The future of Fibre Channel in the Cloud Era

The world has pretty much settled that hybrid cloud is the way to go for IT infrastructure services today. Straddled between the enterprise data center and the infrastructure-as-a-service in public cloud offerings, hybrid clouds define the storage ecosystems and architecture of choice.

A recent Blocks & Files article, “Broadcom server-storage connectivity sales down but recovery coming” caught my attention. One segment mentioned that the server-storage connectivity sales was down 9% leading me to think “Is this a blip or is it a signal that Fibre Channel, the venerable SAN (storage area network) protocol is on the wane?

Fibre Channel Sign

Thus, I am pondering the position of Fibre Channel SANs in the cloud era. Where does it stand now and in the near future? Continue reading

Where are your files living now?

[ This is Part One of a longer conversation ]

EMC2 (before the Dell® acquisition) in the 2000s had a tagline called “Where Information Lives™**. This was before the time of cloud storage. The tagline was an adage of enterprise data storage, proper and contemporaneous to the persistent narrative at the time – Data Consolidation. Within the data consolidation stories, thousands of files and folders moved about the networks of the organizations, from servers to clients, clients to servers. NAS (Network Attached Storage) was, and still is the work horse of many, many organizations.

[ **Side story ] There was an internal anti-EMC joke within NetApp® called “Information has a new address”.

EMC tagline “Where Information Lives”

This was a time where there were almost no concerns about Shadow IT; ransomware were less known; and most importantly, almost everyone knew where their files and folders were, more or less (except in Oil & Gas upstream – to be told in later in this blog). That was because there were concerted attempts to consolidate data, and inadvertently files and folders, in the organization.

Even when these organizations were spread across the world, there were distributed file technologies at the time that could deliver files and folders in an acceptable manner. Definitely not as good as what we have today in a cloudy world, but acceptable. I personally worked a project setting up Andrew File Systems for Intel® in Penang in the mid-90s, almost joined Tacit Networks in the mid-2000s, dabbled on Microsoft® Distributed File System with NetApp® and Windows File Servers while fixing the mountains of issues in deploying the worldwide GUSto (Global Unified Storage) Project in Shell 2006. Somewhere in my chronological listings, Acopia Networks (acquired by F5) and of course, EMC2 Rainfinity and NetApp® NuView OEM, Virtual File Manager.

The point I am trying to make here is most IT organizations had a good grip of where the files and folders were. I do not think this is very true anymore. Do you know where your files and folders are living today? 

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Enterprise Storage is not just a Label

I have many anecdotes around the topic of Enterprise Storage, but the conversations in the past 2 weeks made it important for me to share this.

Enterprise Storage is …

Amusing, painful, angry

I get riled up whenever people do not want to be educated about Enterprise Storage. Here are a few that happened in the last 2 weeks.

[ Story #1 ]

A guy was building his own storage for cryptocurrency. He was informed by his supplier that the RAID card was enterprise, and he could get the best performance using “Enterprise” RAID-0.

  • Well, “Enterprise” RAID-0 volume crashed, and he lost all data. Painfully, he said he lost a hefty sum financially

[ Story #2 ]

A media company complained about the reliability of previous storage vendor. The GM was shopping around and was told that there are “Enterprise” SATA drives and the reliability is as good, if not better than SAS drives.

  • The company wanted a fully reliable Enterprise Storage system with 99.999% availability, and yet the SATA interface was not meant to build a more highly reliable enterprise storage. The GM insisted to use “Enterprise” SATA drives for his “enterprise” storage system instead of SAS.  

[ Story #3 ]

An IT admin of a manufacturing company claimed that they had an “Enterprise Storage” system for a few years, and could not figure out why his hard disk drives would die every 12-15 months.

  • He figured out that the drives supplied by his vendor were consumer SATA drives, even though he was told it was an “Enterprise Storage” system when he bought the system.

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Plotting the Crypto Coin Storage Farm

The recent craze of the Chia cryptocurrency got me excited. Mostly because it uses storage as the determinant for the Proof-of-Work consensus algorithm in a blockchain network. Yes, I am always about storage. 😉

I am not a Bitcoin miner nor am I a Chia coin farmer, and my knowledge and experience in both are very shallow. But I recently became interested in the 2 main activities of Chia – plotting and farming, because they both involved storage. I am writing this blog to find out more and document about my learning experience.

