The Sudden Allure of Converged Storage Systems and the Trade-offs Organizations Face When Adopting Them – Part I of II

Converged storage systems are nothing new. They offer both file (CIFS and NFS) and block (FC, FCoE and iSCSI) storage networking services and can support multiple tiers of storage with the largest of these systems scaling to hold petabytes of data. What is new is their sudden allure to midsized enterprises with three factors driving their increased interest in these systems.

  • Virtualization. Organizations of all sizes are virtualizing their environment with its use among mid-sized businesses now almost a foregone conclusion. A November 2012 SpiceWorks survey of more than 1300 IT professions in businesses with less than 1000 employees found that 65% have already virtualized their environment with that percentage forecast to rise to 79% in 2013. As these companies virtualize their environments they are finding converged storage systems particularly well suited to host their virtualized applications.    
  • Data growth. Managing structured (databases) and unstructured (email, files) data growth – otherwise known as “Big Data” – is front and center with all size organizations. However midsized enterprises are particularly challenged in this area as their data growth is more properly classified as “Big Data Lite.” Converged storage systems provide them with the single solution they need to meet the demands of their performance intensive databases and storage scalability that their rapidly growing email and file stores need.
  • One stop shop for storage. Midsized organizations are often staffed by IT generalists who manage storage as just one of their many responsibilities. By consolidating block and file storage services onto one system with a single management interface, they more affordably get the performance and scalability they need without having to buy multiple storage systems.

These features combine to create the perception that these storage systems are almost a no-brainer for midsize organizations to adopt. However these storage systems come with certain drawbacks that are not always immediately apparent to first time users.

The Converged Storage Trade-offs

Windows is still the predominant operating system in many midsized shops and even now continues to outpace up-and-comers like Linux in terms of sales. In late 2012 servers shipping with the Windows operating system still represented nearly 46% of all server sales with Linux a distant second at about 21%. As such, it may come as surprise to midsized organizations that the file services component found on many converged storage systems are usually based on either Linux or UNIX.

This creates a number of challenges in these environments. First and foremost, many of these shops probably expect to consolidate their existing Windows file servers onto their new converged storage system. However if it implements one with a Linux or UNIX file system, it immediately creates uncertainty as to how well such a consolidation will work – especially in terms of its integration with Microsoft Active Directory and the transfer of the appropriate security privileges.

While some Linux and UNIX-based converged storage systems integrate well with Microsoft, they still leave other issues unresolved. Since they are not Microsoft Windows, they typically cannot host anti-virus software. This requires the use of a separate server – potentially a dedicated one – that continuously scans the file system incurring additional expense and introducing network overhead.

Backup is also a concern. Support for Linux and UNIX file systems varies widely by backup software if they support these operating systems at all. Even should they support them, they may require an organization employ an unfamiliar method such as NDMP to back them up.

A final concern is the ability of the storage system to meet the needs of performance sensitive applications such as databases. By mixing database, email, and file workloads on a single storage system, performance may degrade over time as these applications compete for the same limited resources. These drawbacks associated with converged storage systems give organizations pause as how to best proceed.

In part 2 of this two-part series, I will examine how the new HP 3PAR StoreServ File Controller brings together the best of what block and file have to offer.

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