Storage has been confined to hardware appliance form factors for far too long.  Over the past two decades, innovation in the storage space has transitioned from proprietry hardware controllers and processors to proprietary software running on commodity X86 hardware.  The hardware driving backup appliances, NAS systems, iSCSI arrays, and object storage systems, are often quite similar in terms of processors and components, yet despite this fact I&O professionals are still used to purchasing single purpose systems which lock customers into a technology stack. 

Over the past few years, companies such as HP (StoreVirtual VSA), Nexenta, Sanbolic and Maxta have released software-only storage offerings to complete head to head with proprietrary hardware appliances, and have found some success with cost conscious enterprises and service providers.  The software-only storage revolution is now ready for primetime with startup offerings now reaching maturity and established players such as IBM, EMC and NetApp jumping into the market.

I&O professionals should consider software only storage since: 

The storage technology acquisition process is broken.  Any storage purchase you complete today will be bound to your datacenter for the next 3 to 5 years.  When business stakeholders and clients need storage resources for emerging use cases such as object storage and flash storage, these parties often do not have the luxury of time to wait for storage teams to complete RFPs and product evaluations.  With software-only storage access to new technology can be accelerated to meet the provisioning velocity needs of customers.

Software can provide elasticity.  While many storage vendors have created elastic sales models for arrays to allow for online expansion, at this point elasticity is one sided since there is no way to make an array resource disappear after it has been activated.  Early adopters of software-only storage in the service provider space have benefited from elastic OPEX pricing, which allows the providers to only pay for the storage resources they consume, to gain cloud-like elasticity. 

Commodity hardware pricing can lower costs.  Today even the high end systems sold by market share leaders such as NetApp and EMC, are difficult to distinguish from standard servers once you get past the fancy bezels and get under the hood.  Given this market dynamic, now is the right time to start treating storage technology more like an application and leverage commodity pricing of hardware components such as flash SSDs which are often less expensive than storage media sourced from an enterprise storage vendor.

Software-only storage will be making a big splash at the upcoming VMworld 2014 show, with several vendors demonstrating their wares.  For more information on software-only storage, see Forrester's market overview report on Software-only Storage.