Choosing hardware vs. software storage optimization isn't hard

Hardware and software storage optimization tools accomplish the same goal in different ways. With software optimization, you get a tool that works with your hardware. If you buy a hardware product, you pay someone else to design the storage backend.

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People often ask whether software or hardware-based storage optimization is better. What people fail to realize is that the hardware tools still use software. There isn't some magical way to build storage hardware that works perfectly with VDI, but combining hardware and software saves the day. Really, software and hardware storage optimization do the same thing.

To me, the biggest benefit of storage optimization is that data is optimized before it's placed on primary storage. This requires less storage overall. If the data is optimized after it's committed to primary storage -- as is the case with traditional deduplication -- you need a lot more capacity. With VDI storage optimization, you need less primary storage. This means you can either deliver virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) for less money than before, or you can deliver a much better user experience for the same amount of money.

So why are there software-only companies and hardware companies? There are about two dozen ways to skin this cat. Almost every vendor offers some level of caching. Others add tiered storage -- where the data is placed on storage with different price points based on priority -- and deduplication.

With the software-only companies, the storage system itself is up to you. Many tools are drop-in, relatively simple installs that use your existing storage system. These provide a sort of instant gratification no matter what storage you use, but they don't necessarily provide the best possible performance. In general, software companies are in the business of bailing out VDI implementations that have stalled because of storage constraints.

Don't get me wrong. It is possible to get an excellent storage optimization system based on software tools. Each of them has a reference architecture to get the best possible bang for your buck, which usually involves a certain amount of SSD storage and RAM, plus less expensive tiers for the less-important data operations.

Hardware-based storage optimization companies see this as an opportunity to add more value by making decisions about storage themselves. Make no mistake, they too have software optimization as part of their product, but they also incorporate the storage components into a package that you can drop into your data center and scale out as needed. In many cases, this is cheaper than a SAN and it saves you the headache of planning and implementing your own storage system from scratch -- they've done the hard work for you.

Just keep in mind as you look at storage optimization products that the hardware companies don't have some magic hardware technology that nobody else has figured out. They're doing their optimizations with software, too. When you choose a hardware VDI storage optimization tool, you're simply paying to have someone else design the storage backend.

As for which one you should choose, that's tricky. I'm inclined to try the easy option first -- like a drop-in software product -- to see if that gets me the performance I need. The allure of plug and play is just too great to pass up. If that failed, then I'd start looking at other options, working my way up to something that requires migrating my data to a new storage system. But even that isn't the end of the world. After all, we're talking about virtualized desktops here, so it's likely just a matter of changing which storage each desktop pool is assigned to.

The real answer is that it doesn't matter. Any storage optimization tool that gives you the performance your environment needs is the one for you. If you don't want to worry about specking out the hardware, go for an all-in-one product. If you have good storage hardware and need a boost, try out the software. If you have garbage storage hardware or your existing system isn't flexible enough for your needs, look at a hardware option.

Next Steps

Why data storage optimization is the first step to efficiency

Everything you need to know about primary storage optimization

How to handle unstructured data growth with primary storage optimization

This was first published in June 2014

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