[ NB: This blog does not help you make money. It is just informational from a storage technology perspective. ]

Chia Cryptocurrency

Proof of Space and Time

Bitcoin is based on Proof-of-Work (PoW). In a nutshell, there is a complex mathematical puzzle to be solved. Bitcoin miners compete to solve this puzzle and the process uses high computational processing to solve it. Once solved, the miners are rewarded for their work.

Newer entrants like Filecoin and Chia coin (XCH) use an alternate method which is Proof-of-Space (PoS) to validate and verify the transactions. Instead of miners, Chia coin farmers have to prove to have a legitimate amount of disk and/or memory space to solve a mathematical puzzle, conceptually similar to the one in Bitcoin mining. In the beginning, this was great for folks who have unused disk space that can be “rented” out to store the crypto stuff (Note: I am not familiar with the terminology yet, and I did not want to use the word “crypto tokens” incorrectly). Storj was one of the early vendors that I remember in this space touting this method but I have not followed them for a while. Their business model might have changed.

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Is Software Defined right for Storage?

George Herbert Leigh Mallory, mountaineer extraordinaire, was once asked “Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?“, in which he replied “Because it’s there“. That retort demonstrated the indomitable human spirit and probably exemplified best the relationship between the human being’s desire to conquer the physical limits of nature. The software of humanity versus the hardware of the planet Earth.

Juxtaposing, similarities can be said between software and hardware in computer systems, in storage technology per se. In it, there are a few schools of thoughts when it comes to delivering storage services with the notable ones being the storage appliance model and the software-defined storage model.

There are arguments, of course. Some are genuinely partisan but many a times, these arguments come in the form of the flavour of the moment. I have experienced in my past companies touting the storage appliance model very strongly in the beginning, and only to be switching to a “software company” chorus years after that. That was what I meant about the “flavour of the moment”.

Software Defined Storage

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The hot cold times of HCI

Hyperconverged Infrastructure (HCI) is a hot technology. It has been for the past decade since Nutanix™ took the first mover advantage from the Converged Infrastructure (CI) technology segment and made it pretty much its ownfor a while.

Hyper Converged Infrastructure

But the HCI market (not the technology) is a strange one. It is hot. It is cold. The perennial leader, Nutanix™, has yet to eke out a profitable year. VMware® is strong in the market. Cisco™, which was hot with their HyperFlex solution in 2019, was also stopped short with a dismal decline in the IDC Worldwide HCI 2Q2020 tracker below:

IDC Worldwide Hyperconverged Infrastructure Tracker – 2Q2020

dHCI = Disaggregated or discombobulated? 

dHCI is known as disaggregated HCI. The disaggregation part is disaggregated hardware, especially on the storage part. Vendors like HPE® with Nimble Storage, Hitachi Vantara, NetApp® and a few more have touted the disaggregation of the performance and capacity, the separation of storage and compute as a value proposition but through close inspection, it is just another marketing ploy to attach a SAN storage to servers. It was marketing old wine in a new bottle. As rightly pointed out by my friend, Charles Chow of Commvault® quoted in his blog

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When you buy storage solutions on price alone

Most people won’t bat an eye buying a car. It is a status symbol for many, but the value of the work returned from the car to the cost of buying the car is a great disparity. Furthermore, the price of the car depreciates quickly, making the “investment” more like an act of losing money fast.

So the story begins. When it comes to buying a storage technology platform, the initial price on the quote more or less decide the outcome. The reply of “Too expensive!” with little consideration about the returns of certain values relative to the initial buying price is far too frequent and plenty.

There has to be more considerations about these values. Here are in buying a storage technology platform besides just the initial price.

Performance

One recent conversation was about Intel® Optane™ vs NAND Flash. An well-known online eCommerce proprietor in South East Asia decided to go against the grain, and went for the more “expensive” Optane™ instead of the getting an array of NAND Flash NVMe SSDs.

