The All-Important Storage Appliance Mindset for HPC and AI projects

I am strong believer of using the right tool to do the job right. I have said this before 2 years ago, in my blog “Stating the case for a Storage Appliance approach“. It was written when I was previously working for an open source storage company. And I am an advocate of the crafter versus assembler mindset, especially in the enterprise and high- performance storage technology segments.

I have joined DDN. Even with DDN that same mindset does not change a bit. I have been saying all along that the storage appliance model should always be the mindset for the businesses’ peace-of-mind.

My view of the storage appliance model began almost 25 years. I came into NAS systems world via Sun Microsystems®. Sun was famous for running NFS servers on general Sun Solaris servers. NFS services on Unix systems. Back then, I remember arguing with one of the Sun distributors about the tenets of running NFS over 100Mbit/sec Ethernet on Sun servers. I was drinking Sun’s Kool-Aid big time.

When I joined Network Appliance® (now NetApp®) in 2000, my worldview of putting software on general purpose servers changed. Network Appliance®, had one product family, the FAS700 (720, 740, 760) family. All NetApp® did was to serve NFS services in the beginning. They were the NAS filers and nothing else.

I was completed sold on the appliance way with NetApp®. Firstly, it was my very first time knowing such network storage services could be provisioned with an appliance concept. This was different from Sun. I was used to manage NFS exports on a Sun SPARCstation 20 to Unix clients in the network.

Secondly, my mindset began to shape that “you have to have the right tool to the job correctly and extremely well“. Well, the toaster toasts bread very well and nothing else. And the fridge (an analogy used by Dave Hitz, I think) does what it does very well too. That is what the appliance does. You definitely cannot grill a steak with a bread toaster, just like you can’t run an excellent, ultra-high performance storage services to serve the demanding AI and HPC applications on a general server platform. You have to have a storage appliance solution for High-Speed Storage.

That little Network Appliance® toaster award given out to exemplary employees stood vividly in my mind. The NetApp® tagline back then was “Fast, Simple, Reliable”. That solidifies my mindset for the high-speed storage in AI and HPC projects in present times.

DDN AI400X2 Turbo Appliance

Costs Benefits and Risks

I like to think about what the end users are thinking about. There are investments costs involved, and along with it, risks to the investments as well as their benefits. Let’s just simplify and lump them into Cost-Benefits-Risk analysis triangle. These variables come into play in the decision making of AI and HPC projects.

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Preliminary Data Taxonomy at ingestion. An opportunity for Computational Storage

Data governance has been on my mind a lot lately. With all the incessant talks and hype about Artificial Intelligence, the true value of AI comes from good data. Therefore, it is vital for any organization embarking on their AI journey to have good quality data. And the journey of the lifecycle of data in an organization starts at the point of ingestion, the data source of how data is either created, acquired to be presented up into the processing workflow and data pipelines for AI training and onwards to AI applications.

In biology, taxonomy is the scientific study and practice of naming, defining and classifying biological organisms based on shared characteristics.

And so, begins my argument of meshing these 3 topics together – data ingestion, data taxonomy and with Computational Storage. Here goes my storage punditry.

Data Taxonomy in post-injection 

I see that data, any data, has to arrive at a repository first before they are given meaning, context, specifications. These requirements are different from file permissions, ownerships, ctime and atime timestamps, the content of the ingested data stream are made to fit into the mould of the repository the data is written to. Metadata about the content of the data gives the data meaning, context and most importantly, value as it is used within the data lifecycle. However, the metadata tagging, and preparing the data in the ETL (extract load transform) or the ELT (extract load transform) process are only applied post-ingestion. This data preparation phase, in which data is enriched with content metadata, tagging, taxonomy and classification, is expensive, in term of resources, time and currency.

Elements of a modern event-driven architecture including data ingestion (Credit: Qlik)

Even in the burgeoning times of open table formats (Apache Iceberg, HUDI, Deltalake, et al), open big data file formats (Avro, Parquet) and open data formats (CSV, XML, JSON et.al), the format specifications with added context and meanings are added in and augmented post-injection.

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Data Trust and Data Responsibility. Where we should be at before responsible AI.

Last week, there was a press release by Qlik™, informing of a sponsored TechTarget®‘s Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) about the state of responsible AI practices across industries. The study highlighted critical gaps in the approach to responsible AI, ethical AI practices and AI regulatory compliances. From the study, Qlik™ emphasizes on having a solid data foundation. To get to that bedrock foundation, we must trust the data and we must be responsible for the kinds of data that built that foundation. Hence, Data Trust and Data Responsibility.

