A Paean to NFS

It is certainly encouraging to see both NAS protocols, NFS and SMB, featured well in the latest VMware® vSAN 7 Update 1 release. The NFS v3 and v4.1 support was already in vSAN 7.0 when it was earlier announced as part of its Native File Services for vSAN. But some years ago, NFS was not always the primary storage protocol of choice. SAN protocols, Fibre Channel and iSCSI, were almost always designated to serve enterprise applications. At the client side, Windows became prominent, and the SMB/CIFS protocol dominated the landscape of the desktop. This further pushed NFS into the back closet.

NFS or Network File System has its naysayers. The venerable, but often maligned distributed network file protocol is 36 years today. In storage vendors such as NetApp®, VAST Data, Pure Storage FlashBlade, and Dell EMC Isilon, NFS is still positioned as the primary file protocol for manufacturing testers on the shop floor, EDA/eCAD applications, seismic and subsurface applications in Oil & Gas and many more. In another development, just like its presence in the vSAN Native Services,, NFS has also quietly embedded itself into many storage platforms to serve the data platform services within the respective framework itself.

And I have experienced NFS from the client side to the enterprise applications and more, and I take this opportunity to pay tribute.

NFS (Network File System) client server network

NFS (Network File System) client server network

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FreeNAS 11.2 & 11.3 eBook

[ Full disclosure: I work for iXsystems™ Inc. This eBook was 3/4 completed when I joined on July 1, 2020 ]

I am releasing my FreeNAS™ eBook today. It was completed about 4 weeks ago, but I wanted the release date to be significant which is August 31, 2020.

FreeNAS logo

Why August 31st? Because today is Malaysia’s Independence Day.

Why the book?

I am an avid book collector. To be specific, IT and storage technology related books. Since I started working on FreeNAS™ several years ago, I wanted to find a book to learn. But the FreeNAS™ books in the market are based on an old version of FreeNAS™. And the FreeNAS™ documentation is a User Guide where it explains every feature without going deeper with integration of real life networking services, and situational applications such as SMB or NFS client configuration.

Since I have been doing significant amount of feature “testings” of FreeNAS™ from version 9.10 till the present version 11,3 on Virtualbox™, I have decided to fill that gap. I have decided to write a cookbook-style FreeNAS™ on Virtualbox™ that covers most of the real-life integration work with various requirements including Active Directory, cloud integration and so on. All for extending beyond the FreeNAS™ documentation.

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The instant value of Open Source Storage

[ Full disclosure: I work for iXsystems™ . Opinions and views are mine. ]

TrueNAS Open Storage logo

The story began …

It was 2011. A friend of a friend called me out of the blue. He was rambling about his company’s storage needs. I recalled vividly that he wanted 100TB, and Dell and HP (before HPE) were hopeless doing NAS (network attached storage) in an Apple environment. They assembled a Frankenstein-ish NAS and plastered a price over MYR$100K around it.

In his environment, the Apple workstations were connected to dozens of WD Cloud Book storage (whatever it was called back then), daisy chained via Firewire to each other. I recalled one workstation had 3 WD “books” daisy chained together. They got the exploding storage needs but performance sucked. With every 2nd or 3rd user, access to files were at a snail pace, taking up to more than 2 minutes to open a file sometimes.

At that time, my old colleague at Sun was fervently talking about ZFS and OpenSolaris™. I told him about this opportunity, and so we began. It was him who used the word “crafter”. “We are not building“, he said, “we are crafting“. He was right.

OpenSolaris logo

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The prudence needed for storage technology companies

Blitzscaling has been on my mind a lot. Ever since I discovered that word a while back, it has returned time and time again to fill my thoughts. In the wake of COVID-19, and in the mire of this devastating pandemic, is blitzscaling still the right strategy for this generation of storage technology, hyperconverged, data management and cloud storage startups?

What the heck is Blitzscaling? 

For the uninformed, here’s a video of Reid Hoffman, co-founder of Linked and a member of the Paypal mafia, explaining Blitzscaling.

Blitzscaling is about hyper growing, scaling ultra fast and rocketing to escape velocity, at the expense of things like management efficiency, financial prudence, profits and others. While this blog focuses on storage companies, blitzscaling is probably most recognizable in the massive expansion of Uber (and contraction) a few years ago. In the US, the ride hailing war is between Uber and Lyft, but over here in South East Asia, just a few years back, it was between Uber and Grab. In China it was Uber and Didi.

