Key Benefits of Software-Defined Technology

You’ve likely heard the term “software defined” increasingly being discussed these days, as a growing number of vendors use it to describe storage, networking and other products focused on the data center.

And it’s a term that’s gaining buzz for good reason, as software-defined products provide organizations flexibility, added speed and a way in which to keep up with innovation.

Software-defined storage, networking and data centers have the potential to make a positive impact on the enterprise, although experts believe the technology is still in its early stages, and a relatively small number of companies have actually deployed these products.

In order for a product to be dubbed “software-defined storage,” Forrester Research requires “API-based provisioning, storage virtualization and storage [quality of service]. While many enterprises have some of these components, few have a complete SDS deployment,” said Henry Baltazar, a senior analyst covering infrastructure and operations issues for Forrester.

The main benefit of software-defined products is flexibility, Baltazar said. For example, with SDS, standardized storage resources can be accessed quickly and automatically through global catalogs, which can accelerate provisioning speeds.

“As more software-only storage solutions hit the market, organizations will be able to take advantage of commodity hardware and will be able to create storage resources on the fly,” Baltazar said. “In contrast, today’s storage deployments are focused on rigid hardware appliances.”

The challenges associated with deploying software-defined technology center around maturity, Baltazar said.

“In the storage space, customers are used to purchasing hardware appliances that are factory defined,” he said. “As we see more standardized commodity platforms on the market, it will become easier for customers to move to software-defined storage.”

This will likely take a few years to accomplish, Baltazar said. “To me, [software defined] is a technology that will bridge the gap between our existing enterprise infrastructures and cloud services,” he said. “Without the flexibility of [software defined], organizations will not be able to match the provisioning speeds and innovation we are starting to see in cloud services.”

In the meantime, some organizations are forging ahead with a software-defined technology strategy.

Diverse Needs, Intense Workloads

Northern Arizona University (NAU) began evaluating SDS in the spring of 2014 and deployed a system from Nexenta, which the university uses over a 10G network infrastructure in its data center environment.

“During the initial selection period, we did a hands-on trial and performance benchmarks for [about] four months, before going to production in August,” said Duane Booher, software systems engineer at NAU. “Then we ran for the entire [fall 2014] semester in production with flawless reliability.”

Like many universities, NAU has diverse departmental and IT processing needs, and at times the workloads can be intense.

“Prior to our SDS deployment, previous semesters have been a roller coaster in trying to keep up with meeting user expectations,” Booher said. “Providing a stable environment and tuning the performance was a constant struggle.”

Once the university went to SDS, reliability was no longer an issue. “It gave us stability and more time to focus on other NAU academic deployments,” Booher said.

Aside from the enhanced performance, another significant factor in implementing the Nexenta system was that NAU was able to recycle storage that was previously deployed in another storage configuration. “This was a significant cost savings, and in these times of budget pressure, was just a good cost-savings measure,” he said.

The Benefits of a Stable Environment

Tobias Kreidl, NAU’s academic computing team lead, welcomed the university’s new storage system.

“Another driving factor was that we could not just keep adding more disks to our storage controller, as it was already having trouble keeping up with the load and [data] spikes,” Kreidl said. “It boiled down to not really wanting to keep building on a linear model that was already running out of steam.”

One compelling argument the IT team was able to make “was to show that for the same cost of adding linear storage, we could introduce an SDS solution that would gain us better performance and greatly reduce the amount of storage we really need because of the thin provisioning,” Kreidl said. “That, in turn, would mean making much better usage of our existing storage for some time to come.”

Users at the university who once experienced delays when, for example, scrolling through cells in a spreadsheet, no longer see that at all, Kreidl said.

“Plus, our log-in times are very uniform now at pretty much any time of the day, within around plus-or-minus two seconds,” he said.

Software systems engineer Booher said users are reaping the benefits of a stable environment.

While specific user response improvements are difficult to quantify, “the increased server utilization and throughput is noticeable,” with the SDS deployment, Booher said. “Effectively we are making better use of our servers with much faster I/O subsystem responses. The end result is that the end users see a noticeable [improvement in] response times and a more reliable, stable environment.”

Future plans call for expanded use of the Nexenta SDS system, including using the technology at NAU’s disaster recovery site. And the university will be exploring the Nexenta storage replication feature across IT server room sites.

“We have a number of other servers that make use of conventional storage and we certainly have the capacity to move more in this direction,” Kreidl said. “Above all, Nexenta has a very flexible licensing policy, plus we planned for our server to be able to grow readily in memory to meet future needs.”

On average, NAU is only using between 1 percent and 3 percent of the Nexenta server CPU capacity.

“Without swapping out memory, we can triple our 128GB to 384GB just by adding more DIMMs [dual in-line memory module]. It is a very scalable and flexible configuration,” Kreidl said.

NAU also has the benefit of being able to use the same server to provide whatever storage protocol the school chooses. “This gives us a lot of options, all rolled into the same appliance,” Kreidl said.

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