Storage ecosystem modelling

Steve Tongish - director of marketing EMEA at Plasmon Data, looks at lessons to be learned from nature when designing a data storage strategy.

The world of data storage can be a confusing place. There is not only a wide range of storage technologies with different attributes, but these technologies are also being implemented in many different combinations.

This situation makes it very difficult to sort through the hype from the technology vendors and find storage solutions that meet the unique needs of each business.
 
In trying to put storage technologies into perspective, it is possible to use the natural world as a model. After all, a natural ecosystem offers a framework that we all understand and can provide a very helpful way to examine storage technologies and their architecture.

Just as nature teaches us lessons about ecosystems with biodiversity, we can also draw some very interesting conclusions about storage technology ecosystems and the benefits of ‘techno diversity’.
 
We should begin by looking at the elements that make up an ecosystem. The three main natural building blocks are species, populations and communities. It is these elements and their relationships that will allow us to examine what is essential for a healthy ecosystem.

Species

In the natural world a species is defined as an 'interbreeding organism', representing both plant and animal life and is the starting point for all ecosystems. While storage technologies don't interbreed in the same way, a storage species can be compared to technology categories including magnetic disk, magnetic tape and optical.
 
A natural ecosystem is made up of many species, each with a unique role to play within the overall environment and species within a storage ecosystem are no different.

As a storage species, magnetic disks provide performance, tapes provide capacity at a low cost and optical technology provides media longevity and data authenticity.
 
All species have genetic variations that offer slightly different attributes while still performing that same role. For example, there are many different types of flowers and insects and there is also a range of disk, tape and optical technologies.

Genetic variations for storage species include fibre channel, SCSI and SATA for disk; LTO, DLT and AIT for tape and CD, DVD and UDO for optical. Just as in the natural world, it cannot be said that one storage species variation is better or worse than another.

The variations exist for a purpose and it is important to recognise the specific purpose in order to take full advantage of the technology benefits.

Populations

The second building block in an ecosystem is a population, which is a group of individuals belonging to a given species.

Populations provide the first level of interaction within and external to a species and are essential for survival and evolution. Storage populations can best be seen when technology species are combined together in order to expand their role.

Two good examples are RAID systems that combine disk technology to provide greater system resilience and tape / optical libraries that offer increased system capacity and automated media management.
 
Populations also facilitate interbreeding that creates the genetic diversity between species. Storage technologies reflect this through species hybrids that have been developed for specific applications.

These include disk to disk configurations for tiered storage and backup, disk to tape for managed recovery and disk to optical for higher performance archival storage.
 
Population interbreeding is the driving force behind species evolution. Plants and animals are in a constant state of change with some variations struggling to survive and others succeeding through the exploitation of an environmental niche.

Storage technologies go through the same development process as a result of interaction with other technologies and the identification of market opportunities.

As with plants and animals, storage technology is also subject to a process of natural selection, but with success defined by technical competence and market acceptance.

Communities

The final level of hierarchy within an ecosystem is a community, which reflects the interaction of all populations in the system. The concept of communities is extremely important since it illustrates the strength of species diversity and the interrelationship of populations.

In a natural ecosystem, communities describe both subtle and overt dependencies. The most obvious example of this interaction in the natural world is a 'food web' that can be defined by a multidimensional food chain between and among populations.

Apart from eating each other there are other equally important, but more subtle relationships that are essential to the health and survival of the populations within the system.
 
In a storage ecosystem, community behaviour can be seen through the network connectivity of different storage technologies and the efficient management of that infrastructure.

It is here that we see the development of specialized architectures such as direct attached storage (DAS), network attached storage (NAS) and storage attached networks (SAN) in combination with storage resource management (SRM) applications.

Each architecture provides a different way of sharing and storing data that is optimized for specific application requirements (e.g. databases vs. unstructured data).
 
Natural food webs provide an excellent corollary with data and document workflows. Not only do food webs and document workflows take on very similar graphical structures, but their relationships are also critical to the success of an ecosystem.

