Software-Defined Technology Improves Performance

by: Bob Violino


Organizations are looking to enhance their efficiency and flexibility with software-defined systems, which affect the way IT delivers services to the business.

As organizations aim to modernize their data centers and other IT infrastructure components, many are expected to deploy software-defined solutions that put much of the management functionality in the hands of software rather than hardware.

Software-defined networks, storage systems and data centers, in particular, are finding their way into the IT strategies of companies that realize the potential benefits of these technologies, including cost savings and increased flexibility. Software-defined products are also having a significant impact on the way IT delivers services to business users.

Despite the promise of software-defined technologies, organizations seem to be treading cautiously into this space. “We are still in the early stages for the deployment of software-defined storage [SDS],” says Henry Baltazar, senior analyst covering infrastructure and operations issues for Forrester Research. “While there are a number of questions coming in from enterprises regarding [SDS], most are still in the testing and evaluation stages.”

So far, service providers have been the most aggressive early adopters of software-defined storage, Baltazar says. “The biggest benefit of SDS is flexibility,” he says. “With software licensing and commodity hardware, service providers have the ability to create storage resources on the fly to meet client needs.” He add that when resources are no longer needed, software can be deactivated to lower costs, assuming a utilization-based licensing scheme is in place.

In terms of the SDS market, established array players have entered the market, including EMC, IBM and NetApp. That “will help accelerate the deployments of SDS,” Baltazar says. “Hardware arrays are still the preferred form factor for storage, but the entry of established vendors should ease the concerns of enterprises considering software-only storage.”

Industry research indicates there is a lot of interest in the concept among organizations. A study by 451 Research and sponsored by Maxta and Intel, surveyed more than 200 IT purchasers in late 2014, and found that 96 percent are “somewhat or very likely” to adopt SDS.

Simplifying storage infrastructure management is seen as a major driver, the report says, followed by improving data protection, data integrity and scalability. About half (52 percent) of the respondents cited simplification of storage management as the key consideration for moving to SDS.

Looking for a Cost-Efficient Solution

Northern Arizona University was looking for a solution that would be more cost-efficient than adding on linear, incremental storage, while simultaneously supporting a move to thin provisioning to cut down on storage space within its XenDesktop environment, reports Tobias Kreidl, academic team lead at NAU.

IT did not want to keep adding more disks to its storage controller, given that it was already having trouble keeping up with the load and IOPS (Input/Output Operations Per Second) spikes, Kreidl says. The linear model was already running out of steam, and it made little sense to keep adding to it.

For the same cost of adding linear storage, NAU could deploy an SDS solution that would deliver better performance and also reduce the amount of storage it needed because of thin provisioning. That would subsequently lead to much better use of its existing storage for the foreseeable future.

The university also wanted to make use of existing hardware components wherever possible in order to save costs, Kreidl says. And it wanted added flexibility and ease of management while providing good performance.

The storage needs of a university can be quite unpredictable, with diverse departmental and IT processing going on across the campus. Given the ups and downs of processing demands, meeting users’ expectations while providing a stable, reliable environment with consistent performance was a continuous challenge.

NAU began evaluating SDS systems in the spring of 2014, and, in August, it began using NexentaStor within its IT Services operation. The SDS is deployed on a Dell R720 server and Dell MD1220 storage tray, and runs over a 10G network infrastructure in the data center.

Currently, the university is considering expanding this technology into other areas.

Saving Money, Improving Response Times

The first major impact of the strategy was a cost saving. “For what it would have cost us to add a relatively small amount of additional storage, we now have a complete storage solution that has reduced our typical allocated storage for our XenDesktop virtual machines by around a factor of 20 to 1,” Kreidl reports.

“In doing so, the response time has also eliminated the lag we used to see with users doing simple operations, such as scrolling though cells in spreadsheets. We are getting about a 90 percent read cache hit, meaning very efficient I/O to the clients, with typically under 10 [milliseconds] of I/O latency.

“Performance has been really good and has exceeded our expectations. Most importantly, users do notice a difference.”

In addition, the system also provides flexibility. “Being able to carve a single storage volume into disparate types of storage according to need is a huge benefit,” Kreidl says. “We are able to reallocate resources very simply and quickly, all while being able to monitor performance and adjust accordingly.”

The software-defined storage capability allows the university to leverage the capabilities of a single entity “instead of having to physically shuffle connections around,” Kreidl says. “It is also a very modular system, meaning that expansion, when needed, is straightforward. We are also able to use fairly generic parts when piecing storage subsystems together, and not being locked into a single vendor for all aspects of the storage is a plus.”

NAU is already planning to move more of its existing conventional storage onto NexentaStor. “Having gained back so much space, [we want to] further leverage the licensing we currently have,” Kreidl says. “This will also make overall storage management easier. If we need more space, we can readily add on capacity by purchasing additional licensing.”

The results that Northern Arizona University is seeing with SDS are what will likely gain more attention for software-defined solutions, as a growing number of organizations look to increase the efficiency of their IT infrastructures.

About the Author

Bob Violino, a Baseline contributor, is a freelance writer and the editorial director at Victory Business Communications.

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