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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

The burgeoning world of NVMe

When I wrote this article “Let’s smoke this storage peace pipe” 5 years ago, I quoted:

NVMe® and NVM®eF‰, as it evolves, can become the Great Peacemaker and bringing both divides and uniting them into a single storage fabric.

I envisioned NVMe® and NVMe®oF™ setting the equilibrium at the storage architecture level, finishing the great storage fabric into one. This balance in the storage ecosystem at the storage interface specifications and language-protocol level has rapidly unifying storage today, and we are already seeing the end-to-end NVMe paths directly from the PCIe bus of one host to another, via networks over Ethernet (with RoCE, iWARP, and TCP flavours) and Fibre Channel™. Technically we can have an end point device, example a tablet, talking the same NVMe language to its embedded storage as well as a cloud NVMe storage in an exascale storage far, far away. In the past, there were just too many bridges, links, viaducts, aqueducts, bypasses, tunnels, flyovers to cross just to deliver a storage command, or a data in a formats, encased and encoded (and decoded) in so many different ways.

Colours in equilibrium, like the rainbow

Simple basics of NVMe®

SATA (Serial Attached ATA) and SAS (Serial Attached SCSI) are not optimized for solid state devices. besides legacy stuff like AHCI (Advanced Host Controller Interface) in SATA, and archaic SCSI-3 primitives in SAS, NVM® has so much to offer. It can achieve very high bandwidth and support 65,535 I/O queues, each with a queue depth of 65,535. The queue depth alone is a massive jump compared to SAS which has a queue depth limit of 256.

A big part of this is how NVMe® handles I/O processing. It has a submission queue (SQ) and a completion queue (CQ), and together they are know as a Queue Pair (QP). The NVMe® controller handles tens of thousands at I/Os (reads and writes) simultaneously, alerted to switch between each SQ and CQ very quickly using the MSI or MSI-X interrupt. Think of MSI and MSI-X as a service bell, a hardware register that informs the NVM® controller when there are requests in the SQ, and informs the hosts that there are completed requests in the CQ. There will be plenty of “dings” by the MSI-X service register but the NVMe® controller can perform it very well, with some smart interrupt coalescing.

NVMe I/O processing

NVMe® 1.1, as I recalled, used to be have 3 admin commands and 10 base commands, which made it very lightweight compared to SCSI-3. However, newer commands were added to NVMe® 2.0 specifications included command sets fo key-value operations and zoned named space.

Continue reading

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

Memory cloud reality soon?

The original SAN was not always Storage Area Network. SAN had a twin nomenclature called System Area Network (SAN) back in the late 90s. Fibre Channel fabric topology (THE Storage Area Network) was only starting to take off when many of the Fibre Channel topologies at the time were either FC-AL (Fibre Channel Arbitrated Loop) or Point-to-Point. So, for a while SAN was System Area Network, or at least that was what Microsoft® wanted it to be. That SAN obviously did not take off.

System Area Network (architecture shown below) presented a high speed network where server clusters can communicate. The communication protocol of choice was VIA (Virtual Interface Adapter), and the proposed applications, notably the Microsoft® SQL Server, would use Winsock API to interface with the network services. Cache coherency in the combined memory resources of a clustered network is often the technology to ensure data synchronization, consistency and integrity.

Alas, System Area Network did not truly take off, and now it is pretty much deprecated from the Microsoft® universe.

System Area Network (SAN)

Continue reading

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.


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

Continue reading

Tiger Bridge extending NTFS to the cloud

[Disclosure: I was invited by GestaltIT as a delegate to their Storage Field Day 19 event from Jan 22-24, 2020 in the Silicon Valley USA. My expenses, travel, accommodation and conference fees were covered by GestaltIT, the organizer and I was not obligated to blog or promote the vendors’ technologies to be presented at this event. The content of this blog is of my own opinions and views]

The NTFS File System has been around for more than 3 decades. It has been the most important piece of the Microsoft Windows universe, although Microsoft is already replacing it with ReFS (Resilient File System) since Windows Server 2012. Despite best efforts from Microsoft, issues with ReFS remain and thus, NTFS is still the most reliable and go-to file system in Windows.

