Why The Evolution Of Data Storage Matters

May 10, 2023 | Russ Kennedy Why The Evolution Of Data Storage Matters

The data storage industry has evolved significantly in the last three decades, but what has happened in the last 10 years has been another order of change entirely. The maturation of the cloud and the related ecosystem of solutions are transforming data storage from a basic (and maybe even boring) necessity into a strategic technology that can drive business innovation and cost reduction, reduce risk, facilitate hybrid office models, accelerate global workflows and uncover hidden insights.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. To understand where the storage industry is headed, and why the evolution of data storage matters, it’s important to look at how this space has changed. I’ve been in this industry for more than three decades and I’ve seen these changes in startups and large established vendors.

Modern network attached storage (NAS) started in the 1980s with innovations from Sun Microsystems, IBM, Novell and Microsoft. Then NetApp, which was formed when several Auspex Systems engineers split off, took it to another level. These early pioneers had this idea that you could use the local network to connect more storage devices to more computing systems, whether they were applications or end-user platforms. This required a new file system—or a way to ensure that the stored data could be accessed, utilized and shared. NetApp invented WAFL, a file system designed for local network storage, and the concept that we know today as NAS took off like gangbusters in the late 1990s.

As we moved forward into the 2000s, the NAS business grew and spawned NetApp competitors, including an innovative company in Seattle—Isilon. It devised a different kind of architecture that allowed you to cluster multiple storage appliances together but operate them as if they were one system. You needed less hardware, and the system was easier to scale and manage. This was a welcome change, yet neither Isilon nor NetApp could truly manage the one big problem that was rearing its increasingly ugly head: Data was growing too quickly.

The hardware required to store enterprise data was limited in its capacity, so companies needed to keep buying more devices, and the cost and complexity of managing all that technology was growing faster than the data itself. Storage was becoming a major headache.

Then Amazon introduced the cloud and upended everything. The introduction of cloud as a storage medium was a step beyond the innovation of the Isilon system. The cloud is built on object storage, in which every piece of data, or object, is its own entity. Object storage is very flat and relatively simple and leverages a new protocol that allows users and applications to access data over wide area networks (WAN).

A common analogy for object storage is that of a valet parking system for data. When you park your car with a valet, they give you a ticket. You head off to your dinner or concert. You don’t ask where they’re going to park the car (or at least I don’t), but you trust that it will be retrieved for you when you return and present that ticket. Cloud object storage works in much the same way. You send data to an object storage system, the cloud gives you a reference, and when you need it back, you provide that reference or ticket, and the system returns the data.

Cloud object storage is like a valet parking garage that never fills up or gets overcrowded. The garage can pack in as many cars as needed and you’ll still get yours back as quickly as the next person. To make this new storage target work for files, the file system that came to be in the early NAS days needed to be redesigned to match the scale and particulars of the cloud. In other words, we needed a new way to track and exchange those valet tickets. We’re there now, and organizations are leveraging the cloud for file storage, but they’re also doing so much more.

The cloud offers three primary advantages from a data storage perspective. The first is unlimited capacity. The object storage providers have no limitations on the amount of data you can store in the cloud. The second advantage is that once your data is stored in the cloud, you can access it from anywhere with a network connection. The third and maybe the most significant benefit is that cloud object storage has transformed storage into a service. Instead of buying, maintaining and managing storage hardware, companies can dial up their cloud capacity as needed. Storage shifts from being an unpredictable capital expenditure to a predictable operating expense.

This is why the change matters—the shift to services. Now that everything can be delivered as a service, and your organization’s files are securely managed in the cloud, all kinds of other opportunities open up. You can make those files accessible anywhere, from any device. You can set up new offices without a huge hardware investment. The right technology can see to it that data propagates securely and quickly around the globe to facilitate collaboration across and between continents. You can even protect all this data in new and more resilient ways, which I’ll explain in a subsequent post. You can tap into AI and ML programs to mine your unstructured data for insights.

And all these benefits can be delivered automatically, anywhere in the world. The once boring, hardware-constrained sector of IT has been completely transformed, and the organizations that leverage these new capabilities will have a tremendous competitive advantage in the years to come.

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