Software-Defined Storage: Pros and Cons

Software-defined storage has major benefits for companies that want to scale their operations and automate storage processes. It is an approach to storage and management that decouples the underlying hardware from the software that controls all parts of the storage system. SDS can bring enterprises configuration and hardware flexibility and lower costs. However, software-defined storage’s distributed nature can be challenging for new operators, adding complexity to an enterprise’s infrastructure.

Pros of Software-Defined Storage

Software-defined storage (SDS) has gained serious traction in recent years. Since its introduction about a decade ago, it has steadily overcome technical hurdles and grown in market share. Its attractiveness, after all, stems from the promise it holds.

Flexibility

“One of the big benefits of software-defined storage is the flexibility it offers, including the ability to configure and deploy storage systems your way such as the type of hardware, or on virtual, container or cloud platforms,” said Greg Schulz, Senior Advisory Analyst at Server StorageIO, and author of “Software Defined Data Infrastructure Essentials.”

This means IT can utilize existing hardware rather than having to buy a whole new set of hardware to add functionality. This not only extends the life of existing storage assets, it also helps to avoid hardware lock-in and lowers the total cost of ownership compared with other types of storage. But there are many more advantages to software-defined storage such as future proofing of IT assets, far greater scalability, improved performance, and overall agility.

Convenience and cost savings

“Software-defined storage is all about flexibility, openness, and cost: users have the flexibility to select industry standard x86 server and disk hardware and programmatically define a menu of storage services for tenants to consume,” said Irshad Raihan, Senior Manager, Red Hat Storage Marketing. “These services should be self-service, provide a variety of interfaces (block, file and object), and cater to a range of performance, durability, and availability requirements.”

This is made possible by the detaching of software from the underlying hardware. For a long time, this was not something traditional storage users could enjoy. The storage services provided were fixed to the hardware infrastructure. Raihan noted that SDS users typically save money by virtue of their ability to select the hardware they need, when they need it, and from whom. The ability to remain open with vendor selection also means a lifecycle that is free from proprietary control and an ecosystem that is broader. Proprietary vendors, startups and the open source community compete on an even playing field based purely on functionality.

“In addition, users can implement rolling upgrades for storage without application downtime or disruption to the business,” said Raihan.

software defined storage, pros and cons

Cons of Software-Defined Storage

But all is not rosy when it comes to SDS: it has both advantages and disadvantages. Among the challenges of SDS are integration headaches, the need to take care of an additional layer of software, and the shift to an SDS culture within the organization. Storage managers are familiar with the traditional way of setting up an infrastructure, and any major change will take time and investment to successfully implement.

Hardware dependence

Schulz cautions that some SDS solutions remain dependent on specific types of hardware. Interoperability, too, can be an issue. Despite being touted as hardware-independent, some SDS platforms require hardware taken from the hardware compatibility lists (HCL) of certain vendors.

SDS still requires hardware somewhere from someone not only to support the storage functions but also to run the SDS software stack or storage application,” he said. “There is also a common theme of using cheap, low-cost hardware to run your SDS software stack; however, be careful that you do not create a low-performing storage solution as a by-product. Watch out for trying to cut costs so much that you compromise and cut service levels or availability.”

Time and personnel limitations

Those enamored with the do-it-yourself aspect of SDS should consider how much time they really want to spend tinkering with and optimizing their environments. By leveraging a pre-engineered and pre-integrated solution, they can often save time in service and support.

On a similar theme, Raihan worries about the rollout of SDS when IT departments are asked to do a lot more with a lot less. With fewer storage veterans around, and the presence of more IT generalists, the challenges of SDS can sometimes outweigh the benefits.

“Most SDS systems are distributed, and distributed systems can sometimes be more challenging for new operators,” said Raihan. “A single localized system can be easier to operate, but a federation of localized systems is often indistinguishable from a distributed system.”

Also read: 5 Ways Companies Are Dealing with the Data Storage Talent Shortage

Complexity

When an infrastructure scales, it often becomes more complex. As SDS becomes more widespread, enterprises will need more personnel to manage their storage environments. Take the case of hyperscale cloud providers: they generally have extraordinarily talented people delivering high efficiency in terms of humans per petabyte. For software-defined environments, this means that with the power, sophistication, and flexibility comes a responsibility to understand very clearly what the systems and software can do.

At Red Hat, for example, the company emphasizes training and consulting for people implementing its storage in an SDS environment. That way, the inevitable teething problems can be smoothed out along the way.

“We encourage formal knowledge transfer via one of training courses for the staff that will be using Red Hat Storage long-term, as well as assistance from consulting services to ensure architectural needs are met and projects are kicked off properly,” said Raihan.

Is Implementing SDS Worth It?

Any new software implementation project is going to run into issues. SDS should be looked upon as a major software rollout. Expect bugs to crop up, updates to be required, and integration challenges to occur, like most changes in the software world. SDS is really no different at the outset, but it may open the door for ideal advantages in the long term: flexibility, agility, hardware independence, tighter integration, scalability, higher performance and lower costs.

Implementing software-defined storage has disadvantages as well as advantages. Software-defined infrastructures will take time and require enterprises to hire and train personnel who can configure, monitor, and optimize those solutions. Enterprises must also be aware of any hardware or vendor requirements so that they have freedom and customizability if they want it.

But for many businesses, the benefits of SDS outweigh the inevitable challenges. Software-defined storage environments have already provided much of the scalability and speed that companies are looking for. If your business:

  • Stores data in many different environments, including on premises and cloud locations
  • Needs significantly more automation capabilities than it already has for storage volumes
  • Wants to save money by tiering storage more efficiently
  • Wants to step out of stringent vendor requirements or use commodity hardware

then it could be worthwhile to consider a software-defined storage solution.

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Drew Robb
Drew Robb
Drew Robb has been a full-time professional writer and editor for more than twenty years. He currently works freelance for a number of IT publications, including eSecurity Planet and CIO Insight. He is also the editor-in-chief of an international engineering magazine.

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