Unified storage is a comprehensive solution to the need for a more efficient, scalable, and manageable approach to enterprise storage that can handle all types of data—files, blocks, and objects—in a single system. Traditionally, data storage was divided into multiple systems based on the type of data and how often it was used. This compartmentalized approach posed limitations—different systems meant disparate management points, inefficient use of resources, and a lack of scalability.
This consolidation of storage types into a unified system offers organizations a more streamlined and efficient way to manage their data. This article explores the concept, benefits, and challenges of unified storage and looks at some of the best applications for which it makes sense.
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How Does Unified Storage Work?
Unified storage is the consolidation of various storage types into a single system. This typically means handling both file-level storage solutions like network attached storage (NAS) and block-level solutions like storage area networks (SANs) within the same, centralized system.
- File-level storage—data is saved in a single file, with the appropriate file extension.
- Block-level storage—data is broken into smaller “blocks” for more granular access and reassembled as a single unit when needed.
This unification brings together the best of both worlds, offering the flexibility of file-level storage and the performance of block-level storage under one roof and providing the flexibility to choose the best method based on the application.
Unified Storage Protocols
A key feature of unified storage is that it is protocol agnostic. This means that the system isn’t tied to a particular data transfer protocol exclusively optimized for a single type of data. Instead, it’s made to support multiple protocols—for example:
- Network File System (NFS)
- Common Internet File System/Server Message Block (CIFS/SMB)
- Internet Small Computer System Interface (iSCSI)
- Fibre Channel (FC)
This level of versatility lets unified storage systems be easily integrated with applications and platforms that use different types of data.
Components of Unified Storage
A unified system consists of multiple components, including hardware, software, and networking infrastructure.
At the heart of any unified storage system is the physical hardware used to host the data. This includes storage devices like hard disk drives (HDDs) or solid state drives (SSDs) organized into storage arrays, as well as controllers that manage and oversee the data flow between the storage devices and other components in the system.
Together, the hardware components of a unified storage system work to provide raw storage space that can then be optimized for the appropriate software layer.
The software interface is what enables unified storage systems to effectively combine multiple types of data compared to other storage solutions. It allows the storage unit to support different communication protocols as well as the management of data access required for large-scale operations.
Most interfaces are designed to be user-friendly, with a minimal learning curve even when aimed at professionals and corporate users.
Network infrastructure plays a critical role in the setup of a unified storage solution. A robust infrastructure is needed to ensure that data can be transferred quickly and reliably between the storage system and applications that need the data.
This often involves dedicated networking hardware and high-speed connections to support the high data volumes typically seen in unified storage environments.
Features of Unified Storage
Unified storage solutions are gaining in popularity among businesses and organizations because of their features. Here’s a look at some of the most popular.
As an organization’s data needs grow, unified storage can be easily expanded to meet them by adding more storage devices to the existing system’s infrastructure or, in some cases, by simply upgrading the system’s software to handle a higher data flow.
Because it is protocol-agnostic, unified storage caters to diverse data access requirements, allowing for more flexibility in how the system is used. It can also be more easily connected to applications and platforms without having to dedicate a separate storage system for each.
Data Protection and Redundancy
Data protection and redundancy are essential for any storage system in order to ensure safety and integrity. Unified storage systems often include such features as the redundant arrays of independent disks (RAID) and replication to protect data from hardware failures. They also typically support snapshot and backup capabilities, ensuring data can be recovered in the event of accidental deletion or corruption.
Unified Storage in Hybrid and Multi-Cloud Environments
Hybrid cloud environments typically combine on-premises infrastructure with public or private cloud services. In such cases, unified storage ensures seamless data flow between local data centers and cloud platforms, allowing businesses to harness the strengths of both. The flexibility of unified storage complements the scalability and elasticity offered by cloud platforms, creating a robust and agile storage solution.
As for multi-cloud strategies in which organizations use multiple cloud providers to meet distinct operational needs, unified storage plays a crucial role in data governance and mobility. Without a unified storage system, managing data across multiple clouds can become a Herculean task, riddled with inefficiencies and potential data silos. Unified storage centralizes data, making it easier to manage, access, and secure, regardless of which cloud platform it resides on.
In addition, the protocol-agnostic nature of unified storage makes it exceptionally beneficial given that different cloud providers may have preferred protocols or unique features. A unified storage system’s ability to support multiple protocols ensures consistent and efficient data access across the board.
Benefits of Unified Storage
When opting for a unified storage solution, organizations are awarded numerous benefits. Here are the most common:
- Cost efficiency. Unifying storage offers significant cost savings in the form of reduced hardware expenses, lower power and cooling costs, and less time spent on management tasks.
- Simplified management. Unified storage simplifies the task of managing multiple systems by providing a single point of management for all types of data. This simplification can free up IT staff to focus on more strategic tasks.
- Flexibility in deployment. Unified storage systems can be deployed in a variety of ways to best meet an organization’s needs—as standalone systems, integrated into existing infrastructure, or deployed as part of a cloud-based solution, for example.
Challenges of Unified Storage
Before adopting a unified storage approach to data management, it’s important to be aware of and prepared for some of the challenges most commonly associated with this approach to data storage. Here are the most common:
- Initial setup costs. While unified storage can offer long-term cost savings, initial setup costs can be high. This includes the cost of the storage hardware, networking equipment, and any necessary software licenses.
- Complexity in migration. Migrating data from legacy systems to a new unified storage system can be complex, and requires careful planning and execution to ensure no data is lost and that the new system works as expected.
- Potential performance bottlenecks. Unified storage systems may not provide the same level of performance as dedicated file or block storage systems, particularly when dealing with high-intensity workloads.
Use Cases of Unified Storage
While unified storage can bring long-term cost-efficiency and simplified management to organizations across a wide range of use cases, it’s better suited for certain applications.
Large enterprises often have diverse data storage needs—unified storage provides a comprehensive solution that can handle various data types, making it a good fit.
Media and Entertainment Industry
The entertainment industry and modern digital media deal with massive amounts of data. Unified storage’s ability to handle large data volumes and support various protocols makes it well-suited to their needs and to other similar high-data volume applications.
Modern healthcare systems generate and use vast amounts of data. Unified storage can provide the scalable, flexible storage solution these systems need while also ensuring the data is protected and readily accessible.
Bottom line: Unifying Storage for Enterprise Needs
Unified storage is a comprehensive storage solution that brings together various types of data into a single system. It offers numerous benefits, including scalability, flexibility, and cost savings—but it also has limitations, such as high initial setup costs and potential performance bottlenecks.
Enterprises dealing with diverse data types that want a flexible, scalable solution might find unified storage a good fit. However, for workloads that demand the highest level of performance, a dedicated storage solution might be more appropriate. Always consider your unique needs and consult with a storage expert before making a decision.
Read 5 Types of Enterprise Data Storage to learn more about the different ways organizations store information and how they compare.