We can all imagine how a natural ecosystem cannot succeed without an efficient and diverse food web and the same is true regarding document workflows in a storage ecosystem.

Within the IT world it is too easy to detach business policies and procedures from the IT infrastructure, but as nature demonstrates so clearly, relationships are intrinsically linked with species.

It is essential to understand the data and document workflow of a business in order to create a successful storage infrastructure.

The ecosystem

While species, populations and communities make up an ecosystem, the system itself has its own dynamic that cannot be ignored. Ecosystems thrive on biodiversity and are in a constant state of change.

Ecosystems consist of biotic communities (plants and animals) and abiotic factors (outside influences), which can cause dramatic ecosystem disruption.
 
In a storage ecosystem the biotic communities consist of hardware, software and people and the abiotic factors include business requirements, financial constraints, regulatory compliance and corporate policy. Just as the biotic community is in a constant state of change, the abiotic factors are also a moving target.

In addition, we must factor in external disruptive considerations such as natural disasters, for example fire or flood, and corporate change as a result of acquisitions, contract awards, litigation and so on.

Ecosystem lessons

While any analogy can be taken to an extreme, natural ecosystems do offer a very interesting perspective. There are some clear lessons that we can learn from the natural world, which can be of great benefit to a storage strategy.

  1. Each species has a role to play
    Disk, tape and optical storage have each been developed for specific purposes with their own strengths and weaknesses. The fundamental attributes of a technology cannot be ignored. The most robust storage strategies leverage the strengths of different technologies to meet a range of business requirements.
  2. Species evolve and change
    Don't expect any technology to last forever. When designing a storage ecosystem, the best you can hope for is to reduce the frequency of species change. To maximize the longevity of a technology, look for products with a proven track record and well-defined future roadmap.
  3. Complex food web relationships provide resilience
    It is essential to understand data and document workflow and to integrate policies and procedures into the storage ecosystem. The more that workflow processes are integrated into a storage strategy, the less dependent it will be on a specific technology, bringing greater resilience to the entire system.
  4. High biodiversity creates system stability
    Techno diversity is a key element to ecosystem stability. Just as a natural ecosystem cannot exist with a single species, a stable storage ecosystem cannot be defined with one technology. Beware of vendors selling a panacea solution that employs a single technology. While these approaches can be seductive, they contradict the fundamental nature of the technology and limit diversity, weakening the overall ecosystem. A strategy that embraces techno diversity can meet business requirements while being less susceptible to major system disruption.
  5. Ecosystems are in a constant state of change
    Expect and plan for change. This can come from species evolution, abiotic factors or ecosystem disruption. A robust storage ecosystem should be aware of and take into account as many of these considerations as possible.

The single most important theme that emerges from ecosystem modelling is the benefit that diversity brings to the picture. While this may seem counter-intuitive since the IT world is often focused on consolidation, it is essential to strike a balance between operational efficiency and intelligent techno diversity.

Streamlining an infrastructure to the point where diversity is compromised actually endangers the long-term viability of the entire environment.
 
A successful storage ecosystem embraces an appropriate range of technologies, applications and processes. For example, using the performance of RAID for primary storage and the longevity and authenticity of UDO for archive records capitalizes on the strengths of both technologies.

Defining the policies and procedures to meet regulatory requirements and corporate risk guidelines enables proper document management through structured workflow. The technology species, the combined populations and the community relationships must all play their part for the ecosystem to survive.

As organisations struggle to develop storage solutions that meet their business needs, it can be very easy to lose sight of the overall vision that holds a strategy together. A natural ecosystem model offers a very tangible and intuitive way of visualising the goals of a strategy and keeping those goals in check.

It is no small task to develop and manage a storage environment, but using lessons of the natural world offers a perspective that makes this task a little less complex.

Plasmon Data exhibited at Storage Expo 2006, London, 18 - 19 October 2006

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