Praying to the hypervisor God

I was reading a great article by Frank Denneman about storage intelligence moving up the stack. It was pretty much in line with what I have been observing in the past 18 months or so, about the storage pendulum having swung back to DAS (direct attached storage). To be more precise, the DAS form factor I am referring to are physical server hardware that houses many disk drives.

Like it or not, the hypervisor has become the center of the universe in the IT space. VMware has become the indomitable force in the hypervisor technology, with Microsoft Hyper-V playing catch-up. The seismic shift of these 2 hypervisor technologies are leading storage vendors to place them on to the altar and revering them as deities. The others, with the likes of Xen and KVM, and to lesser extent Solaris Containers aren’t really worth mentioning.

This shift, as the pendulum swings from networked storage back to internal “direct-attached” storage are dictated by 4 main technology factors:

  • The x86 server architecture
  • Software-defined
  • Scale-out architecture
  • Flash-based storage technology

Anyone remember Thumper? Not the Disney character from the Bambi movie!

thumper-bambi-cartoon-character

When the SunFire X4500 (aka Thumper) was first released in (intermission: checking Wiki for the right year) in 2006, I felt that significant wound inflicted in the networked storage industry. Instead of the usual 4-8 hard disk drives in the all the industry servers at the time, the X4500 4U chassis housed 48 hard disk drives. The design and architecture were so astounding to me, I even went and bought a 1U SunFire X4150 for my personal server collection. Such was my adoration for Sun’s technology at the time.

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It’s all about executing the story

I have been in hibernation mode, with a bit of “writer’s block”.

I woke up in Bangalore in India at 3am, not having adjusted myself to the local timezone. Plenty of things were on my mind but I can’t help thinking about what’s happening in the enterprise storage market after the Gartner Worldwide External Controller-Based report for 4Q12 came out  last night. Below is the consolidated table from Gartner:

Just a few weeks ago, it was IDC with its Worldwide Disk Storage Tracker and below is their table as well:

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VMware in step 1 breaking big 6 hegemony

Happy Lunar New Year! This is the Year of the Water Snake, which just commenced 3 days ago.

I have always maintain that VMware has to power to become a storage killer. I mentioned that it was a silent storage killer in my blog post many moons ago.

And this week, VMware is not so silent anymore. Earlier this week, VMware had just acquired Virsto, a storage hypervisor technology company. News of the acquisition are plentiful on the web and can be found here and here. VMware is seriously pursuing its “Software-Defined Data Center (SDDC)” agenda and having completed its software-defined networking component with the acquisition of Nicira back in July 2012, the acquisition of Virsto represents another bedrock component of SDDC, software-defined storage.

Who is Virsto and what do they do? Well, in a nutshell, they abstract the underlying storage architecture and presents a single, global namespace for storage, a big storage pool for VM datastores. I got to know about their presence last year, when I was researching on the topic of storage virtualization.

I was looking at Datacore first, because I was familiar with Datacore. I got to know Roni Putra, Datacore’s CTO, through a mutual friend, when he was back in Malaysia. There was a sense of pride knowing that Roni is a Malaysian. That was back in 2004. But Datacore isn’t the only player in the game, because the market is teeming with folks like Tintri, Nutanix, IBM, HDS and many more. It just so happens that Virsto has caught the eye of VMware as it embarks its first high-profile step (the one that VMware actually steps on the toes of the Storage Big 6 literally) into the storage game. The Big 6 are EMC, NetApp, IBM, HP, HDS and Dell (maybe I should include Fujitsu as well, since it has been taking market share of late)

Virsto installs as a VSA (virtual storage appliance) into ESXi, and in version 2.0, it plugs right in as an almost-native feature of ESXi, not a vCenter tab like most other storage. It looks and feels very much like a vSphere functionality and this blurs the lines of storage and VM management. To the vSphere administrator, the only time it needs to be involved in storage administration is when he/she is provisioning storage or expanding it. Those are the only 2 common “touch-points” that a vSphere administrator has to deal with storage. This, therefore, simplifies the administration and management job.

Here’s a look at the Virsto Storage Hypervisor architecture (credits to Google Images):

What Virsto does, as I understand from high-level, is to take any commodity storage and provides a virtual storage layer and consolidate them into a very large storage pool. The storage pool is called vSpace (previously known as LiveSpace?) and “allocates” Virsto vDisks to each VMs. Each Visto vDisk will look like a native zeroed thick VMDK, with the space efficiency of Linked Clones, but without the performance penalty of provisioning them.  The Virsto vDisks are presented as NFS exports to each VM.

Another important component is the asynchronous write to Virsto vLogs. This is configured at the deployment stage, and this is basically a software-based write cache, quickly acknowledging all writes for write optimization and in the background, asynchronously de-staged to the vSpace. Obviously it will have its own “secret sauce” to optimize the writes.

Within the vSpace, as disk clone groups internal to the Virsto, storage related features such as tiering, thin provisioning, cloning and snapshots are part and parcel of it. Other strong features of Virsto are its workflow wizard in storage provisioning, and its intuitive built-in performance and management console.

