Software Defined, Hardware Independent… What Does that Really Mean? was published on LinkedIn, April 1

Micron’s announcement last week about exiting the 3D crosspoint market made me wonder what if a company like Panasonic decided to stop building batteries and how that would affect a company like Tesla that relies completely on them to build the batteries for their cars. Hypothetically, if Panasonic decided the battery building market wasn’t worth it anymore the negative impact on Tesla would be astronomic in terms of being able to meet their customer demands.

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For years enterprise consumers have had the freedom and flexibility to buy server hardware that met a minimum requirement for Virtual Infrastructure Software and Windows or Linux Servers. It’s a liberating feeling knowing that you can go talk to different vendors, find the hardware that you need, install your operating system and applications and just get to work. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case for other pieces of the IT infrastructure. Historically, storage vendors have and continue even today, to build systems that require you to buy their hardware and software together. Why do they do this when the rest of the tech world is relinquishing the chains that bind hardware and software together?

Customers deserve the ability to buy what they want, not what they are forced into. Sure some companies may take advantage of things like 3D Xpoint and integrate that into how their systems work but what happens when a company like Micron decides not to make that anymore? To my previous example, Tesla would have a massive problem if Panasonic just pulled out of the battery market. All of that R&D in software to take advantage of a piece of hardware becomes irrelevant and at the end of the day the customers suffer. Hardware Manufacturers have invested in a hardware platform with software that can only take advantage of that particular piece of hardware. Customers are forced to either continue to buy systems with hardware that may ultimately become obsolete or even worse be only built by a single manufacturer causing the price to increase exponentially while supply goes down equally.

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The question really becomes why build hardware centric products? The hardware, while important, shouldn’t be what makes the software valuable. Building software systems should be about what benefit customers can gain from using them. How does that software help solve their problems, does it allow customers to focus on driving value out of their business and not focusing on infrastructure? Being software defined or hardware independent should be the goal of all technology companies, especially those in the storage space. You might be asking yourself why. Simply because hardware is constantly changing, new advancements are coming into the market just as fast as legacy ones are exiting the market. Storage companies shouldn’t be building their software to take advantage of a single type of technology or storage medium because that is short sighted and risky. This poses a risk not only to their business but to the customers that entrust their data into those systems. 3D Xpoint is a very cool technology and there are storage companies building platforms around it, but in its current form, it just misses the mark. Storage Class Memory (SCM), as its referred to, could be leveraged in storage systems. The problem is in its packaging, the best way to use it could be as persistent memory not as a very expensive SSD.

Full disclosure, I work for Qumulo, an enterprise file data management company and this is exactly what we do. We build software that takes advantage of hardware to run on. But the beauty of our platform is that it’s not designed to run on any one particular piece of hardware. Our File Data Platform is built as an application that runs on a Linux OS and takes advantage of enterprise grade servers or cloud compute. Sure we have engineered our software to take full advantage of different classes of storage media, namely NVMe, SSD and HDDs, but we have certified our software to run in multiple clouds and on numerous server platforms from multiple hardware vendors, none of which are proprietary and closed. I view that as the way things should be built in the storage industry. Freedom to choose what hardware you want to buy or what cloud you want to run in without having to worry if it will work.

Data is what powers business decisions, medical advancements, media and entertainment and so many other things that society relies on. The heart of innovation for storage companies should be on creating intelligent software that leverages the advancements made by hardware companies while remaining independent of it. Building software systems that take advantage of a specific piece of hardware doesn’t work in a world that is rapidly evolving and constantly changing. Operating systems should handle the communication between the applications that live on them and the hardware that they live on. That’s what it means to be hardware independent when building and designing systems.

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Let’s step away from the storage industry for a second and look at what has happened in the music industry. Recording artists used to go to the studio to record multiple tracks, have them mastered and then a final product would be a vinyl record that could be played on a record player or for us new age music listeners, a turntable. But vinyl didn’t last, 8- tracks and cassette tapes took over. The music stayed the same but the physical media it was stored on and sold to listeners changed. What that meant for the consumer was that they needed to go out and buy a new piece of hardware to listen to that music on. Then came CDs and once again the tape player became obsolete and consumers had to buy something new to listen to the music on. A few years later the digitization of music happened and CD’s became a thing of the past and music no longer needed to be delivered on physical media at all. Fast forward to today you can buy an album or a single song from multiple services, store it in the cloud or on your own personal devices and listen to it on a number of different players, or you can bypass buying the music all together and listen to it on your favorite streaming service. My point here is that the music is the data that you care about, the physical media that plays it has and will continue to change, but why should you constantly need to buy new hardware to play it. Software has enabled you to listen to your music everywhere on any device you choose, not just one proprietary system.

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I liken enterprise storage systems being built today to that of the music industry. The data that you want to store should be written to a system that can move with you, to platforms that enable your data to help you make business decisions and drive value into your organization. It shouldn’t be something that you are constantly worried about being gouged over because there is only one vendor in the market that can manufacture it. Data should be portable, you should be able to pick the approved hardware platform or cloud provider and deploy the software to the platform of your choice. Don’t allow yourself to be forced into buying a cassette player that you are going to have to replace in a few years. Rather, invest in innovation that is software-defined and provides a proven track record of providing you freedom and choice to leverage new hardware innovation without being forced to throw away what you had and start all over again.

Being software defined doesn’t mean you have to provide a minimum system requirement. It means you have to design your software to run on commodity, easily procured hardware systems, that all OS’s support. When you do that you can truly say that you are a system that is Software Defined and Hardware Independent! This is what Qumulo has given our customers, the freedom and flexibility to choose what platform or cloud to run our software on.

This blog was published on LinkedIn, April 1, 2021

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