From the storage angle, 2 segments exemplified the blitzscaling culture between 2015 and 2020.

  • All Flash Startups
  • Hyper Converged Infrastructure Startups

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FUDs for Real

We human beings hate losing. It puts a psychological anxiety of not having to own and we are missing out on something. That “some thing” could be adulation, attention, rewards and many other things that seem to enrich our superficial lives. FOMO (fear of missing out) is real, ladies and gentlemen.

When we see a sign like the one below, what do you think is going through our mind?

Limited Time Offer

Limited Time Offer sign

OMG! I got to get it because the deal is for a limited time only! It will never happen again in my lifetime and I gotta buy it!

The game of FUD

F.U.D. (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt). We in the technology business have seen tons of tactics to entice someone to buy our products or switch allegiance to the our side. And we do it ourselves too, consciously and unconsciously, intentionally or unintentionally. There is no denying to that.

Based on what is known, and what is unknown to us, we share information which are available to us, in ways we want to influence and effect. But let it be known that we do not have a world view of everything, and thus, we chose to believe what we see and hear and experience. As human beings, we cannot 100% subscribe to be fearless, 100% certain that we are right, and 100% without a doubt do things or acts upon things that will be 100% correct. The outcome of FUD to create a convoluted messed up thought process that will deliver the desired effect and action. It is the universal Law of Cause and Effect.

The effect the marketers want you to think will speed up or delay your decision making, throw a spanner in to the thought process, and illogically gives you meaningless and meaningful (to your desires) heebee jeebees. The feeling of loss or missing out creates “displaced anxiety“, a Freudian concept where the projected fear and emotions will land into something that felt safer, even if the safer “target” may be irrelevant. And it is this irrelevant decision that marketers want to you take, because what they are selling is the “safer” decision.

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Magic happening

[Preamble: I am a delegate of Storage Field Day 15 from Mar 7-9, 2018. My expenses, travel and accommodation are paid for by GestaltIT, the organizer and I am not obligated to blog or promote the technologies presented at this event. The content of this blog is of my own opinions and views]

The magic is happening.

Dropbox, the magical disruptor, is going IPO.

When Dropbox first entered into the market which eventually termed as BYOD (Bring your Own Device), it was a phenomenon. There was nothing else that matched its simplicity and ease-of-use. A file uploaded into the cloud was instantaneously available on the tablets and smart phones. It was on every storage vendor’s presentation slides, using Dropbox as the perennial name dropping tactic to get end users buy-in.

Dropbox was more than that, and it went on to define a whole new market segment known as Enterprise File Synchronization and Sharing (EFSS), together with everybody else such as Box, Easishare (they are here in South East Asia), and just about everybody else. And the executive team at Dropbox knew they were special too, so much so that they rejected a buyout attempt by Apple in 2011.

Today, Dropbox is beyond BYOD and EFSS. They are a full fledged collaboration platform that includes project management, project workflow, file versioning, secure file transfer, smart file synchronization and Dropbox Paper. And they offer comprehensive plans from Basic, Plus and Professional to Business and Enterprise. Their upcoming IPO, I am sure, will give them far greater capital to expand, and realize their full potential as the foremost content-based collaboration platform in the world.

Dropbox began their exodus from AWS a couple of years ago. They wanted to control their destiny and have moved more than 500PB into their own private data center for their customer data. That was half-an-exabyte, people! And two years later, they saved $75million of operating costs after they exited AWS. Today, they have more than 1 Exabyte of customer data! That is just incredible.

And Dropbox’s storage architecture started with a simple foundational design called “Magic Pocket“. Magic Pocket is a “fixed-length, immutable” block storage layer.

The block size is fixed at 4MB chunks (for parallel performance and service resumption reasons), compressed and deduped (for capacity savings reasons), encrypted (for security reasons) and replicated (for high availability reasons).

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Swiss army of data management

Back in 2000, before I joined NetApp, I bought one of my first storage technology books. It was “The Holy Grail of Data Storage Management” by Jon William Toigo. The book served me very well, because it opened up my eyes about the storage networking and data management world.

