Nutanix Glossary

What is Software-Defined Storage?

April 30, 2024 | min

What is software-defined storage?

Software-defined storage is a storage system that does not rely on the underlying hardware. Instead, the software is used to manage data. While most data storage products do require both software and hardware to function—with the software serving as the management component to control and monitor the hardware and storage tasks—software-defined storage differs.

Software-defined storage describes products that run on commodity server hardware without any specially built hardware components. In this way, software-defined storage solutions are better suited to cut costs than a traditional hardware-dependent storage product.

By abstracting resources from the hardware, businesses enjoy improved flexibility, performance efficiency, and easier scalability. Storage resources lend themselves better to programming in this way, and they become key components of a software-driven datacenter. As a result, these resources are much easier to automate compared to those living in siloed infrastructure.


2023 Gartner® Magic Quadrant™ for Distributed File Systems and Object Storage

Types of software-defined storage

Software-defined storage is a rather general term, and because of that, identifying types of SDS products can be unclear. However, there are several generally recognized categories under the software-defined storage umbrella.

  • Block, file, and object storage - This category uses a distributed server cluster to support the three main varieties of storage solutions—block, file, and object. Along with a unified management system, this storage method allows businesses to use whichever method they prefer.

  • Scale-out object - This system creates and allocates a unique identifier to the object. Some object storage solutions can support file access as well, including NFS and SMB.

  • Scale-out block - Using x86 server nodes, block storage products cluster these nodes into a single system. The result is businesses can enjoy coherent communication between nodes. 

  • Scale-out file - The earliest software-defined storage category, this creates highly available scale-out file shares to use with file-driven application storage.

  • Storage virtualization - This system takes hardware-based storage solutions across various locations and creates a single storage device that can be used and monitored through a single management platform.

  • Hyperconverged infrastructure - By merging separate servers, storage networks and storage arrays into a distributed cluster of compute and storage resources running on commodity servers, hyperconverged infrastructure delivers businesses a single, streamlined way to manage and scale storage needs.

How does software-defined storage work?

Storage virtualization is a critical component for software-defined storage to work. Storage virtualization is used to separate storage hardware and storage management software, which often also includes policy management for replication, snapshot and backup purposes. As mentioned, software-defined storage creates a consolidated virtual pool for disk arrays. From there, virtual disks are formed and appear as local unit numbers (LUNs) in a host server.

What is the need for software-defined storage?

While software-defined storage prospects might see the value of adopting the solution, businesses must consider the benefits as well as the risks associated with sticking to a legacy, hardware-based storage strategy. It's crucial for businesses to understand that there is a breaking point with traditional storage solutions. The emergence of more complex applications with unique demands, a substantial increase in data volume putting pressure on traditional storage, and expectations of what a storage strategy can and should do are changing. Unfortunately, despite these rising demands, business budgets are tighter.

Inevitably, a traditional storage approach will start to crumble under the pressure. Businesses need greater flexibility than legacy storage can provide. Even if an organization preemptively adds capacity before their storage needs arise, this approach is neither sustainable nor cost-effective in the long run.


IDC white paper on the business value of Nutanix Unified Storage

Why do businesses choose software-defined storage?

Businesses that have adopted software-defined storage enjoy much-needed advantages in everything from costs to scalability. Because software-defined storage can be used with an x86 server, businesses can realize improved flexibility when it comes to selecting IT managers and eliminate vendor lock-in challenges.

Without question, software-defined storage is an economic option for businesses hoping to reduce their CapEx expenditure. Since it exists on x86 servers, businesses do not have to fork out the costly expenses associated with proprietary SAN storage arrays. 

Furthermore, choosing a software-defined storage solution is an excellent way to deliver centralized intelligence to the datacenter. Since software-defined storage separates software intelligence from devices, administrative tasks are reduced, and businesses can leverage automated policies in their storage plans, enabling them to respond quickly as storage requirements shift.

What are the benefits of software-defined storage?

There are multiple benefits of adopting software-defined storage that are pushing more businesses to choose a hardware-neutral approach to storage. Because of its flexibility to deliver and digest various data storage options, businesses can leverage their data—not just store it—and realize better insights.

In addition, thanks to its automation capabilities, organizations can experience:

  • More dynamic storage provisioning - Software-defined storage enables workloads and storage to work cohesively, helping storage to scale as workload capacities change.

  • Intelligent storage usage - Software-defined storage is a flexible solution that supports new and legacy IT consumption models. Regardless of the type of infrastructure, software-defined storage allows agility on-premises, in the cloud, virtual desktops, and mobile devices.

  • Better control - Business requirements change day-to-day, and software-defined storage gives businesses the control they need to meet them. It can optimize infrastructure capabilities to meet storage standards.

  • Rapid scaling - As storage demands grow, businesses can leverage the tiered capacity of software-defined storage to provision storage on demand.

Software-defined storage use cases

Software-defined storage is quickly becoming a common choice for the majority of workloads, but here are some ways it is typically used.

  • Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI). Because VDI gives users access to desktops and data as though those resources were local to their devices, VDI requires centralized data – making SDS a vital component in VDI deployments.

  • Remote office/branch office (ROBO). Software-defined storage enhances ROBO locations because the centralized nature of software-defined storage helps make ROBO data accessible to the entire organization in real-time. Any user on the network can access that centralized data as needed, just as if it were stored on-site at their physical location.

  • Hybrid cloud implementations. With hybrid cloud, organizations typically have data running on-premises and in private and public clouds. Software-defined storage makes it simple to expand existing storage infrastructure to the cloud so that users can access data wherever it’s stored.