As with most technology acquisitions, the company will eventually come to a fork where they have to decide which way to go. VMware has experienced it before with its Nicira acquisition. It had to decide between VxLAN (an IETF standard popularized by Cisco) or Nicira’s own STT (Stateless Transport Tunneling). There is no clear winner because choosing one over the other will have its rewards and losses.

Likewise, the Virsto acquisition will have to be packaged in a friendly manner by VMware. It does not want to step on all toes of its storage Big 6 partners (yet). It still has to abide to some industry “co-opetition” game rules but it has started the ball rolling.

And I see that 2 critical disruptive points about this acquisition in this:

  1. It has endorsed the software-defined storage/storage hypervisor/storage virtualization technology and started the commodity storage hardware technology wave. This could the beginning of the end of proprietary storage hardware. This is also helped by other factors such as the Open Compute Project by Facebook. Read my blog post here.
  2. It is pushing VMware into a monopoly ala-Microsoft of the yesteryear. But this time around, Microsoft Hyper-V could be the benefactor of the VMware agenda. No wonder VMware needs to restructure and streamline its business. News of VMware laying off about 900 staff can be read here. Its unfavourable news of its shares going down can be read here.

I am sure the Storage Big 6 is on the alert and is probably already building other technology and partnerships beyond VMware. It the natural thing to do but there is no stopping VMware if it wants to step on the Big 6 toes now!

Is there no one to challenge EMC?

It’s been a busy, busy month for me.

And when the IDC Worldwide Quarterly Disk Storage Systems Tracker for 3Q12 came out last week, I was reading in awe how impressive EMC was at the figures that came out. But most impressive of all is how the storage market continue to grow despite very challenging and uncertain business conditions. With the Eurozone crisis, China experiencing lower economic growth numbers and the uncertainty in the US economic sectors, it is unbelievable that the storage market grew 24.4% y-o-y. And for the first time, 7,104PB was shipped! Yes folks, more than 7 exabytes was shipped during that period!

In the Top 5 external disk storage market based on revenue, only EMC and HDS recorded respectable growth, recording 8.7% and 13.8% respectively. NetApp, my “little engine that could” seems to be running out of steam, earning only 0.9% growth. The rest of the field, IBM and HP, recorded negative growth. Here’s a look at the Top 5 and the rest of the pack:

HP -11% decline is shocking to me, and given the woes after woes that HP has been experiencing, HP has not seen the bottom yet. Let’s hope that the new slew of HP storage products and technologies announced at HP Discover 2012 will lift them up. It also looked like a total rebranding of the HP storage products as well, with a big play on the word “Store”. They have names like StoreOnce, StoreServ, StoreAll, StoreVirtual, StoreEasy and perhaps more coming.

The Open SAN market, which includes iSCSI has EMC again at Number 1, with 29.8%, followed by IBM (14%), HDS (12.2%) and HP (11.8%). When combined with NAS numbers, the NAS + Open SAN market, EMC has 33.5% while NetApp is 13.7%.

Of course, it is just not about external storage because the direct-attached storage numbers count too. With that, the server vendors of IBM, HP and Dell are still placed behind EMC. Here’s a look at that table from IDC:

There’s a highlight of Dell in the table above. Dell actually grew by 4.0% compared to decline in HP and IBM, gaining 0.1%. However, their numbers seem too tepid and led to the exit of Darren Thomas, Dell’s storage group head honco. News of Darren’s exit was on TheRegister.

I also want to note that NAS growth numbers actually outpaced Open SAN numbers including iSCSI.

This leads me to say that there is a dire need for NAS technical and technology expertise in the local storage market. As the adoption of NFSv4 under way and SMB 2.0 and 3.0 coming into the picture, I urge all storage networking professionals who are more pro-SAN to step out of their comfort zone and look into NAS as well. The world is changing and it is no longer SAN vs NAS anymore. And NFSv4.1 is blurring the lines even more with the concepts of layout.

But back to the subject to storage market, is there no one out there challenging EMC in a big way? NetApp was, some years ago, recorded double digit growth and challenging EMC neck-and-neck, but that mantle seems to be taken over by HDS. But both are long way to go to get close to EMC.

Kudos to the EMC team for damn good execution!

Can VSA help NetApp?

Almost a year ago, I had an interview with VMware Malaysia for a Senior SE position. They wanted a pre-sales guy who knows Oil & Gas and a strong technology background. I had a strong storage background, and I was involved in Oil & Gas upstream since my NetApp and EMC days.

I thought I was their guy having being led to believe (mostly by my own self-belief) to be so. I didn’t get the job but I did not find out the reason why I lost the opportunity. But I remembered well that I brashly mentioned to the Australian interviewer over the phone that VMware could become the next “storage technology” company. At that time, VMware just launched their VMware 5.0 and along with it, their vSphere Storage Appliance (VSA). This was a turning point of the virtual storage appliance space.