I mean, I have been doing storage for 7 years before the year 2000, but I was an implementation and support engineer. I installed my first storage arrays in 1993, the trusty but sometimes odd, SPARCstorage Array 1000. These “antiques” were running 0.25Gbps Fibre Channel, and that nationwide bank project gave me my first taste and insights of SAN. Point-to-point, but nonetheless SAN.

Then at Sun from 1997-2000, I was implementing the old Storage Disk Packs with FastWide SCSI, moving on to the A5000 Photons (remember these guys?) and was trained on the A7000, Sun’s acquisition of Encore way back in the late nineties. Then there was “Purple”, the T300s which I believe came from the acquisition of MaxStrat.

The implementation and support experience was good but my world opened up when I joined NetApp in mid-2000. And from the Jon Toigo’s book, I learned one of the most important lessons that I have carried with me till this day – “Data Storage Management is 3x more expensive that the data storage equipment itself“. Given the complexity of the data today compared to the early 2000s, I would say that it is likely to be 4-5x more expensive.

And yet, I am still perplexed that many customers and prospects still cannot see the importance and the gravity of data storage management, and more precisely, data management itself.

A couple of months ago, I had to opportunity to work on an RFP for project in Singapore. The customer had thousands of tapes storing digital media files in addition to tens of TBs running on IBM N-series storage (translated to a NetApp FAS3xxx). They wanted to revamp their architecture, and invited several vendors in Singapore to propose. I was working for a friend, who is an EMC reseller. But when I saw that tapes figured heavily in their environment, and the other resellers were proposing EMC Isilon and NetApp C-Mode, I thought that these resellers were just trying to stuff a square peg into a round hole. They had not addressed the customer’s issues and problems at all, and was just merely proposing storage for the sake of storage capacity. Sure, EMC Isilon is great for the media and entertainment business, but EMC Isilon is not the data management solution for this customer’s situation. Neither was NetApp with the C-Mode solution.

What the customer needed to solve was a data management solution, one that involved

  • Single namespace for video editors and programmers, regardless of online disk storage or archived tape storage
  • Transparent and automated storage tiering and addressing the value of the data to the storage media
  • A backup tier which kept a minimum 2 recent copies for file restoration in case of disasters
  • An archived tier which they could share with their counterparts in other regions
  • A transparent replication tier which would allow them to implement a simplified disaster recovery mechanism with their counterparts in Japan and China

And these were the key issues that needed to be addressed, not the scale-out, usual snapshot mechanism. These features are good for a primary, production storage infrastructure, but this customer’s business operations had about 70-80% data and files which were offline in tapes. I took the liberty to advise my friend to look into Quantum StorNext, because the solution could solve the business problem NOT solving it from an IT point of view. Continue reading

The reports are out!

It’s another quarter and both Gartner and IDC reports on disk storage market are out.

What does it take to slow down EMC, who is like a behemoth beast mowing down its competition? EMC, has again tops both the charts. IDC Worldwide Disk Storage Tracker for Q1 of 2012 puts EMC at 29.0% of the market share, followed by NetApp at 14.1%, and IBM at 11.4%. In fourth place is HP with 10.2% and HDS is placed fifth with 9.4%.

In the Gartner report, EMC has the lead of 32.5%, followed by NetApp at 12.7% and IBM with 11.0%. HDS held fourth place at 9.5% and HP is fifth with 9.0%. Continue reading

Linking Apple to SAN

Serendipity is what I would describe this encounter. I was introduced to Promise Technology Channel Sales Director early this week. When I saw his face, I realized that I already knew him, a Malaysian who previously worked at EMC in Taiwan, but has been residing in that country for many years. We laughed and joked like old buddies and hence, the story begins …

I have known of Promise through its popular VTrak storage, which many Apple users here ignorantly associate as an Apple product. Here it is, appearing on Apple’s website:

Yes, that’s the 3rd picture from your left.

Another very strong Apple product from Promise Technology is Pegasus, a storage line of direct-attached storage (DAS) sporting the Thunderbolt, a very fast interface that connects peripherals to Macs through its Mini DisplayPort. I found this strange having a graphics display port being used to connect to a storage device, but as I looked deeper into Thunderbolt, I found that the technology was meant to extend the PCIe bus with the DisplayPort into a conduit that delivers high throughput serially. Impressive!

The picture below shows the Thunderbolt link connections, in which
Intel will provide two types of Thunderbolt controllers, a 2 port type and a 1 port type.

