In 2015, IBM announced that it would spend $1 billion on software-defined storage (SDS) R&D over the coming five years. Recent enhancements in its SDS portfolio — namely the IBM Spectrum Storage family — reflect how that ongoing investment is benefiting storage users and IBM customers.

IBM Spectrum Storage family: Responding to changing times

Regarding IBM’s Spectrum Storage family, recall what SDS is and why just one product won’t do. SDS decouples the software that manages storage from the underlying physical storage hardware. That increases the flexibility of deployment. So customers can choose to use software-only with virtually any heterogeneous storage systems, i.e., not necessarily IBM storage, although all or part of the mix could include IBM equipment.

A second SDS deployment model is with an appliance. In the case of selected IBM Spectrum Storage products, the software can be sold with specific IBM hardware making it a more traditional approach, but it also means that the software can take fuller advantage of the underlying physical hardware. An example is the tight coupling of the IBM DeepFlash 150 with IBM Spectrum Scale that results in a high-capacity, all-flash (meaning high performance) system (called DeepFlash Elastic Storage Server) with the scale-out file management capabilities. A third SDS deployment model is as the foundation of a cloud service. Since the “cloud” in its many permutations and manifestations continues to proliferate applications and data, SDS can provide the support needed for accompanying storage systems.

But why the need for multiple products? The answer is that the variety of applications and data types continues to explode in numerous dimensions, all of them additive with none taken away. Traditional block-based, structured data online transaction processing systems and file-based systems, such as for semi-structured data as document management, are still critically important. But now, big data, Internet of Things, Web-based applications, and mobile applications are taking center stage, as well.

IBM itself is making a push beyond big data to greater analytics with its Watson cognitive platform. Add in the fact that most data is now either semi-structured or unstructured rather than structured, and the push is on to manage much of storage as objects rather than just as blocks or files. The practical effects of these burgeoning use cases is for multiple storage products because no single offering can handle all requirements. The Spectrum Storage family is IBM’s response to these dramatically changing times.

IBM Spectrum Storage family now has eight products

The IBM Spectrum Storage family consists of eight SDS-based products. The original six products are: Spectrum Control (policy-driven data and storage management), Spectrum Protect (data protection-focused), Spectrum Virtualize (virtualized storage pools and common function), Spectrum Archive (storing active archive data on tape), Spectrum Accelerate (scale-out enterprise block storage), and Spectrum Scale (scale-out file and object storage).

The two newest members of the family are: IBM Cloud Object Storage (geo-dispersed hybrid cloud object storage) and Spectrum CDM (copy data management). On top of this, IBM Spectrum Storage Suite provides a single licensing model for all of these offerings. See http://mesabigroup.com/ibms-spectrum-storage-now-a-suite-not-just-a-family/ for more background on the IBM Spectrum Storage Suite.

IBM’s Spectrum Storage investments – A closer look

IBM’s most recent update of its Spectrum Storage SDS products discusses where it is investing its money. But first we need a little perspective. What is happening now that reflects some of IBM’s storage R&D (make) or acquisition (buy) investment of $1 billion spread over five years? Note that originally the products in the Spectrum Storage family came from different code bases, so they formed an “extended” family rather than a “genetically-related” family. This meant that the user experience, for example, the look and feel when using the user interface (UI) was different for each product. As a result, actions taken in one product could not affect any result from another product, which means that they were independent (i.e., non-integrated) products.

However, while genetics of biological family members are generally fixed and common, (although CRISPR—clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats—for targeted genome editing is changing all of that), that limitation does not apply to code bases. In what might be called CRISPR-for-software, the code bases of different software products can be edited and modified to come more into a shared “genetic” heritage (although since each product has its own distinct role, they are more like “cousins” that share some similarities rather than as “siblings” that are very similar genetically). The investments are designed to make the Spectrum Storage more “genetically” alike.

One area of IBM’s investment is to use its Storage Design Language (SDL) to create a consistent user experience (for example, a common look and feel that reduces the learning curve when using more than one product) that will be extended to all members of the IBM Spectrum Storage family. This is very much a work in progress with at least some SDL updates planned for Q2 2017 and support for all products planned for Q4 2017.

Another area of investment is in integration that means product offerings designed to work together. Spectrum Scale with Spectrum Protect is a natural fit, since data stored in a scale-out manner needs strong data protection. Spectrum Scale with Cloud Object Storage is also a natural fit as now Spectrum Scale can integrate its object storage capabilities in the cloud. Integrating the data and storage management of Spectrum Control with the block storage management in Spectrum Accelerate seems very much commonsensical.

The hybrid cloud is also an area of emphasis for IBM. The hybrid cloud is supported through the portfolio with equal access to on-premises, private and public cloud.

Selected product enhancements include;

  • Spectrum Virtualize — a software-only version was made available last year primarily for service providers who use x86-based servers starting with Lenovo servers; this release also enables Supermicro servers; the software-only version allows service providers to build new offerings, such as disaster recovery as a service; on the one hand this would seem to be a small target audience, but on the other hand it means that IBM is about identifying clear — even if small — targeted opportunities where it might have a dominant competitive advantage with little investment (as providing the stand-alone software version is probably fairly easy).
  • Spectrum Control Storage Insights — this cloud-based version of Spectrum Control now offers software-as-a-service (SaaS) analytics for Dell EMC storage systems — namely, VNX, VNXe, and VMAX — where Dell EMC customers can see such things as which volumes can be re-tiered, future capacity requirements, and allocated but unused storage that can be reclaimed; this appears to be a camel’s-nose-in-the-tent approach (if we can do this for you, think of what else we can do for you) by IBM. In addition, it also allows IBM to provide alternative services to its mainframe and Power System customers who are using Dell EMC hardware.
  • Spectrum Accelerate — drive-based data-at-rest encryption for deployment on premises or in the cloud to meet compliance or regulatory needs is now available; this is probably a key check mark for selected companies for block-based storage management.
  • Cloud Object Storage — unified NFS/object storage allows users to store data in a file system on object storage via NFS (Network File System); this enables customers to now use familiar NFS-based NAS while being able to take advantage of cloud-based object storage capabilities.
  • IBM Spectrum Storage Suite — Spectrum Virtualize for x86 servers and Cloud Object Storage software are now part of the Suite; this enables customers even more flexibility as needs change.

Mesabi musings

Diversity has become the name of the game in storage as the use cases for applications and data proliferate, such as sensor-driven IoT, content-driven mobile computing, and searching, buying, streaming, and socializing Web computing. That diversity is reflected in the need for multiple software-defined storage products, and that is what IBM is responding to with its Spectrum Storage family of SDS solutions.

These newest offerings underscore IBM’s plan to continually enhance the Spectrum Storage family. Providing a consistent user experience through application of its Storage Design Language for all products in the portfolio is an example. Enabling selected products to work more closely with each other (i.e., integration) is another example.

That IBM strives to “outthink” (as its current marketing campaign stresses) its competition is reflected in the breadth and depth of its SDS portfolio. The result of the company’s wise investments is clear in the new Spectrum Storage enhancements that should pay dividends for both IBM and its enterprise customers.