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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Building Trust in the Storage Brand

Trust is everything. When done right, the brand is trust.

One Wikibon article last month “Does Hardware (still) Matter?” touched on my sentiments and hit close to the heart. As the world becomes more and more data driven and cloud-centric, the prominence of IT infrastructure has diminished from the purview of the boardroom. The importance of IT infrastructure cannot be discounted but in this new age, storage infrastructure has become invisible.

In the seas of both on-premises and hybrid storage technology solutions, everyone is trying to stand out, trying to eke the minutest ounces of differentiation and advantage to gain the customer’s micro-attention. With all the drum beatings, the loyalty of the customer can switch in an instance unless we build trust.

I ponder a few storage industry variables that help build trust.

Open source Communities and tribes

During the hey-days of proprietary software and OSes, protectionism was key to guarding the differentiations and the advantages. Licenses were common, and some were paired with the hardware hostid to create that “power combination”. And who can forget those serial dongles license keys? Urgh!!

Since the open source movement (Read The Cathedral and the Bazaar publication) began, the IT world has begun to trust software and OSes more and more. Open Source communities grew and technology tribes were formed in all types of niches, including storage software. Trust grew because the population of the communities kept the vendors honest. Gone are the days of the Evil Empire. Even Microsoft® became a ‘cool kid’.

TRUST

One open source storage filesystem I worked extensively on is OpenZFS. From its beginnings after Open Solaris® (remember build 134), becoming part of the Illumos project and then later in FreeBSD® and Linux upstream. Trust in OpenZFS was developed over time because of the open source model. It has spawned many storage projects including FreeNAS™ which later became TrueNAS®.

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Ridding consumer storage mindset for Enterprise operations

I cut my teeth in Enterprise Storage for 3 decades. On and off, I get the opportunity to work on Cloud Storage as well, mostly more structured storage infrastructure services such as blocks and files, in cloud offerings on AWS, Azure and Alibaba Cloud. I am familiar with S3 operations (mostly the CRUD operations and HTTP headers stuff) too, although I have yet to go deep with S3 with Restful API. And I really wanted to work on stuff with the S3 Select when the opportunity arises. (Note: Homelab project to-do list)

Along with the experience is the enterprise mindset of designing and crafting storage infrastructure and data management practices that evolve around data. Understanding the characteristics of data and the behaviours data in motion is part of my skills repertoire, and I continue to have conversations with organizations, small and large alike every day of the week.

This week’s blog was triggered by an article by Tech Republic® Jack Wallen‘s interview with Fedora project leader Matthew Miller. I have been craning my neck waiting for the full release of Fedora 36 (which now has been pushed to May 10th 2022), and the Tech Republic®’s article, “The future of Linux: Fedora project leader weighs in” touched me. Let me set the context of my expanded commentaries here.

History of my open source experience- bringing Enterprise to the individual

I have been working with open source software for a long time. My first Linux experience was Soft Landing Linux in the early 90s. It was a bunch of diskettes I purchased online while dabbling with FreeBSD® on the sides. Even though my day job was on the SunOS, and later Solaris®, having the opportunity to build stuff and learn the enterprise ways with Sun Microsystems® hardware and software were difficult at my homelab. I did bring home a SPARCstation® 2 once but the CRT monitor almost broke my computer table at that time.

Having open source software on 386i (before x86) architecture was great (no matter how buggy they were) because I got to learn hardcore enterprise technology at home. I am a command line person, so the desktop experience does not bother me much because my OS foundation is there. Open source gave me a world I could master my skills as an individual. For an individual like me, my mindset is always on the Enterprise.

The Tech Republic interview and my reflections

I know the journey open source OSes has taken at the server (aka Enterprise) level. They are great, and are getting better and better. But at the desktop (aka consumer) level, the Linux desktop experience has been an arduous one even though the open source Linux desktop experience is so much better now. This interview reflected on that.

There were a few significant points that were brought up. Those poignant moments explained about the free software in open source projects, how consumers glazed over (if I get what Matt Miller meant) the cosmetics of the open source software without the deeper meaningful objectives of the software had me feeling empty. Many assumed that just because the software is open source, it should be free or of low costs and continue to apply a consumer mindset to the delivery and the capability of the software.

Case in point is the way I have been seeing many TrueNAS®/FreeNAS™ individuals who downloaded the free software and using them in consumer ways. That is perfectly fine but when they want to migrate their consumer experience with the TrueNAS® software to their critical business operations, things suddenly do not look so rosy anymore. From my experience, having built enterprise-grade storage solutions with open source software like ZFS on OpenSolaris/OpenIndiana, FreeNAS™ and TrueNAS® for over a decade plus gaining plenty of experience on many proprietary and software-defined storage platforms along this 30 year career, the consumer mindsets do not work well in enterprise missions.