But Thunderbolt is not a network-based technology. It is channel-based, and hence, connecting to a Fibre Channel SAN is like mixing oil with water. Apple is not known for accessing storage through Fibre Channel, and since Apple products do not have a Fibre Channel interface, Promise Technology has come up with Thunderbolt to Fibre Channel converter. They call it SANLink. And the picture below shows how it is done:

The SANLink can also be daisy-chained. In the example below, the Pegasus DAS is daisy-chained to a SANLink which then extends and expands its capacity from the Fibre Channel connected VTrak Ex30 or Ex10.

The connectivity can be 8Gbps for the VTrak Ex30, and 4Gbps for the Ex10, and it has been validated to work with MacOS X, Final Cut Studio and Apple’s Xsan.

This is targeted to the Apple’s presence in the video editing and video production environment. I have 1 customer using our storage for their Apple file sharing purpose, and I realized that these guys work in isolation most of the time. They are like a sheep-shearing house, taking one job, work on it a bit and then pass it on to another colleague for the next stage in the video production process. Sharing is clearly not well known in this type of environment. And Promise wants to change that by opening to those hermit-like video editors and producers to share and collaborate in their work.

I don’t know much about other vendors besides Apple that pushes the Thunderbolt technology. It is very high performance interface, capable of delivering 20Gbps but I am afraid that Thunderbolt may suffer from the Apple-only syndrome.

Apple tend to be very cutting-edge when it comes to most technologies that go into their products. That makes Apple high risk takers, and that puts Thunderbolt into that risky category when if Apple fails, Thunderbolt fails. So far, I have not seen Thunderbolt spreading like wildfire, but opening Apple to SAN, both iSCSI and Fibre Channel, is good. It is time Apple embrace more of the storage networking technologies and standards out there, rather than being steadfast with their proprietary implementation of storage. Apple File Protocol (AFP) and Thunderbolt (for now) comes to mind. It is good to be stubborn but …

Apple chomps Anobit

A few days ago, Apple paid USD$500 million to buy an Israeli startup, Anobit, a maker of flash storage technology.

Obviously, one of the reasons Apple did so is to move up a notch to differentiate itself from the competition and positions itself as a premier technology innovator. It has won the MP3 war with its iPod, but in the smartphones, tablets and notebooks space, Apple is being challenged strongly.

Today, flash storage technology is prevalent, and the demand to pack more capacity into a small real-estate of flash will eventually lead to reliability issues. The most common type of NAND flash storage is the MLC (multi-level cells) versus the more expensive type called SLC (single level cells).

But physically and the internal-build of MLC and SLC are the exactly the same, except that in SLC, one cell contains 1 bit of data. Obviously this means that 2 or more bits occupy one cell in MLC. That’s the only difference from a physical structure of NAND flash. However, if you can see from the diagram below, SLCs has advantages over MLCs.


NAND Flash uses electrical voltage to program a cell and it is always a challenge to store bits of data in a very, very small cell. If you apply too little voltage, the bit in the cell does not register and will result in something unreadable or an error. If you apply too much voltage, the adjacent cells are disturbed and resulting in errors in the flash. Voltage leak is not uncommon.

The demands of packing more and more data (i.e. more bits) into one cell geometry results in greater unreliability. Though the reliability of  the NAND Flash storage is predictable, i.e. we would roughly know when it will fail, we will eventually reach a point where the reliability of MLCs will no longer be desirable if we continue the trend of packing more and more capacity.

That’s when Anobit comes in. Anobit has designed and implemented architectural changes of the way NAND Flash storage is used. The technology in laymen terms comes in 2 stages.

  1. Error reduction – by understanding what causes flash impairment. This could be cross-coupling, read disturbs, data retention impairments, program disturbs, endurance impairments
  2. Error Correction and Signal Processing – Advanced ECC (error-correcting code), and introducing the patented (and other patents pending) Memory Signal Processing (TM) to improve the reliability and performance of the NAND Flash storage as show in the diagram below:

In a nutshell, Anobit’s new and innovative approach will result in

  • More reliable MLCs
  • Better performing MLCs
  • Cheaper NAND Flash technology

This will indeed extend the NAND Flash technology into greater innovation of flash storage technology in the near future. Whatever Apple will do with Anobit’s technology is anybody’s guess but one thing is certain. It’s going to propel Apple into newer heights.