Stating the case for a Storage Appliance approach

I was in Indonesia last week to meet with iXsystems™‘ partner PT Maha Data Solusi. I had the wonderful opportunity to meet with many people there and one interesting and often-replayed question arose. Why aren’t iX doing software-defined-storage (SDS)? It was a very obvious and deliberate question.

After all, iX is already providing the free use of the open source TrueNAS® CORE software that runs on many x86 systems as an SDS solution and yet commercially, iX sell the TrueNAS® storage appliances.

This argument between a storage appliance model and a storage storage only model has been debated for more than a decade, and it does come into my conversations on and off. I finally want to address this here, with my own views and opinions. And I want to inform that I am open to both models, because as a storage consultant, both have their pros and cons, advantages and disadvantages. Up front I gravitate to the storage appliance model, and here’s why.

My story of the storage appliance begins …

Back in the 90s, most of my work was on Fibre Channel and NFS. iSCSI has not existed yet (iSCSI was ratified in 2003). It was almost exclusively on the Sun Microsystems® enterprise storage with Sun’s software resell of the Veritas® software suite that included the Sun Volume Manager (VxVM), Veritas® Filesystem (VxFS), Veritas® Replication (VxVR) and Veritas® Cluster Server (VCS). I didn’t do much Veritas® NetBackup (NBU) although I was trained at Veritas® in Boston in July 1997 (I remembered that 2 weeks’ trip fondly). It was just over 2 months after Veritas® acquired OpenVision. Backup Plus was the NetBackup.

Between 1998-1999, I spent a lot of time working Sun NFS servers. The prevalent networking speed at that time was 100Mbits/sec. And I remember having this argument with a Sun partner engineer by the name of Wong Teck Seng. Teck Seng was an inquisitive fella (still is) and he was raving about this purpose-built NFS server he knew about and he shared his experience with me. I detracted him, brushing aside his always-on tech orgasm, and did not find great things about a NAS storage appliance. Auspex™ was big then, and I knew of them.

I joined NetApp® as Malaysia’s employee #2. It was an odd few months working with a storage appliance but after a couple of months, I started to understand and appreciate the philosophy. The storage Appliance Model made sense to me, even through these days.

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As Disk Drive capacity gets larger (and larger), the resilient Filesystem matters

I just got home from the wonderful iXsystems™ Sales Summit in Knoxville, Tennessee. The key highlight was to christian the opening of iXsystems™ Maryville facility, the key operations center that will house iX engineering, support and part of marketing as well. News of this can be found here.

iX datacenter in the new Maryville facility

Western Digital® has always been a big advocate of iX, and at the Summit, they shared their hard disk drives HDD, solid state drives SSD, and other storage platforms roadmaps. I felt like a kid a candy store because I love all these excitements in the disk drive industry. Who says HDDs are going to be usurped by SSDs?

Several other disk drive manufacturers, including Western Digital®, have announced larger capacity drives. Here are some news of each vendor in recent months

Other than the AFR (annualized failure rates) numbers published by Backblaze every quarter, the Capacity factor has always been a measurement of high interest in the storage industry.

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Unstructured Data Observability with Datadobi StorageMAP

Let’s face it. Data is bursting through its storage seams. And every organization now is storing too much data that they don’t know they have.

By 2025, IDC predicts that 80% the world’s data will be unstructured. IDC‘s report Global Datasphere Forecast 2021-2025 will see the global data creation and replication capacity expand to 181 zettabytes, an unfathomable figure. Organizations are inundated. They struggle with data growth, with little understanding of what data they have, where the data is residing, what to do with the data, and how to manage the voluminous data deluge.

The simple knee-jerk action is to store it in cloud object storage where the price of storage is $0.0000xxx/GB/month. But many IT departments in these organizations often overlook the fact that that the data they have parked in the cloud require movement between the cloud and on-premises. I have been involved in numerous discussions where the customers realized that they moved the data in the cloud moved too frequently. Often it was an erred judgement or short term blindness (blinded by the cheap storage costs no doubt), further exacerbated by the pandemic. These oversights have resulted in expensive and painful monthly API calls and egress fees. Welcome to reality. Suddenly the cheap cloud storage doesn’t sound so cheap after all.

The same can said about storing non-active unstructured data on primary storage. Many organizations have not been disciplined to practise good data management. The primary Tier 1 storage becomes bloated over time, grinding sluggishly as the data capacity grows. I/O processing becomes painfully slow and backup takes longer and longer. Sounds familiar?