  • Internet of things (IoT) and other edge applications. IoT applications produce lots of data, which is collected from a wide range of sensors and other nodes. Edge computing also deals with large volumes of data at disparate touchpoints throughout a network. The cost-effectiveness of software-defined storage can be a plus when it comes to IoT and other edge applications. Software-defined storage allows organizations to store lots and lots of data using inexpensive commodity servers and disk drives instead of proprietary, pricey dedicated storage arrays.

  • Applications that require high availability. Centralized control and management of storage make it possible to use software-defined storage for applications that require high availability. Software-defined storage comes with some data protection features built into the software that hardware storage doesn’t have. This includes remote replication, mirroring, deduplication, and automatic failover between servers and clouds.

  • Archival storage. Thanks to its cost-effectiveness, software-defined storage gives organizations low-cost and amazingly reliable storage. By easily storing and managing data across hybrid cloud infrastructure, organizations can rebound quickly from unexpected hardware failures and other unforeseen downtimes.


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Integrating software-defined storage with cloud services

As organizations strive for enhanced agility with IT infrastructure, reliance solely on on-premises datacenters is shifting to hybrid and multicloud environments. Extending SDS to these environments means moving away from rigid architectures and welcoming a realm of flexibility that embraces the varied capabilities of cloud services. Organizations enjoy flexibility to store, access, and manage data across cloud services. A few key benefits include:

  • Easy data movement - SDS allows for the seamless movement of application data between different environments, making it easier to transition from on-premises tech to public cloud environments. This is particularly useful in hybrid cloud environments when used for cloud backups.

  • Single pane of glass management - SDS solutions can manage data across on-premises, public cloud, multicloud, and hybrid cloud environments from a single interface. This simplifies the management of data across all of these varied environments.

  • Emulation of enterprise storage features - Hybrid SDS solutions can emulate features of traditional on-premises storage solutions, allowing for a consistent experience across different environments.

Data movement and management across on-premises and cloud environments can be complex. The hurdles are real—from ensuring data consistency to maintaining access speeds, all while keeping costs in check. In addition to these, it’s important to understand different cloud providers’ protocols around data security and compliance.

Software-defined storage serves as a nimble bridge between your on-site infrastructure and cloud platforms. It's the glue that holds your data strategy together, the equalizer that adapts to the environment, and the orchestrator for moving your data from one environment to the next. So, while the data landscape becomes increasingly intricate, SDS stays in tune with your business needs, blending on-premises and cloud resources into one coherent and streamlined strategy.

Security and reliability

As with any storage environment, software-defined storage is subject to the same cybersecurity issues you already deal with, including:

  • Malware - Viruses, worms, and other malicious software can infiltrate systems and networks, causing damage or stealing data.

  • Phishing attacks - Cybercriminals attempt to trick users into revealing sensitive information or downloading malware to their devices.

  • Unauthorized access - Intruders may attempt to gain access to systems and networks without permission.

  • Denial-of-service (DoS) attacks - Attacks that aim to disrupt or disable services by overwhelming systems with traffic or requests.

There are also cybersecurity risks that are unique to SDS compared to traditional hardware-based storage systems. By separating (or abstracting) storage services from the hardware, SDS introduces a bit more complexity for those less experienced in managing these types of systems. This higher level of complexity can lead to configuration errors, for instance, which can introduce vulnerabilities, opening the door to possible security breaches.

It's not enough to prevent the bad actors from breaking in; we must also be adept at picking up the pieces if they do. With SDS, this means implementing a specific and comprehensive set of data protection measures – from encryption to access controls, and regular audits to anomaly detection. Here are a few ways to safeguard your architecture against security risks in a software-defined storage environment:

  • Focus on secure software delivery - Understand and manage the security settings of virtual machines or opt for packages which allow targeted updates.

  • Ensure host and hypervisor security - Secure hosts by firewalling ports, encrypting network services, and limiting process capabilities, while also safeguarding hypervisors from threats.

  • Vigilantly track logs and permissions - Utilize extensive logging and monitor permissions to quickly detect suspicious activities, especially in SDS control plane services, and conduct rigorous audits in multi-tenant environments.

  • Implement encryption – Encrypt data both at-rest, to protect discarded hardware, and in-transit, to secure data on public networks, using client-side or server-side encryption to prevent unauthorized data access.

  • Apply layers - Use logical layers to simplify cluster management while focusing on strong authentication and authorization policies, particularly in hyperconverged architectures.

Adopting these strategies will help create a more secure foundation for software-defined storage systems. With SDS, the goal is to keep your data assets reachable and intact, developing a robust plan for business continuity.

By leveraging the inherent flexibility of SDS, you can replicate data across diverse locations, ensuring that if one node falters, others are ready to pick up the slack. The strength of your storage solution lies in its ability to adapt, protect, and persist – securing your digital realm against the unknown challenges that lie ahead.

Nutanix software-defined storage solutions

As a global leader in cloud software and a pioneer in hyperconverged infrastructure solutions, Nutanix helps make computing invisible and simple. Our software-defined storage solutions deliver robust, highly scalable storage for all your private, hybrid, and multicloud environments. This includes: 

  • Nutanix Unified Storage – Built on clustered, shared-nothing nodes, this storage platform makes data management and scalability across environments simple.
  • Files Storage – From a single, scalable platform, Files Storage significantly reduces data fragmentation and storage sprawl.
  • Objects Storage – Get secure, S3-compatible object storage at a massive scale for big data, cloud-native applications, and deep archives.

Explore our top resources

Gartner®Magic Quadrant™ for Distributed File Systems and Object Storage

2023 Gartner® Magic Quadrant™ for distributed file systems and object storage


Files Storage Solution Brief

Nutanix Files solution brief

Consolidated Storage Services for Nutanix Private Cloud

Consolidated storage services for Nutanix private cloud

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