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Given the continuing growth of the amount of data businesses must store and manage, it often appears that storage solution providers have to resort to magic tricks to make some of the required capacity disappear while keeping the data available.
One of those "tricks" is actually the greatest act of prestidigitation in the IT industry: thin provisioning, which gives applications the illusion that they have much more capacity than is actually available.
Thin provisioning is a type of storage virtualization which allows a storage administrator to allocate more capacity to specific applications or users than is physically available under the assumption that not all those applications and users will need the entire allocated space simultaneously. This allows extra physical capacity to be installed at a later date as the total amount of space actually used approaches the current installed capacity.
The availability of thin provisioning technology is expanding throughout the storage industry as vendors large and small make it available to partners and customers.
For instance, Hewlett-Packard last year acquired enterprise storage vendor 3PAR in part because of its industry-leading thin provisioning technology.
HP this year even added thin provisioning capability to its EVA storage array line, a line that has been in the market since 2001.
At the other end of the spectrum, Data Robotics, manufacturers of the Drobo-line of SOHO storage appliances, in February added automated thin provisioning to its SMB storage appliances, a move which the company's own executive called "unusual" for SMB storage.
In addition, thin provisioning has become an expected part of nearly every offering from startup storage vendors.
For instance, Pure Storage, a Mountain View, Calif.-based startup developer of storage arrays designed specifically as an all-Flash memory storage appliance, last month unveiled is first array, which included thin provisioning among its feature set.
Another startup implementing thin provisioning is SolidFire, a Boulder, Colo.-based developer of SSD storage technology combined with scale-out storage architecture used to increase performance when multiple users attempt to access cloud-based storage.
Thin provisioning has become a standard check-box feature for storage, said Greg Knieriemen, vice president of marketing at Chi, a Cleveland, Ohio-based solution provider.
"There's an expectation that the solution will include it," Knieriemen said.
However, Knieriemen is not so sure that thin provisioning will catch up on in SMBs. "Smaller environments don't really need it," he said. "It's like arguing why you need deduplication in a 4-TB box. Just buy another hard drive."
Thin provisioning is typically baked into the cost of the array, and usually there is no charge to turn it on, Knieriemen said. "It used to be a licensable feature, but not now," he said.
The difference between vendors in regards to thin provisioning lies in how good their capacity alerts are as the applications reach 75 percent to 80 percent of their provisioned capacity, Knieriemen said.
"When applications meet the thresholds, they need the appropriate alerts," he said. "Are the alerts e-mail-based? Phone home? A big red light on the box that flashes to say you better add more capacity now?"
Thin provisioning is a great way to talk to customers about their return on investment, or ROI, said Dave Butler, president of Enterprise Computing Solutions, a Mission Viejo, Calif.-based solution provider.
"The key is to move the dialogue beyond the feature to the ROI," Butler said. "If a customer says, 'I calculated I need 40 TBs,' you can say, 'No, you maybe need only 25 TBs.'"
Next: Taking Advantage of Thin Provisioning