There is an AI boom right now. Last year alone, the AI machine and its hype added in USD$2.4 trillion market cap to US tech companies. 5 months into 2024, AI is still supernova hot. And many are very much fixated to the infallible fables and tales of AI’s pompous splendour. It is this blind faith that I see many users and vendors alike sidestepping the realities of AI in the present state as it is.

AI is not always responsible. Then it begs the question, “Are we really working with a responsible set of AI applications and ecosystems“?

Responsible AI. Are we there yet?

AI still hallucinates, unfortunately. The lack of transparency of AI applications coming to a conclusion and a recommended decision is not always known. What if you had a conversation with ChatGPT and it says that you are dead. Well, that was exactly what happened when Tom’s Guide writer, Tony Polanco, found out from ChatGPT that he passed away in September 2021.

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NIST CSF 2.0 brings Data Governance into the light

In the past weekend, I watched a CNA Insider video delving into Data Theft in Malaysia. It is titled “Data Theft in Malaysia: How your personal information may be exploited | Cyber Scammed”.

You can watch the 45-minute video below.

Such dire news is nothing new. We Malaysians are numbed to those telemarketers calling and messaging to offer their credit card services, loans, health spa services. You name it; there is something to sell. Of course, these “services” are mostly innocuous, but in recent years, the forms of scams are risen up several notches and severity levels. The levels of sophistication, the impacts, and the damages (counting financial and human casualties) have rocketed exponentially. Along with the news, mainstream and others, the levels of awareness and interests in data, especially PII (personal identifiable information) in Malaysians, are at its highest yet.

Yet the data theft continues unabated. Cybersecurity Malaysia (CSM), just last week, reported a 1,192% jump of data theft cases in Malaysia in 2023. In an older news last year, cybersecurity firm Surf Shark ranked Malaysia as the 8th most breached country in Q3 of 2023.
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Storage does not mean Capacity only

I was listening to several storage luminaries in the GestaltIT’s podcastNo one understands Storage anymore” a few of weeks ago. Around the minute of 11.09 in the podcast, Dr. J. Metz, SNIA® Chair, brought up this is powerful quote “Storage does not mean Capacity“. It struck me, not in a funny way. It is what it is, and it something I wanted to say to many who do not understand the storage solutions they are purchasing. It exemplifies what is wrong in the many organizations today in their understanding of investing in a storage infrastructure project.

This is my pet peeve. The first words uttered in most, if not all storage requirements in my line of work are, “I want this many Terabytes of storage“. There are no other details and context of what the other requirement factors are, such as availability, performance, future growth, etc. Or even the goals to achieve when purchasing a storage system and operating it. What is the improvement they are looking for? What are the problems to solve?

Where is the OKR?

It pains me to say this. For the folks who have in the IT industry for years, both end users and IT purveyors alike, most are absolutely clueless about OKR (Objectives and Key Results) for their storage infrastructure project. Many cannot frame the data challenges they are facing, and they have no idea where to go next. There is no alignment. There is no strategy. Even worse, there is no concept of how their storage infrastructure investments will improve their business and operations.

Just the other day, one company director from a renown IT integrator here in Malaysia came calling. He has been in the IT industry since 1989 (I checked his Linkedin profile), asking to for a 100TB storage quote. I asked a few questions about availability, performance, scalability; the usual questions a regular IT guy would ask. He has no idea, and instead of telling me he didn’t know, he gave me a runaround of this and that. Plenty of yada, yada nonsense.

In the end, I told him to buy a consumer grade storage appliance from Taiwan. I will just let him make a fool of himself in front of his customer since he didn’t want to take accountability of ensuring his customer get a proper enterprise storage solution in good faith. His customer is probably in the same mould as well.

Defensive Strategies as Data Foundations

A strong storage infrastructure foundation is vital for good Data Credibility. If you do the right things for your data, there is Data Value, and it will serve your business well. Both Data Credibility and Data Value create confidence. And Confidence equates Trust.

In order to create the defensive strategies let’s look at storage Availability, Protection, Accessibility, Management Security and Compliance. These are 6 of the 8 data points of the A.P.P.A.R.M.S.C. framework.

Offensive Strategies as Competitive Advantage

Once we have achieved stability of the storage infrastructure foundation, then we can turn over and drive towards storage Performance, Recovery, plus things like Scalability and Agility.

With a strong data infrastructure foundation, the organization can embark on the offensive, and begin their business transformation journey, knowing that their data is well run, protection, and performs.

Alignment with Data and Business Goals

Why are the defensive and offensive strategies requiring alignment to business goals?

The fact is simple. It is about improving the business and operations, and setting OKRs is key to measure the ROI (return of investment) of getting the storage systems and the solutions in place. It is about switching the cost-fearing (negative) mindset to a profit-conviction (positive) mindset.

