Nexenta, the software-only storage company received a further $24m in funding last week and had a swap around of their top execs, with former CEO Evan Powell moving to Chief Strategy Officer. Nexenta have been described by some (including themselves) as Software Defined Storage, but we’ll park that definition for now and highlight the fact that Nexenta don’t sell hardware but provide a software solution that turns servers (or virtual machines) into fully functional storage arrays, based on the core technology of Sun’s ZFS file system. What struck me as interesting about the Nexenta announcement was the volume of data their systems now manage. It’s something like 660PB with 33 customers deploying 1PB or more and 5000 customer deployments. I’m sure many people have looked at the Nexenta offering and been turned off by the fact that its software only. In reality that’s a big mistake to make. Think about what the “big 4″ storage vendors have been doing for the last few years; EMC’s VNX is a hybrid box running CLARiiON and Celerra code. Dell’s Compellent and Equallogic are basically software implementations on commodity hardware. HP commoditised all of their storage platforms bar the 3PAR and resold them on standard HP servers. IBM took SVC and developed Storwize V7000. Hitachi took their array code and made it virtual in the VSP. All the value has been in software.
However I think for many storage people, there’s been the question of trust to overcome. Mentally, there’s an assumption that a “black box” of hardware and software is inherently more reliable than running the software on your own hardware. We see it all the time; Apple make a virtue of running their code on their hardware only. Anyone who battled with early Linux distributions or Windows from 1.0 onwards knows about hardware and driver compatibility problems. Our earliest computing architectures based around the mainframe were all constructed around the premise that the vendors did software and hardware together. That makes it difficult for customers to accept that a software only solution can have value, can work on commodity hardware and probably most important, is worth paying a premium for. Perhaps this last statement more than anything is most relevant here. Martin Glassborow recently wrote about the lack of Open Source storage solutions. Software is cheap and free for many other areas, but yet again, storage is special. Users expect storage platforms to work and be 100% reliable. Where am I going with this? Perhaps to say that Nexenta have demonstrated that storage software decoupled from hardware can be reliable enough to deploy 660PB of data onto it. It paves the way for more VMs.
The Architect’s View
Whilst we struggle to quantify the definition of “Software Defined Storage” it’s clear that startups like Nexenta (and others like Nasuni) continue to bring value to software-only solutions. The big guys must be nervous as they’ve made huge amounts of margin from reselling commodity disk components over the years. This will continue to get worse for the legacy vendors as the degree of trust increases and we all become more comfortable with building our own storage arrays.
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