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Layers in Storage – For better or worse

Storage arrays and storage services are built upon by layers and layers beneath its architecture. The physical components of hard disk drives and solid states are abstracted into RAID volumes, virtualized into other storage constructs before they are exposed as shares/exports, LUNs or objects to the network.

Everyone in the storage networking industry, is cognizant of the layers and it is the foundation of knowledge and experience. The public cloud storage services side is the same, albeit more opaque. Nevertheless, both have layers.

In the early 2000s, SNIA® Technical Council outlined a blueprint of the SNIA® Shared Storage Model, a framework describing layers and properties of a storage system and its services. It was similar to the OSI 7-layer model for networking. The framework helped many industry professionals and practitioners shaped their understanding and the development of knowledge in their respective fields. The layering scheme of the SNIA® Shared Storage Model is shown below:

SNIA Shared Storage Model – The layering scheme

Storage vendors layering scheme

While SNIA® storage layers were generic and open, each storage vendor had their own proprietary implementation of storage layers. Some of these architectures are simple, but some, I find a bit too complex and convoluted.

Here is an example of the layers of the Automated Volume Management (AVM) architecture of the EMC® Celerra®.

EMC Celerra AVM Layering Scheme

I would often scratch my head about AVM. Disks were grouped into RAID groups, which are LUNs (Logical Unit Numbers). Then they were defined as Celerra® dvols (disk volumes), and stripes of the dvols were consolidated into a storage pool.

From the pool, a piece of a storage capacity construct, called a slice volume, were combined with other slice volumes into a metavolume which eventually was presented as a file system to the network and their respective NAS clients. Explaining this took an effort because I was the IP Storage product manager for EMC® between 2007 – 2009. It was a far cry from the simplicity of NetApp® ONTAP 7 architecture of RAID groups and volumes, and the WAFL® (Write Anywhere File Layout) filesystem.

Another complicated layered framework I often gripe about is Ceph. Here is a look of how the layers of CephFS is constructed.

Ceph Storage Layered Framework

I work with the OpenZFS filesystem a lot. It is something I am rather familiar with, and the layered structure of the ZFS filesystem is essentially simpler.

Storage architecture mixology

Engineers are bizarre when they get too creative. They have a can do attitude that transcends the boundaries of practicality sometimes, and boggles many minds. This is what happens when they have their own mixology ideas.

Recently I spoke to two magnanimous persons who had the idea of providing Ceph iSCSI LUNs to the ZFS filesystem in order to use the simplicity of NAS file sharing capabilities in TrueNAS® CORE. From their own words, Ceph NAS capabilities sucked. I had to draw their whole idea out in a Powerpoint and this is the architecture I got from the conversation.

There are 3 different storage subsystems here just to provide NAS. As if Ceph layers aren’t complicated enough, the iSCSI LUNs from Ceph are presented as Cinder volumes to the KVM hypervisor (or VMware® ESXi) through the Cinder driver. Cinder is the persistent storage volume subsystem of the Openstack® project. The Cinder volumes/hypervisor datastore are virtualized as vdisks to the respective VMs installed with TrueNAS® CORE and OpenZFS filesystem. From the TrueNAS® CORE, shares and exports are provisioned via the SMB and NFS protocols to Windows and Linux respectively.

It works! As I was told, it worked!

A.P.P.A.R.M.S.C. considerations

Continuing from the layered framework described above for NAS, other aspects beside the technical work have to be considered, even when it can work technically.

I often use a set of diligent data storage focal points when considering a good storage design and implementation. This is the A.P.P.A.R.M.S.C. Take for instance Protection as one of the points and snapshot is the technology to use.

Snapshots can be executed at the ZFS level on the TrueNAS® CORE subsystem. Snapshots can be trigged at the volume level in Openstack® subsystem and likewise, rbd snapshots at the Ceph subsystem. The question is, which snapshot at which storage subsystem is the most valuable to the operations and business? Do you run all 3 snapshots? How do you execute them in succession in a scheduled policy?

In terms of performance, can it truly maximize its potential? Can it churn out the best IOPS, and deliver at wire speed? What is the latency we can expect with so many layers from 3 different storage subsystems?

And supporting this said architecture would be a nightmare. Where do you even start the troubleshooting?

