Unified Data Storage Buying Guide

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The big storage vendors have been battling now for a few years to deliver an all-encompassing storage architecture that can take care of file, block and cloud assets in one system. No matter the protocol, they want to be able to house and manage it.

Early generation systems were limited and more than a little clunky. But that’s beginning to change, though some vendors are ahead of others.

“Unified storage has come of age for organizations of all size with the value proposition of investment protection and the flexibility to adapt the storage to the needs of the business along with support for various applications,” said Greg Schulz, an analyst at StorageIO Group. “Whether the unification is in the storage system, appliance or is software defined, unified storage is in your future for cloud and virtual storage, as well as unstructured big and little data environments.”

These types of architectures often have the ability to adapt to changes within an organization’s IT strategy. For example, network port profiles can be software-defined so they can change from SAN to NAS as needs evolve. And as cloud environments become more popular, it becomes increasingly important to be able to confidently manage and maintain control of data, independent of location.

Meeting these needs requires dynamic approaches to infrastructure design that aren’t necessarily always dependent on hardware. Thus the definition of unified storage is gradually evolving beyond it being solely a hardware platform to include the software-defined side, the cloud and more.

The big vendors, understandably, tend to dominate this sector. Let’s take a look at what they offer.


Traditional enterprise storage required a different storage system for each function, one architecture for primary network-attached storage (NAS), another for storage area networks (SANs), and additional platforms for secondary storage, archive, and compliance. Because of complexity and cost, a unified storage architecture has evolved, creating a single, end-to-end foundation for supporting the broadest range of IT strategies including SAN, NAS, shared virtual infrastructures and new hybrid cloud IT models.

Paul Feresten, Senior Product Marketing Manager at NetApp, said this now extends beyond simple multiprotocol storage to provide integrated data management and data protection, support for multiple tiers of storage, quality of service and other elements.

“A unified storage architecture enables the creation of a common storage pool that can be networked and shared across a diverse set of applications, with a common set of management processes,” said Feresten. “High performance requirements necessitate that unified platforms now be optimized for flash technologies so that they leverage both flash and hard disk drive (HDD) storage to deliver the right price/ performance mix based on business SLAs.”

The NetApp Unified Storage Infrastructure is an enhancement to the company’s earlier unified storage offering to add more flexibility. It now includes cloud-integrated, flash-accelerated systems using NetApp clustered Data ONTAP software. It can operate as all flash or a mix of flash and HDD. Feresten claims the all-flash version can deliver 4 million IOPS. For high-speed, low latency applications, for example, the NetApp FAS8080 EX is configured all-flash array, which includes nearly 5PB of flash storage or as a hybrid array. It can also scale to nearly 70PB of capacity and more than 600 IO connections.

“Enterprises need to dramatically simplify by standardizing and consolidating their IT architecture and connecting their internal environments to capabilities delivered by infrastructure or software-as-a-service providers,” said Feresten. “Business-critical applications now need to be deployed on an always-on, high-performance infrastructure that is truly unified that provides consistent access to data in real time.”


Sudhir Srinivasan, Vice President and CTO of EMC’s Mid-Range Business, explained his company’s take on unified storage. EMC focuses on the multi-protocol side (i.e. file and block) while offering features that are managed from a single interface such as tiering, snaps, replication, encryption, compression and deduplication.

He noted that it evolved from adding a “NAS gateway” in front of a traditional block storage environment, and managing them independently, to a more modular architecture where you have purpose-built components that address file environments and purpose-built components that address block – with both managed as one.

“We are now seeing performance, easy-of-use, and functionality being delivered for file and block equally,” said Srinivasan. “Integrated unified systems that deliver native file and block without purpose built components are also available now. Where the market is heading is towards the addition of access methods like object and HDFS for third platform applications into your unified system.”

As a possible sign that more unification of its platform may be coming, EMC offered two products as representing its unified storage line. VNX unified storage is good for mixed workloads in physical and virtual server environments, and multicore optimization (MCx) technology, management, and protection software. VMAX, on the other hand, is better for consolidating enterprise/mission critical file and block applications while delivering high availability.

When asked why EMC’s approach was better than the competition, Srinivasan named policy-based tiering, the multicore optimized operating system, the use of SSDs for caching as well as tiering, the high availability model, continuous protection and replication with RecoverPoint, and transparent data mobility across any pair of arrays using Virtual Data Movers and VPLEX. In addition, Srinivasan cited integration with virtualization ecosystems (VMware and Microsoft), as well as EMC’s Data Domain and Avamar backup systems.


The Hitachi Unified Storage (HUS) 100 Series and HUS VM platforms provide block and file-based storage, while leveraging Hitachi’s own virtualization technology to enable users to deploy a common storage pool using 3rd party storage that can also include object data types. Automated data tiering and migration technologies are included. These products range from $50,000 to $500,000.

“Whether it’s block or file-based, HDS provides virtualization technologies which enable us to support 3rd party storage to be part of a common storage pool; thereby helping customers preserve their existing investments and prolong legacy storage life,” said Fred Oh, Senior Product Marketing Manager, HDS. “We add management capabilities which allow our customers to provision, manage and monitor 3rd party storage from a single console.

Oh noted that while the HUS and HUS VM platforms provide block protocol support and file protocol support using separate controllers, the engineering team is working on a convergence strategy using a blade architecture.

IBM V7000 Storwize Unified

The IBM Storwize V7000 Unified is designed to complement virtual server environments and can house both file and block data, as well as supporting the cloud and analytics applications. A hardware accelerated real-time compression feature is said to reduce storage acquisition costs up to half by using up to 80% less disk and flash capacity. Its Active Cloud Engine gives policy-based management of tiered storage.  


HP is playing catch up when it comes to unified storage. HP 3PAR StoreServ could be characterized as a primary storage SAN platform with a file/NAS gateway, said Schulz. This line includes the all-flash HP 3PAR StoreServ 7450 array.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Drew Robb
Drew Robb
Drew Robb is a contributing writer for Datamation, Enterprise Storage Forum, eSecurity Planet, Channel Insider, and eWeek. He has been reporting on all areas of IT for more than 25 years. He has a degree from the University of Strathclyde UK (USUK), and lives in the Tampa Bay area of Florida.

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