The A in ABC

I brought up the ABC mantra a few blogs ago. A is for Archive First. It is part of my data protection consulting practice conversation repertoire, and I use it often to advise IT organizations to be smart with their data management. Before archiving (some folks like to call it tiering, but I am not going down that argument today), we must know what to archive. We cannot blindly send all sorts of junk data to the secondary or tertiary storage premises. If we do that, it is akin to digging another hole to fill up the first hole.

We must know which unstructured data to move replicate or sync from the Tier 1 storage to a second (or third) less taxing storage premises. We must be able to see this data, observe its behaviour over time, and decide the best data management practice to apply to this data. Take note that I said best data management practice and not best storage location in the previous sentence. There has to be a clear distinction that a data management strategy is more prudent than to a “best” storage premises. The reason is many organizations are ignorantly thinking the best storage location (the thought of the “cheapest” always seems to creep up) is a good strategy while ignoring the fact that data is like water. It moves from premises to premises, from on-prem to cloud, cloud to other cloud. Data mobility is a variable in data management.

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I built a 6-node Gluster cluster with TrueNAS SCALE

I haven’t had hands-on with Gluster for over a decade. My last blog about Gluster was in 2011, right after I did a proof-of-concept for the now defunct, Jaring, Malaysia’s first ISP (Internet Service Provider). But I followed Gluster’s development on and off, until I found out that Gluster was a feature in then upcoming TrueNAS® SCALE. That was almost 2 years ago, just before I accepted to offer to join iXsystems™, my present employer.

The eagerness to test drive Gluster (again) on TrueNAS® SCALE has always been there but I waited for SCALE to become GA. GA finally came on February 22, 2022. My plans for the test rig was laid out, and in the past few weeks, I have been diligently re-learning and putting up the scope to built a 6-node Gluster clustered storage with TrueNAS® SCALE VMs on Virtualbox®.

Gluster on OpenZFS with TrueNAS SCALE

Before we continue, I must warn that this is not pretty. I have limited computing resources in my homelab, but Gluster worked beautifully once I ironed out the inefficiencies. Secondly, this is not a performance test as well, for obvious reasons. So, this is the annals along with the trials and tribulations of my 6-node Gluster cluster test rig on TrueNAS® SCALE.

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Crash consistent data recovery for ZFS volumes

While TrueNAS® CORE and TrueNAS® Enterprise are more well known for its NAS (network attached storage) prowess, many organizations are also confidently placing their enterprise applications such as hypervisors and databases on TrueNAS® via SANs (storage area networks) as well. Both iSCSI and Fibre Channel™ (selected TrueNAS® Enterprise storage models) protocols are supported well.

To reliably protect these block-based applications via the SAN protocols, ZFS snapshot is the key technology that can be dependent upon to restore the enterprise applications quickly. However, there are still some confusions when it comes to the state of recovery from the ZFS snapshots. On that matter, this situations are not unique to the ZFS environments because as with many other storage technologies, the confusion often stem from the (mis)understanding of the consistency state of the data in the backups and in the snapshots.

Crash Consistency vs Application Consistency

To dispel this misunderstanding, we must first begin with the understanding of a generic filesystem agnostic snapshot. It is a point-in-time copy, just like a data copy on the tape or in the disks or in the cloud backup. It is a complete image of the data and the state of the data at the storage layer at the time the storage snapshot was taken. This means that the data and metadata in this snapshot copy/version has a consistent state at that point in time. This state is frozen for this particular snapshot version, and therefore it is often labeled as “crash consistent“.

In the event of a subsystem (application, compute, storage, rack, site, etc) failure or a power loss, data recovery can be initiated using the last known “crash consistent” state, i.e. restoring from the last good backup or snapshot copy. Depending on applications, operating systems, hypervisors, filesystems and the subsystems (journals, transaction logs, protocol resiliency primitives etc) that are aligned with them, some workloads will just continue from where it stopped. It may already have some recovery mechanisms or these workloads can accept data loss without data corruption and inconsistencies.

Some applications, especially databases, are more sensitive to data and state consistencies. That is because of how these applications are designed. Take for instance, the Oracle® database. When an Oracle® database instance is online, there is an SGA (system global area) which handles all the running mechanics of the database. SGA exists in the memory of the compute along with transaction logs, tablespaces, and open files that represent the Oracle® database instance. From time to time, often measured in seconds, the state of the Oracle® instance and the data it is processing have to be synched to non-volatile, persistent storage. This commit is important to ensure the integrity of the data at all times.

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What happened to NDMP?

The acronym NDMP shows up once in a while in NAS (Network Attached Storage) upgrade tenders. And for the less informed, NDMP (Network Data Management Protocol) was one of the early NAS data management (more like data mover specifications) initiatives to backup NAS devices, especially the NAS appliances that run proprietary operating systems code.


