IBM Software-defined Storage

The phrase ‘Software-defined Storage’ (SDS) has quickly become one of the most widely used marketing buzz terms in storage. It seems to have originated from Nicira’s use of the term ‘Software-defined Networking’ and then adopted by VMware when they bought Nicira in 2012, where it evolved to become the ‘Software-defined Data Center’ including ‘Software-defined Storage’. VMware’s VSAN technology therefore has the top of mind position when we are talking about SDS. I really wish they’d called it something other than VSAN though, so as to avoid the clash with the ANSI T.11 VSAN standard developed by Cisco.

I have seen IBM regularly use the term ‘Software-defined Storage’ to refer to:

  1. GPFS
  2. Storwize family (which would include FlashSystem V840)
  3. Virtual Storage Center / Tivoli Storage Productivity Center

I recently saw someone at IBM referring to FlashSystem 840 as SDS even though to my mind it is very much a hardware/firmware-defined ultra-low-latency system with a very thin layer of software so as to avoid adding latency.

Interestingly, IBM does not seem to market XIV as SDS, even though it is clearly a software solution running on commodity hardware that has been ‘applianced’ so as to maintain reliability and supportability.

Let’s take a quick look at the contenders:

1. GPFS: GPFS is a file system with a lot of storage features built in or added-on, including de-clustered RAID, policy-based file tiering, snapshots, block replication, support for NAS protocols, WAN caching, continuous data protection, single namespace clustering, HSM integration, TSM backup integration, and even a nice new GUI. GPFS is the current basis for IBM’s NAS products (SONAS and V7000U) as well as the GSS (gpfs storage server) which is currently targeted at HPC markets but I suspect is likely to re-emerge as a more broadly targeted product in 2015. I get the impression that gpfs may well be the basis of IBM’s SDS strategy going forward.

2. Storwize: The Storwize family is derived from IBM’s SAN Volume Controller technology and it has always been a software-defined product, but tightly integrated to hardware so as to control reliability and supportability. In the Storwize V7000U we see the coming together of Storwize and gpfs, and at some point IBM will need to make the call whether to stay with the DS8000-derived RAID that is in Storwize currently, or move to the gpfs-based de-clustered RAID. I’d be very surprised if gpfs hasn’t already won that long-term strategy argument.

3. Virtual Storage Center: The next contender in the great SDS shootout is IBM’s Virtual Storage Center and it’s sub-component Tivoli Storage Productivity Center. Within some parts of IBM, VSC is talked about as the key to SDS. VSC is edition dependent but usually includes the SAN Volume Controller / Storwize code developed by IBM Systems and Technology Group, as well as the TPC and FlashCopy Manager code developed by IBM Software Group, plus some additional TPC analytics and automation. VSC gives you a tremendous amount of functionality to manage a large complex site but it requires real commitment to secure that value. I think of VSC and XIV as the polar opposites of IBM’s storage product line, even though some will suggest you do both. XIV drives out complexity based on a kind of 80/20 rule and VSC is designed to let you manage and automate a complex environment.

Commodity Hardware: Many proponents of SDS will claim that it’s not really SDS unless it runs on pretty much any commodity server. GPFS and VSC qualify by this definition, but Storwize does not, unless you count the fact that SVC nodes are x3650 or x3550 servers. However, we are already seeing the rise of certified VMware VSAN-ready nodes as a way to control reliability and supportability, so perhaps we are heading for a happy medium between the two extremes of a traditional HCL menu and a fully buttoned down appliance.

Product Strategy: While IBM has been pretty clear in defining its focus markets – Cloud, Analytics, Mobile, Social, Security (the ‘CAMSS’ message that is repeatedly referred to inside IBM) I think it has been somewhat less clear in articulating a clear and consistent storage strategy, and I am finding that as the storage market matures, smart people are increasingly wanting to know what the vendors’ strategies are. I say vendors plural because I see the same lack of strategic clarity when I look at EMC and HP for example. That’s not to say the products aren’t good, or the roadmaps are wrong, but just that the long-term strategy is either not well defined or not clearly articulated.

It’s easier for new players and niche players of course, and VMware’s Software-defined Storage strategy, for example, is both well-defined and clearly articulated, which will inevitably make it a baseline for comparison with the strategies of the traditional storage vendors.

A/NZ STG Symposium: For the A/NZ audience, if you want to understand IBM’s SDS product strategy, the 2014 STG Tech Symposium in August is the perfect opportunity. Speakers include Sven Oehme from IBM Research who is deeply involved with gpfs development, Barry Whyte from IBM STG in Hursley who is deeply involved in Storwize development, and Dietmar Noll from IBM in Frankfurt who is deeply involved in the development of Virtual Storage Center.

Melbourne – August 19-22

Auckland – August 26-28


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