For example, maybe the availability of the data to the business is poor. Maybe there is the need to have access to the data 24×7, because the business is going online. The simple measurable fact is we can move availability from 95% uptime to 99.99% uptime with an HA storage system.

Perhaps there are concerns about recoverability in the deluge of ransomware threats. Setting new RPO goals from 24 hours to 4 hours is a measurable objective to enhance data resiliency.

Or getting the storage systems to deliver higher performance from 350 IOPS to 5000 IOPS for the database.

What I am saying here is these data points are measurable, and they can serve as checkpoints for business and operational improvements. From a management perspective, these can be used as KPI (key performance index) to define continuous improvement of Data Confidence.

Furthermore, it is easy when a OKR dashboard is used to map the improvement markers when organizations use storage to move from point A to point B, where B equates to a new success milestone. The alignment sets the paths to the business targets.

Storage does not mean only Capacity

The sad part is what the OKRs and the measured goals alignments are glaringly missing in the minds of many organizations purchasing a storage infrastructure and data management solution. The people tasked to source a storage technology solution are not placing a set of goals and objectives. Capacity appears to be the only thing on their mind.

I am about to meet a procurement officer of a customer soon. She asked me this question “Why is your storage so expensive?” over email. I want to change her mindset, just like the many officers and C-levels who hold the purse strings.

Let’s frame the use storage infrastructure in the real world. Nobody buys a storage system just to keep data in there much like a puddle keeps stagnant water. Sooner or later the value of the data in the storage evaporates or the value becomes dull if the data is not used well in any ways, shape or form.

Storage systems and the interconnected pathways from on premises, to the next premises, to the edge and to the clouds serve the greater good for Data. Data is used, shared, shaped, improved, enhanced, protected, moved, and more to deliver Value to the Business.

Storage capacity is just one of the few factors to consider when investing in a storage infrastructure solution. In fact, capacity is probably the least important piece when considering a storage solution to achieve the company’s OKRs. If we think about it deeper, setting the foundation for Data in the defensive manner will help elevate value of the data to be promoted with the offensive strategies to gain the competitive advantage.

Storage infrastructure and storage solutions along with data management platforms may appear to be a cost to the annual budgets. If you know set the OKRs, define A to get to B, alignment the goals, storage infrastructure and the data management platforms and practices are investments that are worth their weight in gold. That is my guarantee.

On the flip side, ignoring and avoiding OKRs, and set the strategies without prudence will yield its comeuppance. Technical debts will prevail.

Rant over.

Object Storage becoming storage lingua franca of Edge-Core-Cloud

Data Fabric was a big buzzword going back several years. I wrote a piece talking about Data Fabric, mostly NetApp®’s,  almost 7 years ago, which I titled “The Transcendence of Data Fabric“. Regardless of storage brands and technology platforms, and each has its own version and interpretations, one thing holds true. There must be a one layer of Data Singularity. But this is easier said than done.

Fast forward to present. The latest buzzword is Edge-to-Core-Cloud or Cloud-to-Core-Edge. The proliferation of Cloud Computing services, has spawned beyond to multiclouds, superclouds and of course, to Edge Computing. Data is reaching to so many premises everywhere, and like water, data has found its way.

Edge-to-Core-to-Cloud (Gratitude thanks to https://www.techtalkthai.com/dell-technologies-opens-iot-solutions-division-and-introduces-distributed-core-architecture/)

The question on my mind is can we have a single storage platform to serve the Edge-to-Core-to-Cloud paradigm? Is there a storage technology which can be the seamless singularity of data? 7+ years onwards since my Data Fabric blog, The answer is obvious. Object Storage.

The ubiquitous object storage and the S3 access protocol

For a storage technology that was initially labeled “cheap and deep”, object storage has become immensely popular with developers, cloud storage providers and is fast becoming storage repositories for data connectors. I wrote a piece called “All the Sources and Sinks going to Object Storage” over a month back, which aptly articulate how far this technology has come.

But unknown to many (Google NASD and little is found), object storage started its presence in SNIA (it was developed in Carnegie-Mellon University prior to that) in the early 90s, then known as NASD (network attached secure disk). As it is made its way into the ANSI T10 INCITS standards development, it became known as Object-based Storage Device or OSD.

The introduction of object storage services 16+ years ago by Amazon Web Services (AWS) via their Simple Storage Services (S3) further strengthened the march of object storage, solidified its status as a top tier storage platform. It was to AWS’ genius to put the REST API over HTTP/HTTPS with its game changing approach to use CRUD (create, retrieve, update, delete) operations to work with object storage. Hence the S3 protocol, which has become the de facto access protocol to object storage.

