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While just about everybody would tend to agree that storage needs to be simpler to manage, very few people seem to agree what’s the best way to go about making that happen.

As a result, it seems like every vendor these days is bandying about the term software-defined storage (SDS), but what that means is actually open to interpretation.

For some vendors, it means something as relatively simple as a storage operating system that can be deployed on top of any storage system or, for that matter, magnetic or flash drive. Others, however, say that SDS needs to be able to manage storage at a high enough level of abstraction that it enables the entire system to be programmatically addressed via APIs. In that context, both the OpenStack cloud storage framework and the S3 cloud storage service from Amazon Web Services (AWS) are considered the two leading examples of how APIs are transforming storage management in the cloud era.

One thing that almost everyone in storage circles can agree on is that we’ve reached a demarcation point. Instead of manually managing volumes of storage, the management of those systems is increasingly going to become automated. Faced with eventually having to manage petabytes of data, the average IT organization simply can’t afford to keep hiring additional storage administrators to manage all that data.

In fact, one thing that differentiates so-called Web scale companies such as Facebook and Google from the average IT organization is that they have found a way to allow storage administrators to manage petabytes of data. Recognizing that it’s only a matter of time before the current rate of data growth will create a similar set of challenges for the average IT organization, vendors have been racing to develop systems that automate the management of large amounts of data at scale.

Many emerging storage vendors see this shift as an opportunity to usurp leading storage vendors that include EMC, NetApp, Hitachi Data Systems, IBM, Dell and Hewlett-Packard.

Leading examples of vendors trying to make an SDS name for themselves include Coraid, Caringo, Cleversafe, Exablox and DataCore. In the case of Coraid, SDS comes in the form of a unified storage system that attaches directly to raw Ethernet.

“Our definition of SDS would be that that the system needs to automatically create a storage profile for the application,” said Robert Przykucki, senior director of product management for Coraid. “The system then uses the profile to put the application on the right container.”

DataCore, meanwhile, argues that storage management in the context of SDS needs to be heterogeneous almost by definition.

“You can’t manage a bunch of isolated storage islands,” said DataCore CEO George Teixeira. “Storage needs to be a shared resource.”

Elsewhere, Exablox is leveraging SDS to create storage appliances that scale out in a way that allow solution providers and their customers to choose whatever drives they want.

“Rather than selling legacy RAID technology, we’ve developed an object-based file system,” said Exablox CEO Doug Brockett. “It allows our partners to let customers bring their own drives at price points that are at 5 to 10 times lower than NetApp, EMC, HP or Dell.”