And over the years, I have been seeing this newer generation of infrastructure people taking less and less interest in learning the enterprise ways or going deep dive into the workings of the open source platforms I have mentioned. Yet, they have lofty enterprise expectations while carrying a consumer mindset. More and more, I am seeing a greying crew of storage practitioners with enterprise experiences dealing with a new generation of organizations and end users with consumer practices and mindsets.

Open Source Word Cloud

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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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Exploring the venerable NFS Ganesha

As TrueNAS® SCALE approaches its General Availability date in less than 10 days time, one of the technology pieces I am extremely excited about in TrueNAS® SCALE is the NFS Ganesha server. It is still early days to see the full prowess of NFS Ganesha in TrueNAS® SCALE, but the potential of Ganesha’s capabilities in iXsystems™ new scale-out storage technology is very, very promising.

NFS Ganesha

I love Network File System (NFS). It was one of the main reasons I was so attracted to Sun Microsystems® SunOS in the first place. 6 months before I graduated, I took a Unix systems programming course in C in the university. The labs were on Sun 3/60 workstations. Coming from a background of a VAX/VMS system administrator in the school’s lab, Unix became a revelation for me. It completely (and blissfully) opened my eyes to open technology, and NFS was the main catalyst. Till this day, my devotion to Unix remained sacrosanct because of the NFS spark aeons ago.

I don’t know NFS Ganesha. I knew of its existence for almost a decade, but I have never used it. Most of the NFS daemons/servers I worked with were kernel NFS, and these included NFS services in Sun SunOS/Solaris, several Linux flavours – Red Hat®, SuSE®, Ubuntu, BSD variants in FreeBSD and MacOS, the older Unices of the 90s – HP-UX, Ultrix, AIX and Irix along with SCO Unix and Microsoft® XenixNetApp® ONTAP™, EMC® Isilon (very briefly), Hitachi® HNAS (née BlueArc) and of course, in these past 5-6 years FreeNAS®/TrueNAS™.

So, as TrueNAS® SCALE beckons, I took to this weekend to learn a bit about NFS Ganesha. Here are what I have learned.

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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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Control your Files. Control your Sovereignty.

Data residency, data sovereignty, data localization – the trio of data compliance and governance – have been on my mind a lot lately. I am seeing a disturbing trend. “Splinternet” has taken a hurried and hastened pace. We are now seeing many countries drawing up digital boundaries in the name of data privacy and data protection with sovereign laws and regulations. Besides, these digital demarcation along the lines with data definitions, digital “colonization” is a strong undercurrent as developing countries are accepting larger and more powerful foreign powers into their playpen.

Public cloud services transcend national borders. The breakneck speed in the adoption of public cloud services is causing anxieties and concerns with conservative governments everywhere. On the flip side of the coin, commerce has certainly flourished and bloomed as global wide collaborations bring new opportunities, new markets – all for capitalism and growth.

[ Note: While we are on this debacle, the voices of decentralization are getting louder as well, but that is a topic for another day ]

Where are your data files now?

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Right time for Andrew. The Filesystem that is.

I couldn’t hold my excitement when I discovered Auristor® early last week. I stumbled upon this Computerweekly article “Want to side step Public Cloud? Auristor® offers global file storage.” Given the many news not exactly praising the public cloud storage vendors nowadays, the article’s title caught my attention. Immediately Andrew File System (AFS) was there. I was perplexed at first because I have never seen or heard a commercial version of AFS before. This news gave me goosebumps.

For the curious, I am sure many will ask who is this Andrew anyway? What is my relationship with this Andrew?

One time with Andrew

A bit of my history. I recalled quite vividly helping Intel in Penang, Malaysia to implement their globally distributed file caching mechanism with the NetApp® filer’s NFS. It was probably 2001 and I believed Intel wanted to share their engineering computing (EC) files between their US facilities and Intel Penang Design Center (PDC). As I worked along with the Intel folks, I found out that this distributed file caching technology was called Andrew File System (AFS).

Although I couldn’t really recalled how the project went, I remembered it being a bed of bugs at that time. But being the storage geek that I am, I obviously took some time to get to know Andrew the File System. 20 years have gone by, and I never really thought of AFS coming out as a commercial solution or even knew of it as one, until Auristor®,

Auristor Logo

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