Benefits of proprietary storage for virtual servers

Proprietary storage arrays have custom designs and configurations that make them the best option when choosing storage for virtual servers.

Proprietary storage arrays normally provide superior hardware and software integration without the associated development costs and headaches. Experts recognize the reality of vendor lock-in -- especially when it comes to proprietary storage for virtual servers -- but point to the upside.

"The counterpart to that [lock-in] is that there's a much higher performance value and management in that environment," said Ray Lucchesi, the president and founder of Silverton Consulting, a technology consulting firm in Broomfield, Colo.

Virtualization vendors such as VMware Inc., Microsoft and Citrix Systems Inc. provide storage and server compatibility information that can help data center staff identify interoperability for major storage arrays, but there is no question that proprietary storage arrays readily support virtualization.

"There is nothing about virtualization that diminishes the need or the importance of a proprietary array," said Greg Schulz, the founder and senior analyst at StorageIO, a technology consulting firm in Stillwater, Minn. "They complement each other extremely well."

Taking advantage of proprietary storage for virtual servers
Proprietary storage arrays are recognized for their strong value proposition regardless of the organization's involvement with virtualization. The customized design and optimizations included with proprietary arrays provide performance and storage capacity that typically cannot be rivaled by storage servers cobbled together in-house.

Applications such as database servers that rely on peak storage performance may necessitate the choice of proprietary storage arrays automatically. Proprietary systems frequently include redundant power supplies, controllers and other design features that enhance availability and resiliency.

And it's far easier to leverage the vendor for service and support than to maintain the personnel, skill sets and spare parts to maintain storage systems yourself.

"The availability of a nonproprietary storage system is purely dependent upon your skills," Lucchesi said. "The vendor's service people will do all that for you -- but you pay for it."

Access to a vendor also provides access to its collective knowledge base, allowing faster and far more efficient training and application of storage features in your particular environment.

Associated storage management software and utilities -- such as snapshot tools -- are tightly integrated and optimized for the underlying storage system. This adds further performance and provides management processes -- often GUI-based -- that are easier and more intuitive than off-the-shelf software tools -- usually CLI-based -- that may be more cumbersome and difficult to navigate.

For example, it may be easy to find a proprietary storage system with integrated features such as automated tiered storage, thin provisioning, continuous snapshots, thin replication and virtualization support. But when building your own storage platform, it may be impossible to establish all these features.

In short, proprietary storage arrays have a long-standing and well known history of adding value to the data center. Using proprietary storage for virtual servers has not changed the underlying value proposition.

"Show me an industry or application that would not benefit from a proprietary array," said Schulz, adding that proprietary storage arrays are not just for large sophisticated businesses and citing the immense popularity of relatively small, entry-level Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Sun Microsystems (now Oracle), and other storage arrays selling in enormous quantities.

There are exceptions where nonproprietary storage systems may have to be built in-house, but Mark Peters, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group in Milford, Mass., said that a nonproprietary strategy makes sense in only specialized cases where commercial storage systems simply weren't suited to the business needs.

"That's what Google had to do," he said.

Google couldn't just buy what it needed, he said, adding that universities and NASA projects fall into similar niche cases.

Managing proprietary storage for virtual servers
Ideally, the management of proprietary storage arrays should be easier than nonproprietary arrays -- usually because of high levels of management software integration running under a refined GUI. Even though you're managing the same fundamental set of issues, a GUI alleviates the need to know complex details about the operating system, I/O and drives within the array itself.

But the high abstraction presented by a GUI may leave some storage administrators dissatisfied with the level of precise control afforded by command line options.

"You don't have to run very far to find a number of users who like command line interfaces," Peters said. "Test-drive it, and see if you can actually use it."

Virtualization does not directly affect the management of storage systems, but the abstraction introduced by virtualization can make it harder to diagnose problems. Virtualization can make it almost impossible to determine which physical disks actually hold a certain file. In many cases, a proprietary storage system that is designed to interoperate with major virtualization platforms such as VMware can provide a deeper view of storage activity and behaviors.

Don't expect the tools from proprietary storage arrays to manage nonproprietary storage systems or vice versa. A proprietary management tool may be able to recognize and report on nonproprietary platforms, but management abilities may be extremely limited on proprietary platforms. Proprietary management tools frequently adhere to management standards such as Storage Management Initiative -- Specification (SMI-S).

Although there are open standards that adhere to SMI-S such as OpenPegasus, it's more likely that a management tool will interoperate between two dissimilar proprietary storage systems rather than a proprietary and nonproprietary platform. When proprietary and nonproprietary storage systems co-exist in the same environment, expect to manage both with their own tool sets.

About the author
Stephen J. Bigelow, a senior technology writer in the Data Center and Virtualization Media Group at TechTarget Inc., has more than 15 years of technical writing experience in the PC/technology industry. He holds a bachelor of science in electrical engineering, along with CompTIA A+, Network+, Security+ and Server+ certifications, and has written hundreds of articles and more than 15 feature books on computer troubleshooting, including Bigelow's PC Hardware Desk Reference and Bigelow's PC Hardware Annoyances. Contact him at sbigelow@techtarget.com.


This was first published in September 2010

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