First reaction to Tiger Technology

When Tiger Technology was first announced as a sponsor to Storage Field Day 19, I was excited of the company with such a cool name. Soon after, I realized that I have encountered the name before in the media and entertainment space.

Continue reading

Figuring out storage for Kubernetes and containers

Oops! I forgot about you!

To me, containers and container orchestration (CO) engines such as Kubernetes, Mesos, Docker Swarm are fantastic. They scale effortlessly and are truly designed for cloud native applications (CNA).

But one thing irks me. Storage management for containers and COs. It was as if when they designed and constructed containers and the containers orchestration (CO) engines, they forgot about the considerations of storage and storage management. At least the persistent part of storage.

Over a year ago, I was in two minds about persistent storage, especially when it comes to the transient nature of microservices which was so prevalent and were inundating the cloud native applications landscape. I was searching for answers in my blog. The decentralization of microservices in containers means mass deployment at the edge, but to have the pre-processed and post-processed data stick to the persistent storage at the edge device is a challenge. The operative word here is “STICK”.

Two different worlds

Containers were initially designed and built for lightweight applications such as microservices. The runtime, libraries, configuration files and dependencies are all in one package. They were meant to do simple tasks quickly and scales to thousands easily. They could be brought up and brought down in little time and did not have to bother about the persistent data stored by the host. The state of the containers were also not important to the application tasks at hand.

Today containers like Docker have matured to run enterprise applications and the state of the container is important. The applications must know the state and the health of the container. The container could be in online mode, online but not accepting data mode, suspended mode, paused mode, interrupted mode, quiesced mode or halted mode. Each mode or state of the container is important to the running applications and the container can easily brought up or down in an instance of a command. The stateful nature of the containers and applications is critical for the business. The same situation applies to container orchestration engines such as Kubernetes.

Container and Kubernetes Storage

Docker provides 3 methods to local storage. In the diagram below, it describes:

Continue reading

From the past to the future

2019 beckons. The year 2018 is coming to a close and I look upon what I blogged in the past years to reflect what is the future.

The evolution of the Data Services Platform

Late 2017, I blogged about the Data Services Platform. Storage is no longer the storage infrastructure we know but has evolved to a platform where a plethora of data services are served. The changing face of storage is continually evolving as the IT industry changes. I take this opportunity to reflect what I wrote since I started blogging years ago, and look at the articles that are shaping up the landscape today and also some duds.

Some good ones …

One of the most memorable ones is about memory cloud. I wrote the article when Dell acquired a small company by the name of RNA Networks. I vividly recalled what was going through my mind when I wrote the blog. With the SAN, NAS and DAS, and even FAN (File Area Network) happening during that period, the first thing was the System Area Network, the original objective Infiniband and RDMA. I believed the final pool of where storage will be is the memory, hence I called it the “The Last Bastion – Memory“. RNA’s technology became part of Dell Fluid Architecture.

True enough, the present technology of Storage Class Memory and SNIA’s NVDIMM are along the memory cloud I espoused years ago.

What about Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE)? It wasn’t a compelling enough technology for me when it came into the game. Reduced port and cable counts, and reduced power consumption were what the FCoE folks were pitching, but the cost of putting in the FC switches, the HBAs were just too great as an investment. In the end, we could see the cracks of the FCoE story, and I wrote the pre-mature eulogy of FCoE in my 2012 blog. I got some unsavoury comments writing that blog back then, but fast forward to the present, FCoE isn’t a force anymore.

Weeks ago, Amazon Web Services (AWS) just became a hybrid cloud service provider/vendor with the Outposts announcement. It didn’t surprise me but it may have shook the traditional systems integrators. I took the stance 2 years ago when AWS partnered with VMware and juxtaposed it to the philosophical quote in the 1993 Jurassic Park movie – “Life will not be contained, … Life finds a way“.

Continue reading