Storage Goes Virtual

By Frank Ohlhorst  |  Print this article Print


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As the technology matures, solution providers gain more options.

Ask IT professionals what storage virtualization means to them, and you'll probably get five different answers. That may seem a dismal state of affairs when it comes to knowledge about storage virtualization. Much of that misunderstanding stems from the fact that there are few, if any, standards around the technology.

When it comes to the channel, however, those misinterpretations spell opportunity. What becomes clear is that IT professionals will need educated solution providers to navigate the whole storage virtualization market.

Looking at the big picture, virtual storage amounts to little more than assigning a "logical" layer to one or more physical storage devices. Storage virtualization, however, starts to get complex when one considers all the methods that can be used to create the logical abstraction of the physical data (storage). A plethora of vendors are playing in the virtual storage (or storage virtualization) market and each has its own way of building and deploying its proprietary technology. And therein lies the key to the whole storage virtualization market.

For solution providers, the path may be a little clearer once virtual storage solutions are broken down into the key components. For most VARs, opportunity can be associated with the sales of hardware (physical devices), software (virtualization and management applications) and the services associated with storage virtualization.

While understanding the individual elements may be easy for most VARs, the challenges start when it comes to selling solutions. Simply put, what VARs need to know is how and when to sell storage virtualization technologies. For example, if a potential customer is happy with its current physical storage arrangement, why would virtual storage even be considered?

First off, a good storage virtualization solution brings added reliability to data storage. That is a benefit that is delivered by much of the underlying technology needed to build the solution. In most cases, virtual storage solutions are built on SAN (storage area network) and NAS (network-attached storage) devices that feature integrated redundancy, such as RAID. What's more, virtualization speeds the path to data continuity, and solution providers will find it much easier to set up mirrored storage environments, geographic diversity and rollback capabilities using storage virtualization.

Another sales argument is that storage virtualization brings enhanced capabilities to many businesses. Technologies such as virtual tape can speed backup and virtual DVD/CD capabilities, making it easier to share data. These benefits help define what storage virtualization is all about.

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Solution providers can also leverage the business continuity argument to sell storage virtualization. Here, the technology's ability to replicate data, load balance and provide multiple paths to data proves to be a must-have if a business is serious about continuity.

The same argument applies to disaster recovery. Just as with PC and server virtualization, storage virtualization brings a commonality to the underlying hardware, and that means technology changes do not impact the storage environment. So, in turn, by virtualizing the associated storage hardware, it becomes easier to swap out hardware and rebuild data centers in the event of a disaster.

While there are many paths to storage virtualization, solution providers will need to choose which one to follow. Primarily, there are three distinct ways to build a virtualized storage solution: traditional (the hardware and software approach), appliance-based and hosted.

The most difficult method proves to be the traditional integration of hardware and software, but the difficulties often pale in comparison with the advantages, and traditional approaches can minimize the initial expenses needed to build the solution.

In most cases, existing storage hardware can be used as the basis for virtual storage. That keeps costs low, simplifies return on investment and allows solution providers to build a solution optimized for the customer's environment. The downside is often punctuated by integration challenges, compatibility concerns and overall solution complexity.

In some cases, an appliance may be the best way to get started. Several vendors offer virtual storage appliances that bring virtualization technology directly into the network by simply plugging in the device. Vendors such as EMC, FalconStor, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and others offer a range of appliances that incorporate virtual storage technology.

Most vendors lead with virtual tape as their entry-level virtual storage platform. Virtual tape solutions allow standard hard disks to emulate tape drives. The primary benefits of this are speed (both backup and restoration), easier management of tape catalogs (physical tapes are no longer needed) and the ability to leverage existing backup solutions. Storage management applications see the virtual tape drives as physical devices and, therefore, are naturally compatible with the new environment. That is a major advantage when a customer has a significant investment in backup software and disaster recovery applications.

Many vendors also treat their SAN and NAS hardware in much the same way: A virtualization capability is bundled with the product, allowing a virtual environment to be built on top of the storage hardware. One concern with this approach is cross-vendor compatibility; when mixing and matching products from various vendors, the included applications may not allow system managers to roll all the hardware into a single virtual environment.

