Unified storage systems that support concurrent block, file and in some cases object based access have become popular in terms of industry adoption as well as customer deployments with solutions from many vendors across different price bands, or market (customer) sectors. Two companies that are leaders in this space are also squared off against each other (here and here) to compete for existing, each others, as well as new customers in adjacent or different markets. Those companies are EMC and NetApp that I have described as two similar companies on parallel tracks offset by time.

Two companies on parralel tracks offset by time

Recently I was asked to provide some commentary about unified storage systems in general, as well as EMC and NetApp that you can read here, or view additional commentary on related themes here, here and here. EMC has a historical block based storage DNA that has evolved to file and object based while NetApp originated in the file space having moved into block based storage along with object based access. EMC converged various product technologies including those developed organically (e.g. internally) as well as via acquisition as part of their unified approach. NetApp who has had a unified produce has more recently added a new line of block products with their acquisition of Engenio from LSI. Obviously there are many other vendors with unified storage solutions that are either native (e.g. the functionality is built into the actual technology) or by parterning with others to combine their block or file based solutions as a unified offering.

What is unified storage, what does it enable, and why is it popular now?
Over the past couple of years, multifunction systems that can do both block- and file-based storage have become more popular. These systems simplify the acquisition process by removing the need to choose while enabling flexibility to use something else later. NAS solutions have evolved to support both NFS and CIFS and other TCP-based protocols, including HTTP and FTP, concurrently. NAS or file sharing based storage continues to gain popularity because of its ease of use and built-in data management capabilities. However, some applications, including Microsoft Exchange or databases, either require block-based storage using SAS, iSCSI, or Fibre Channel, or have manufacture configuration guidelines for block-based storage.

Multi protocol storage products enable the following:

  • Acquisition and installation without need for a specialist
  • Use by professionals with varied skills
  • Reprovisioning for different applications requirements
  • Expansion and upgrades to boost future capacity needs

Figure 1 shows variations of how storage systems, gateways, or appliances can provide multiple functionality support with various interfaces and protocols. The exact protocols, interfaces, and functionality supported by a given system, software stack, gateway, or appliance will vary by specific vendor implementation. Most solutions provide some combination of block and file storage, with increasing support for various object-based access as well. Some solutions provide multiple block protocols concurrently, while others support block, file, and object over Ethernet interfaces. In addition to various front-end or server and application-facing support, solutions also commonly utilize multiple back-end interfaces, protocols, and tiered storage media.

Unified and multiprotocol storage, learn more in Cloud and Virtual Data Storage Networking (CRC Press, 2011)
Figure 1: Multi protocol and function unified storage examples

For low end SMB, ROBO, workgroup, SOHO, and consumers, the benefit of multi protocol and unified storage solutions is similar to that of a multifunction printer, copier, fax, and scanner that is, many features and functionality in a common footprint that is easy to acquire, install, and use in an affordable manner.

For larger environments, the value proposition of multi protocol and multi functionality is the flexibility and ability to adapt to different usage scenarios that enable a storage system to take on more personalities. What this means is that by being able to support multiple interfaces and protocols along with different types of media and functionality, a storage system becomes multifunctional. A multifunction storage system may be configured for on-line primary storage with good availability and performance and for lower-cost, high-capacity storage in addition to being used as backup target. In other scenarios, a multifunction device may be configured to perform a single function with the idea of later redeploying it to use a different personality or mode of functionality.

An easy way to determine whether you need multi protocol storage is to look at your environment and requirements. If all you need is FC, FCoE, SAS, iSCSI, or NAS, and a multi protocol device is going to cost you more, it may not be a good fit.

If you think you may ever need multi protocol capability, and theres no extra charge for it, go ahead. If youre not being penalized in performance, extra management software fees, functionality or availability, and you have the capability, why wouldnt you implement a unified storage system?

Look for products that have the ability to scale to meet your current and future storage capacity, performance, and availability needs or that can coexist under common management with additional storage systems.

Vendors of unified storage in addition to EMC and NetApp include BlueArc, Fujitsu, Dell, Drobo, HDS (with BlueArc), HP, IBM, Huawei, Oracle, Overland, Quantum, Symantec and Synology among others.

So what does this all mean? Simple, if you are not already using unified storage in some shape or form, either at work or perhaps even at home, most likely it will be in your future. Thus the question of not if, rather when, where, with what and how.