Yes, I wrote those 2 blogs 11 and 9 years ago respectively because I saw that object storage technology was a natural fit to the burgeoning new world of storage computing. It has since come true many times over.

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All the Sources and Sinks going to Object Storage

The vocabulary of sources and sinks are beginning to appear in the world of data storage as we witness the new addition of data processing frameworks and the applications in this space. I wrote about this in my blog “Rethinking data. processing frameworks systems in real time” a few months ago, introducing my take on this budding new set of I/O characteristics and data ecosystem. I also started learning about the Kappa Architecture (and Lambda as well), a framework designed to craft and develop a set of amalgamated technologies to handle stream processing of a series of data in relation to time.

In Computer Science, sources and sinks are considered external entities that often serve as connectors of input and output of disparate systems. They are often not in the purview of data storage architects. Also often, these sources and sinks are viewed as black boxes, and their inner workings are hidden from the views of the data storage architects.

Diagram from https://developer.here.com/documentation/get-started/dev_guide/shared_content/topics/olp/concepts/pipelines.html

The changing facade of data stream processing presents the constant motion of data, the continuous data being altered as it passes through the many integrated sources and sinks. We are also see much of the data processed in-memory as much as possible. Thus, the data services from a traditional storage model of SAN and NAS may straggle with the requirements demanded by this new generation of data stream processing.

As the world of traditional data storage processing is expanding into data streams processing and vice versa, and the chatter of sources and sinks can no longer be ignored.

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Computational Storage embodies Data Velocity and Locality

I have been earnestly observing the growth of Computational Storage for a number of years now.  It was known by several previous names, with the name “in-situ data processing” stuck with me the most. The Computational Storage nomenclature became more cohesive when SNIA® put together the CMSI (Compute Memory Storage Initiative) some time back. This initiative is where several standards bodies, the major technology players and several SIGs (special interest groups) in SNIA® collaborated to advance Computational Storage segment in the storage technology industry we know of today.

The use cases for Computational Storage are burgeoning, and the functional implementations of Computational Storage are becoming vital to tackle the explosive data tsunami. In 2018 IDC, in its Worldwide Global Datasphere Forecast 2021-2025 report, predicted that the world will have 175 ZB (zettabytes) of data. That number, according to hearsay, has been revised to a heady figure of 250ZB, given the superlative rate data is being originated, spawned and more.

Computational Storage driving factors

If we take the Computer Science definition of in-situ processing, Computational Storage can be distilled as processing data where it resides. In a nutshell, “Bring Compute closer to Storage“. This means that there is a processing unit within the storage subsystem which does not require the host CPU to perform processing. In a very simplistic manner, a RAID card in a storage array can be considered a Computational Storage device because it performs the RAID functions instead of the host CPU. But this new generation of Computational Storage has much more prowess than just the RAID function in a RAID card.

There are many factors in Computational Storage that make a lot sense. Here are a few:

  1. Voluminous data inundate the centralized architecture of the cloud platforms and the enterprise systems today. Much of the data come from end point devices – mobile devices, sensors, IoT, point-of-sales, video cameras, et.al. Pre-processing the data at the origin data points can help filter the data, reduce the size to be processed centrally, and secure the data before they are ingested into the central data processing systems
  2. Real-time processing of the data at the moment the data is received gives the opportunity to create the Velocity of Data Analytics. Much of the data do not need to move to a central data processing system for analysis. Often in use cases like autonomous vehicles, fraud detection, recommendation systems, disaster alerts etc require near instantaneous responses. Performing early data analytics at the data origin point has tremendous advantages.
  3. Moore’s Law is waning. The CPU (central processing unit) is no longer the center of the universe. We are beginning to see CPU offloading technologies to augment the CPU’s duties such as compression, encryption, transcoding and more. SmartNICs, DPUs (data processing units), VPUs (visual processing units), GPUs (graphics processing units), etc have come forth to formulate a new computing paradigm.
  4. Freeing up central resources with Computational Storage also accelerates the overall distributed data processing in the whole data architecture. The CPU and the adjoining memory subsystem are less required to perform context switching caused by I/O interrupts as in most of the compute/storage architecture today. The total effect relieves the CPU and giving back more CPU cycles to perform higher processing tasks, resulting in faster performance overall.
  5. The rise of memory interconnects is enabling a more distributed computing fabric of data processing subsystems. The rising CXL (Compute Express Link™) interconnect protocol, especially after the Gen-Z annex, has emerged a force to be reckoned with. This rise of memory interconnects will likely strengthen the testimony of Computational Storage in the fast approaching future.

Computational Storage Deployment Models

SNIA Computational Storage Universe in 2019

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