An interesting twist to the whole virtual storage appliance market is to add another layer of virtualization. Some companies are now offering virtual versions of their virtual storage appliances. In other words, all the needed software and an operating system are bundled together and designed to run as a virtual session on a server using virtualization software, such as VMware's. That twist allows solution providers to move away from proprietary hardware and fully tap virtualization technology.

While traditional methods and appliances offer pros and cons, there is still another way to bring virtual storage to your customers—offer it as a managed service. Several MSPs (managed services providers) are getting into the storage game; companies such as Mozy, Iron Mountain, Vembu and Asigra have been offering managed storage as a service to companies.

Interestingly, most of those companies' efforts have focused on data backup. The key issue is that MSPs can offer remote storage to companies and that storage can take the form of a virtualized solution. On the plus side, hosted solutions usually have a low initial cost, can be budgeted out effectively and generate recurring revenues. The challenges with the managed services market include bandwidth limits, data privacy concerns and security.

With three clear paths to storage virtualization, most any VAR should have little trouble engaging customers and building solutions that address the customers' problems and offer the ability to build profits from something as mundane as data storage.

Frank Ohlhorst Frank J. Ohlhorst is the Executive Technology Editor for eWeek Channel Insider and brings with him over 20 years of experience in the Information Technology field.He began his career as a network administrator and applications program in the private sector for two years before joining a computer consulting firm as a programmer analyst. In 1988 Frank founded a computer consulting company, which specialized in network design, implementation, and support, along with custom accounting applications developed in a variety of programming languages.In 1991, Frank took a position with the United States Department of Energy as a Network Manager for multiple DOE Area Offices with locations at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPL), Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), FermiLAB and the Ames Area Office (AMESAO). Frank's duties included managing the site networks, associated staff and the inter-network links between the area offices. He also served at the Computer Security Officer (CSO) for multiple DOE sites. Frank joined CMP Technology's Channel group in 1999 as a Technical Editor assigned to the CRN Test Center, within a year, Frank became the Senior Technical Editor, and was responsible for designing product testing methodologies, assigning product reviews, roundups and bakeoffs to the CRN Test Center staff.In 2003, Frank was named Technology Editor of CRN. In that capacity, he ensured that CRN maintained a clearer focus on technology and increased the integration of the Test Center's review content into both CRN's print and web properties. He also contributed to Netseminar's, hosted sessions at CMP's Xchange Channel trade shows and helped to develop new methods of content delivery, Such as CRN-TV.In September of 2004, Frank became the Director of the CRN Test Center and was charged with increasing the Test Center's contributions to CMP's Channel Web online presence and CMP's latest monthly publication, Digital Connect, a magazine geared towards the home integrator. He also continued to contribute to CMP's Netseminar series, Xchange events, industry conferences and CRN-TV.In January of 2007, CMP Launched CRNtech, a monthly publication focused on technology for the channel, with a mailed audience of 70,000 qualified readers. Frank was instrumental in the development and design of CRNTech and was the editorial director of the publication as well as its primary contributor. He also maintained the edit calendar, and hosted quarterly CRNTech Live events.In June 2007, Frank was named Senior Technology Analyst and became responsible for the technical focus and edit calendars of all the Channel Group's publications, including CRN, CRNTech, and VARBusiness, along with the Channel Group's specialized publications Solutions Inc., Government VAR, TechBuilder and various custom publications. Frank joined Ziff Davis Enterprise in September of 2007 and focuses on creating editorial content geared towards the purveyors of Information Technology products and services. Frank writes comparative reviews, channel analysis pieces and participates in many of Ziff Davis Enterprise's tradeshows and webinars. He has received several awards for his writing and editing, including back to back best review of the year awards, and a president's award for CRN-TV. Frank speaks at many industry conferences, is a contributor to several IT Books, holds several records for online hits and has several industry certifications, including Novell's CNE, Microsoft's MCP.Frank can be reached at frank.ohlhorst@ziffdavisenterprise.com

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