VDI storage optimization's secret sauce is software

There are only so many hardware manufacturers in the world, so most hardware-based storage optimization products are very similar. Even when you buy hardware for storage optimization, you're really buying the software.

The desktop virtualization questions that come up most often usually have to do with problems without solutions or problems with too many solutions. Storage optimization is one of the latter.

The list of vendors with products that promise to optimize your storage for VDI exceeds a dozen and is still growing.No two products are identical. Some are software only and they work with you existing storage hardware, whereas others are hardware platforms that replace your existing desktop storage. It's that differentiation that leads to one of the most often-asked questions about VDI storage: "Which is better, hardware or software?"

Hardware vs. software storage optimization

When we're talking about companies and products, we're actually talking at a very high level about storage. The vendors that offer hardware-based platforms aren't very different from one another at a low level; hardware is hardware is hardware. Is there a difference between the hardware Nutanix and SimpliVity use?  Probably, but it's likely not as much as you'd think.

There are only so many manufacturers of computer and storage hardware in the world, so while there is a never-ending list of SKUs that could be included in each hardware platform, the manufacturers (and their processes) stay the same.

There are three manufacturers of magnetic storage in the entire world: Seagate Technology LLC, Western Digital Technologies, Inc., and Toshiba. That's it! Quite literally, any disk platform you purchase that has a spinning disk in it has hardware that comes from one of those three companies.

Solid-state disk (SSD) manufacturers actually outnumber magnetic storage manufacturers by 2:1. There are six in the world: Samsung, Intel, SanDisk Corp., SK Hynix, Inc., Micron Technology, Inc. and Toshiba. Together, these companies account for all the SSD in all the storage arrays, laptops and desktops in the world.

Last, there are two manufacturers of x86 and x64 processors in the world: Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (AMD). Combine all those names together and you have total of nine companies world-wide that make hardware used in storage (Intel and Toshiba are listed twice). The end result is that the hardware you're buying from the so-called "hardware" storage vendors simply can't be that different from one to another.

What you're really buying, no matter which vendor you choose, is software. If you choose a hardware-based product, you're buying your storage optimization software along with a handy container to carry it home, but make no mistake, the secret sauce in any storage optimization product is in the software.

So back to the question: Which platform should you choose, hardware or software? My own personal take is that there's nothing wrong with a hardware-based platform, but the migration path is more complex because you have to move around the data. So, if you have a problem to solve right now you can typically do it faster with a software-only product. You can always implement one now, then evaluate whether or not a hardware-based (or even converged or hyper-converged) platform is right for you the next time you refresh your VDI environment.

If you're starting from scratch, you have a lot of choices to make. The biggest mistake people make when evaluating storage is planning for what they have right now rather than what they expect the environment to grow to. You might not think you need a software-defined, hyper-converged platform that does compute and storage now, but unless you know that your environment is going to stay small for the next five years, you should at least check it out along with all the other options.

After all, the fact that you use something is the most important thing. You're buying software, so pick the software you like best. If it happens to come with hardware, great. But if not, that's OK too.

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