Those are just a few considerations and questions to think about when such a layered storage architecture along. IMHO, such a design was over-engineered. I was tempted to say “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should

Elegance in Simplicity

Einstein (I think) quoted:

Einstein’s quote on simplicity and complexity

I am not saying that having too many layers is wrong. Having a heavily layered architecture works for many storage solutions out there, where they are often masked with a simple and intuitive UI. But in yours truly point of view, as a storage architecture enthusiast and connoisseur, there is beauty and elegance in simple designs.

The purpose here is to promote better understanding of the storage layers, and how they integrate and interact with each other to deliver the data services to the network. In the end, that is how most storage architectures are built.

 

Discovering OpenZFS Fusion Pool

Fusion Pool excites me, but unfortunately this new key feature of OpenZFS is hardly talked about. I would like to introduce the Fusion Pool feature as iXsystems™ expands the TrueNAS® Enterprise storage conversations.

I would not say that this technology is revolutionary. Other vendors already have the similar concept of Fusion Pool. The most notable (to me) is NetApp® Flash Pool, and I am sure other enterprise storage vendors have the same. But this is a big deal (for me) for an open source file system in OpenZFS.

What is Fusion Pool  (aka ZFS Allocation Classes)?

To understand Fusion Pool, we have to understand the basics of the ZFS zpool. A zpool is the aggregation (borrowing the NetApp® terminology) of vdevs (virtual devices), and vdevs are a collection of physical drives configured with the OpenZFS RAID levels (RAID-0, RAID-1, RAID-Z1, RAID-Z2, RAID-Z3 and a few nested RAID permutations). A zpool can start with one vdev, and new vdevs can be added on-the-fly, expanding the capacity of the zpool online.

There are several types of vdevs prior to Fusion Pool, and this is as of pre-TrueNAS® version 12.0. As shown below, these are the types of vdevs available to the zpool at present.

OpenZFS zpool and vdev types – Credit: Jim Salter and Arstechnica

Fusion Pool is a zpool that integrates with a new, special type of vdev, alongside other normal vdevs. This special vdev is designed to work with small data blocks between 4-16K, and is highly efficient in handling random reading and writing of these small blocks. This bodes well with the OpenZFS file system metadata blocks and other blocks of small files. And the random nature of the Read/Write I/Os works best with SSDs (can be read or write intensive SSDs).

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TrueNAS – The Secure Data Platform for EasiShare

The Enterprise File Sync and Share (EFSS) EasiShare presence is growing rapidly in the region, as enterprises and organizations are quickly redefining the boundaries of the new workspace. Work files and folders are no longer confined to the shared network drives within the local area network. It is going beyond to the “Work from Anywhere” phenomenon that is quickly becoming the way of life. Breaking away from the usual IT security protection creates a new challenge, but EasiShare was conceived with security baked into its DNA. With the recent release, Version 10, file sharing security and resiliency are stronger than ever.

[ Note: I have blogged about EasiShare previously. Check out the 2 links below ]

Public clouds are the obvious choice but for organizations to protect their work files, and keep data secure, services like Dropbox for Business, Microsoft® Office 365 with OneDrive and Google® Workspace are not exactly the kind of file sharing with security as their top priority. A case in point was the 13-hour disruption to Wasabi Cloud last week, where the public cloud storage provider’s domain name, wasabisys.com, was suspended by their domain name registrar because of malware discrepancy at one of its endpoints. There were other high profile cases too.

This is where EasiShare shines, because it is a secure, private EFSS solution for the enterprise and beyond, because business resiliency is in the hands and control of the organization that owns it, not the public cloud service providers.

EasiShare unifies with TrueNAS for secure business resiliency

EasiShare is just one several key business solutions iXsystems™ in Asia Pacific Japan is working closely with, and there is a strong, symbiotic integration with the TrueNAS® platform. Both have strong security features that fortify business resiliency, especially when facing the rampant ransomware scourge.

Value of a Single Unified Data Services Platform

A storage array is not a solution. It is just a box that most vendors push to sell. A storage must be a Data Services Platform. Readers of my blog would know that I have spoken about the Data Services Platform 3 years ago and you can read about it:

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