Backup software vendors often have agents developed specifically for an operating system or an operating environment. But back in the mid-1990s, 2000s, the internal file structures of these proprietary vendors were less exposed, making it harder for backup vendors to develop agents for them. Furthermore, there was a need to simplify the data movements of NAS files between backup servers and the NAS as a client, to the media servers and eventually to the tape or disk targets. The dominant network at the time ran at 100Mbits/sec.

To overcome this, Network Appliance® and PDC Solutions/Legato® developed the NDMP protocol, allowing proprietary NAS devices to run a standardized client-server architecture with the NDMP server daemon in the NAS and the backup service running as an NDMP client. Here is a simplified look at the NDMP architecture.

NDMP Client-Server Architecture

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Windows SMB synchronous writes with OpenZFS

Sometimes I get really pissed off with myself because I have taken a bigoted view, and ended up with eggs on my face. The past week was like that, and the problem was gnawing me on the inside all week, because I was determined to balance my equilibrium by finding the answer.

Early in the week, I was having a conversation with a potential customer. It evolved around the missing 10 seconds or so of the video footage between the users of a popular video editing software. The company had 70% Windows users, and 30% users on the Mac, both sides accessing the NAS device. The issue was the editors on the Windows side will store the raw and edited files to the NAS, but when the Mac users read them, they will often find 10 seconds or so of the stored video files missing.

The likeliest culprit of this problem is the way the SMB protocol write I/O behaves in Windows and in MacOS. Windows SMB, by default, writes I/O asynchronously while SMB on MacOS writes I/O synchronously.

I had a strong conviction I had the answer to this issue but this was not a TrueNAS®, It was another brand of NAS that I did not have knowledge of, and so, I left the conversation feeling quite embarrassed because I had the answer only on the TrueNAS® server side, not on the Windows client side. Bigotry blinded me. Hmmph! 

SMB (Server Message Block) client-server model

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Setting up Nextcloud on FreeNAS Part 1

I have started to enhance the work that I did last weekend with Nextcloud on FreeNAS™. I promised to share the innards of my work but first I have to set the right expectations for the readers. This blog is just a documentation of the early work I have been doing to get Nextcloud on FreeNAS™ off the ground quickly. Also there are far better blogs than mine on the Nextcloud topic.


Nextcloud 17 (latest version is version 21)

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My 2-day weekend with Nextcloud on FreeNAS

In recent weeks, I have been asked by friends and old cust0mers on how to extend their NAS shared drives to work-from-home, the new reality. Malaysia went into a full lockdown as of June 1st several days ago.

I have written about file synchronization stories before but I have never done a Nextcloud blog. I have little experience with TrueNAS® CORE Nextcloud plugin and this was a good weekend to build it up from scratch with Virtualbox with FreeNAS™ 11.2U5 (because my friend was using that version).

[ Note ] FreeNAS™ 11.2U5 has been EOLed.

Nextcloud login screen

So, here it how it went for my little experiment. FYI, this is not a How-to guide. That will come later after I have put all my notes together with screenshots and all. This is just a collection of my thoughts while setting up Nextcloud on FreeNAS™.

Dropbox® is expensive

Using cloud storage with file sync and share capability is not exactly a cheap thing especially when you are a small medium sized business or a school or a charity organization. Here is the pricing table for Dropbox® for Business :

Dropbox for business pricing

I am using Dropbox® as the example here but the same can be said for OneDrive or Google Drive and others. The pricing can quickly add up when the price is calculated per user per month.

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Before we say good bye to AFP

The Apple Filing Protocol (AFP) file sharing service in the MacOS Server is gone. The AFP file server capability was dropped in MacOS version 11, aka Big Sur back in December last year. The AFP client is the last remaining piece in MacOS and may see its days numbered as well as the world of file services evolved from the simple local networks and workgroup collaboration of the 80s and 90s, to something more complex and demanding. The AFP’s decline was also probably aided by the premium prices of Apple hardware, and many past users have switched to Windows for frugality and prudence reasons. SMB/CIFS is the network file sharing services for Windows, and AFP is not offered in Windows natively.

MacOS supports 3 of the file sharing protocols natively – AFP, NFS and SMB/CIFSas a client. Therefore, it has the capability to collaborate well in many media and content development environments, and sharing and exchanging files easily, assuming that the access control and permissions and files/folders ownerships are worked out properly. The large scale Apple-only network environment is no longer feasible and many studios that continue to use Macs for media and content development have only a handful of machines and users.

NAS vendors that continue to support AFP file server services are not that many too, or at least those who advertise their support for AFP. iXsystems™ TrueNAS® is one of the few. This blog shows the steps to setup the AFP file services for MacOS clients.

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