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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Nakivo Backup Replication architecture and installation on TrueNAS – Part 1

Backup and Replication software have received strong mandates in organizations with enterprise mindsets and vision. But lower down the rung, small medium organizations are less invested in backup and replication software. These organizations know full well that they must backup, replicate and protect their servers, physical and virtual, and also new workloads in the clouds, given the threat of security breaches and ransomware is looming larger and larger all the time. But many are often put off by the cost of implementing and deploying a Backup and Replication software.

So I explored one of the lesser known backup and recovery software called Nakivo® Backup and Replication (NBR) and took the opportunity to build a backup and replication appliance in my homelab with TrueNAS®. My objective was to create a cost effective option for small medium organizations to enjoy enterprise-grade protection and recovery without the hefty price tag.

This blog, Part 1, writes about the architecture overview of Nakivo® and the installation of the NBR software in TrueNAS® to bake in and create the concept of a backup and replication appliance. Part 2, in a future blog post, will cover the administrative and operations usage of NBR.

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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, 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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How well do you know your data and the storage platform that processes the data

Last week was consumed by many conversations on this topic. I was quite jaded, really. Unfortunately many still take a very simplistic view of all the storage technology, or should I say over-marketing of the storage technology. So much so that the end users make incredible assumptions of the benefits of a storage array or software defined storage platform or even cloud storage. And too often caveats of turning on a feature and tuning a configuration to the max are discarded or neglected. Regards for good storage and data management best practices? What’s that?

I share some of my thoughts handling conversations like these and try to set the right expectations rather than overhype a feature or a function in the data storage services.

Complex data networks and the storage services that serve it

I/O Characteristics

Applications and workloads (A&W) read and write from the data storage services platforms. These could be local DAS (direct access storage), network storage arrays in SAN and NAS, and now objects, or from cloud storage services. Regardless of structured or unstructured data, different A&Ws have different behavioural I/O patterns in accessing data from storage. Therefore storage has to be configured at best to match these patterns, so that it can perform optimally for these A&Ws. Without going into deep details, here are a few to think about:

  • Random and Sequential patterns
  • Block sizes of these A&Ws ranging from typically 4K to 1024K.
  • Causal effects of synchronous and asynchronous I/Os to and from the storage

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Storage Elephant Compute Birds

Data movement is expensive. Not just costs, but also latency and resources as well. Thus there were many narratives to move compute closer to where the data is stored because moving compute is definitely more economical than moving data. I borrowed the analogy of the 2 animals from some old NetApp® slides which depicted storage as the elephant, and compute as birds. It was the perfect analogy, because the storage is heavy and compute is light.

“Close up of a white Great Egret perching on top of an African Elephant aa Amboseli national park, Kenya”

Before the animals representation came about I used to use the term “Data locality, Data Mobility“, because of past work on storage technology in the Oil & Gas subsurface data management pipeline.

Take stock of your data movement

I had recent conversations with an end user who has been paying a lot of dollars keeping their “backup” and “archive” in AWS Glacier. The S3 storage is cheap enough to hold several petabytes of data for years, because the IT folks said that the data in AWS Glacier are for “backup” and “archive”. I put both words in quotes because they were termed as “backup” and “archive” because of their enterprise practice. However, the face of their business is changing. They are in manufacturing, oil and gas downstream, and the definitions of “backup” and “archive” data has changed.

For one, there is a strong demand for reusing the past data for various reasons and these datasets have to be recalled from their cloud storage. Secondly, their data movement activities still mimicked what they did in the past during their enterprise storage days. It was a classic lift-and-shift when they moved to the cloud, and not taking stock of  their data movements and the operations they ran on these datasets. Still ongoing, their monthly AWS cost a bomb.

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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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Storage IO straight to GPU

The parallel processing power of the GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) cannot be denied. One year ago, nVidia® overtook Intel® in market capitalization. And today, they have doubled their market cap lead over Intel®,  [as of July 2, 2021] USD$510.53 billion vs USD$229.19 billion.

Thus it is not surprising that storage architectures are changing from the CPU-centric paradigm to take advantage of the burgeoning prowess of the GPU. And 2 announcements in the storage news in recent weeks have caught my attention – Windows 11 DirectStorage API and nVidia® Magnum IO GPUDirect® Storage.

nVidia GPU

Exciting the gamers

The Windows DirectStorage API feature is only available in Windows 11. It was announced as part of the Xbox® Velocity Architecture last year to take advantage of the high I/O capability of modern day NVMe SSDs. DirectStorage-enabled applications and games have several technologies such as D3D Direct3D decompression/compression algorithm designed for the GPU, and SFS Sampler Feedback Streaming that uses the previous rendered frame results to decide which higher resolution texture frames to be loaded into memory of the GPU and rendered for the real-time gaming experience.

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First looks into Interplanetary File System

The cryptocurrency craze has elevated another strong candidate in recent months. Filecoin, is leading the voice of a decentralized Internet, the next generation Web 3.0. In this blog, I am not going to write much about the Filecoin frenzy but the underlying distributed file system that powers this phenomenon – The Interplanetary File System.

[ Note: This is still a very new area for me, and the rest of the content of this blog is still nascent and developing ]

Interplanetary File System

Tremulous Client-Server web architecture

The entire Internet architecture is almost client and server. Your clients like browsers, apps, connect to Web services served from a collection of servers. As Web 3.0 approaches (some say it is already here), the client-server model is no longer perceived as the Internet architecture of choice. Billions, and billions of users, applications, devices relying solely on a centralized service would lead to many impactful consequences, and the reasons for decentralization, away from the client-server architecture models of the Internet are cogent.

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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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