Clouds And Virtualized Storage: Catalyst For Change

We tend not to think about storage - until we don't have enough. We carelessly store documents, emails, images, video, and massive amounts of all kinds data only to wonder why there never seems to be enough places to put our company's stuff. But as new technologies combine to provide storage over the Internet, easing fears of limited capacity and the promise of virtualized architectures are helping shape the next phase of the Internet.

Storage Isn't Sexy, But...

Virtual storage is neither as flashy nor as sexy as virtualized servers. Historically, enterprises set up a storage device, backed up data and content in regular intervals and forgot about it. But because hard drives offer limited capacity, it has become necessary to manage multiple storage strategies. Additionally, archiving digital content traditionally meant burning to a disc or transferring data to magnetic tape. The archived data and content was not readily accessible.

As cloud computing has emerged as a basic networking practice, more and more content is stored in virtualized, interconnected storage devices. Not only does this make it possible to access massive files online in an instant, it also makes storage more affordable, efficient and easier to manage.

By abstracting how storage functions from a set of individual physical hard drives to logical storage (or partitions) spread across any number of physical drives, storage can be made less expensive and much more flexible. With virtualized storage accessible in a cloud computing environment, companies and even individuals can now add as much storage space as they need, pretty much on demand. 

Hardware vs. Management

For consumers, this means devices like smartphones and tablets do not require massive storage drives. For enterprises, virtualized storage means spending less on hardware and more on efficiently managing data and content. The trend meant companies can protect their remote office data and remove the need for multiple storage networks. Virtualizing storage also helps with disaster recovery by spreading the information to remote locations and providing multiple copies of data. The trend is toward continued efforts to make cloud-based virtual storage even more efficient and less expensive. Some enterprising companies have already managed their cloud architectures with multiple storage technologies so well that they've adapted their own capabilities to deliver Storage as a Service to other companies.

There's still potential for further migration toward virtualized storage. Forecasts for the global cloud virtualization software market (currently estimated at $6.7 billion) between 2011 and 2015 show a year-over-year growth rate of 14.98%. Virtual machine and cloud system software represents the fastest growing segment, with research firm IDC pegging growth at 17.8% in the first half of 2012.

Investments in cloud-based storage also suggest future growth. Venture funding for storage companies totaled $458 million through the first three quarters of 2011, according to analysis from Strategic Advisory Services International. That is 42.4% more than the $321.5 million storage startups received in the same time a year before. Storage mergers and acquisitions are also on the rise with 23 deals adding up to $8.7 billion through the first three quarters of 2011.

Benefits Of Virtualized Storage

Outside of the obvious benefits of being able to access content from multiple locations on multiple devices, virtualized storage also allows for information sharing between large numbers of people. While it's still a relatively new technology trend, storage virtualization isn't hype. "But it's all about the use cases," says John McArthur, president of Walden Technology Partners and a board advisor at Starboard Storage Systems. "The use cases will evolve and mature over time, just as they are with server virtualization."

McArthur points to making storage asset management less of a problem, where the goal is migrating data from one device to another without having to physically link them together. Other benefits include replicating data between locations, making point-in-time copies of data, expanding storage capacity, and shrinking storage costs. Additionally, virtualized storage allows for a "pay as you go" subscription model that can increase storage capacities as needed, without having to grow data center footprints.

"Some companies will embed storage virtualization in an appliance to make their appliance simpler to manage and control," McArthur said. For example, hedge fund Thames River Capital virtualized its storage area network and saw a 40% improvement in the performance of its virtual machines as a result.

Virtualization Meets The Cloud

As the technology improves and devices continue to be connected to each other, cloud computing will increasingly merge with virtualized storage. One consideration is using cloud versus physical storage for high-performance computing at scientific research centers, according to John Bates, co-founder and CTO at TwinStrata.

"Cloud storage can solve some of the problems associated with big data, particularly in the areas of resource planning and infrastructure growth costs," Bates told industry reporters. "Cloud storage offers massive and automatic scalability, without requiring heavy capital expenditures on fixed storage systems that may reach capacity too fast."

The Internet Of Things, And More

Another use case for cloud-based virtualized storage is enabling a wide variety of non-computing devices connected to the network, also known as the "Internet of Things." In its estimates for 2020, IDC believes approximately 30 billion devices will be connected, each requiring cost-effective use of software and storage for the information gathered.

Considering the capabilities being developed for the next phase of the Internet, it's not much of a stretch to think that virtualized storage could be used to recreate virtual versions of specific events at specific points in time. A wide array of networked storage devices would hold the information from computers, sensors, cameras and other information sources to quickly recreate almost any event or scenario.

Perhaps the holographic event simulator (the "holodeck") from Star Trek might someday be a reality.