere doesn’t tout these benefits, but if you understand how virtual storage works by now, you know that it can deliver the same.

While the aforementioned VMware products have different features and options, they both perform the functions associated with virtual storage and software defined storage. Both facilitate the logical abstraction of hardware resources, making it possible to create more powerful storage platforms, optimize storage resources, and manage complex storage environments in simplified, streamlined fashion.

Sorting Through the Mess

The wide array of products and the marketing strategies behind them can make choosing a virtual storage or software defined storage solution very confusing to say the least. Try not to let the hype influence your decision when sizing up a solution for your storage needs. Talk to vendors to find out if their product truly works as advertised. Make sure it not only delivers the functionality you need, but can be seamlessly deployed into your existing environment.

To wrap up, it’s probably safest just to say that virtual storage is a form of software-defined storage. As¬†long as the technology fully supports your needs, I’m sure you don’t care what the trendsetters call it.

Photo Credit: Dell Inc. via Flickr