Storage area networks (SAN) are used most often in the enterprise world. In many enterprises, you will see racks filled with these large storage arrays. They are mainly used to provide a centralized storage platform with limited scalability. They require special training to operate, are expensive to purchase, support, or expand, and if those devices fail, there is big trouble.
Some people might say SAN devices are a necessary evil. But are they really necessary? Aren’t there alternatives?
Most startups nowadays are running their services on commodity hardware, with smart software to distribute their content across server farms globally. Current, well established, and successful companies that run websites or apps like Whatsapp, Facebook, or LinkedIn continue to operate pretty much the same way they started. They need the ability to scale and perform at unpredictable rates all around the world, so they use commodity hardware combined with smart software. These types of companies need the features that SAN storage offers them—but with more scalable, global resiliency, and without being centralized or having to buy expensive hardware. But how do they provide server access to the same data, and how do they avoid data loss?
The answer is actually quite simple, although its technology is quite sophisticated: distributed storage.
In a world where virtualization has become a standard for most companies, where even applications and networking are being virtualized, virtualization giant VMware answers this question with Virtual SAN. It effectively eliminates the need for SAN hardware in a VMware environment (and it will also be available for purchase from SoftLayer before the end of the year). Other similar distributed products are GlusterFS (also offered in our QuantaStor solution), Ceph, Microsoft Windows DFS, Hadoop HDFS, document-oriented databases like MongoDB, and many more.
Many solutions, however, vary in maturity. Object storage is a great example of a new type of storage that has come to market, which doesn’t require SAN devices. With SoftLayer, you can and may run them all.
When you have bare metal servers set up as hypervisors or application servers, it’s likely you have a lot of drive bays within those servers, mostly unused. Stuffing them with hard drives and allowing the software to distribute your data across multiple servers in multiple locations with two or three replicas will result in a big, safe, fast, and distributed storage platform. For such a platform, scaling it would be just adding more bare metal servers with even more hard drives and letting the software handle the rest.
Nowadays we are seeing more and more hardware solutions like SAN—or even networking—being replaced with smarter software on simpler and more affordable hardware. At SoftLayer, we offer month-to-month and hourly bare metal servers with up to 36 drive bays, potentially providing a lot of room for storage. With 10Gbps global connectivity options, we offer fast, low latency networking for syncing between servers and delivering data to the customer.