My friend, whose company is a VMware partner, said that the list price for the vSphere VSA was USD5,000.00 a pop. The price wasn’t too bad to the small-medium-enterprise businesses in Malaysia, minus the hardware and storage capacity cost. But what intrigued me back then was this virtual storage appliance concept was disruptive.

VMware could potentially take large JBOD farms, each for the minimum of 3 physical ESXi nodes and build a shared storage using the vSphere Storage Appliance (VSA). Who needs shared iSCSI or Fibre Channel LUNs anymore if VMware had its way?

But VMware still pretty much depended on their storage partners, especially its master, EMC and so I believe VMware held back pushing VSA for the reason of allowing its storage partner ecosystem to thrive. And for that reason, the vSphere Storage API such as VAAI and VASA were developed since vSphere 4 to enhance the deeper integration of these storage vendor’s technology into the VMware world.

But of course, long before the VMware’s VSA venture, HP LeftHand already had one on the cards. The LeftHand Virtual SAN Appliance (also VSA) was already getting rave comments from their partners and customers, impressed with how they were able to showcase HP LeftHand storage solution and technology brilliantly. Eventually, HP recognized the prowess of the LeftHand VSA and started marketing it as HP StoreVirtual VSA. I don’t hear much about the HP LeftHand (since has been renamed as P4000) VSA nowadays, seeing the HP guys in Malaysia preferring to pitch the physical storage than the virtual storage software.

NetApp, back in Q1 of 2012, also decided to go down the path of virtual storage appliance, announcing the ONTAP-v to the world here. It was initially resold through the Fujitsu partnership, but the Q1 announcement expands the ONTAP-v to a larger set of server vendors as shown below. The key component is to have a qualified RAID controller in each of the server vendors.

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Houston, we have an OpenStack problem

I have always wanted to look deeper into OpenStack, but I never got around to it. However, last week, something about NASA and OpenStack caught my attention … something about NASA pulling out of OpenStack development.

The spin was that “OpenStack has come on its own” is true, because OpenStack today has 180 (at last count on June 20th 2012) companies participating and contributing to the development, deployment and marketing of the highly popular Infrastructure-as-a-Service cloud computing project. So, the NASA withdrawal was not as badly felt as to what NASA had said next.

When NASA CIO Linda Cureton announced that NASA has shifted to Amazon Web Services (AWS) for their enterprise cloud-based infrastructure and they have saved almost a million dollars in costs, that was a clear and blatant impalement to the very heart and soul of OpenStack. NASA, one of the 2 founders of OpenStack in 2009, has switched sides to announce their preference to OpenStack’s rival, AWS. It pains me to just listen to the such a defection. Continue reading

The reports are out!

It’s another quarter and both Gartner and IDC reports on disk storage market are out.

What does it take to slow down EMC, who is like a behemoth beast mowing down its competition? EMC, has again tops both the charts. IDC Worldwide Disk Storage Tracker for Q1 of 2012 puts EMC at 29.0% of the market share, followed by NetApp at 14.1%, and IBM at 11.4%. In fourth place is HP with 10.2% and HDS is placed fifth with 9.4%.

In the Gartner report, EMC has the lead of 32.5%, followed by NetApp at 12.7% and IBM with 11.0%. HDS held fourth place at 9.5% and HP is fifth with 9.0%. Continue reading

Server way of locked-in storage

It is kind of interesting when every vendor out there claims that they are as open as they can be but the very reality is, the competitive nature of the game is really forcing storage vendors to speak open, but their actions are certainly not.

Confused? I am beginning to see a trend … a trend that is forcing customers to be locked-in with a certain storage vendor. I am beginning to feel that customers are given lesser choices, especially when the brand of the server they select for their applications  will have implications on the brand of storage they will be locked in into.

And surprise, surprise, SSDs are the pawns of this new cloak-and-dagger game. How? Well, I have been observing this for quite a while now, and when HP announced their SMART portfolio for their storage, it’s time for me to say something.

In the announcement, it was reported that HP is coming out with its 8th generation ProLiant servers. As quoted:

The eighth generation ProLiant is turbo-charging its storage with a Smart Array containing solid state drives and Smart Caching.

It also includes two Smart storage items: the Smart Array controllers and Smart Caching, which both feature solid state storage to solve the disk I/O bottleneck problem, as well as Smart Data Services software to use this hardware

From the outside, analysts are claiming this is a reaction to the recent EMC VFCache product. (I blogged about it here) and HP was there to put the EMC VFcache solution as a first generation product, lacking the smarts (pun intended) of what the HP products have to offer. You can read about its performance prowess in the HP Connect blog.

Similarly, Dell announced their ExpressFlash solution that ties up its 12th generation PowerEdge servers with their flagship (what else), Dell Compellent storage.

The idea is very obvious. Put in a PCIe-based flash caching card in the server, and use a condescending caching/tiering technology that ties the server to a certain brand of storage. Only with this card, that (incidentally) works only with this brand of servers, will you, Mr. Customer, be able to take advantage of the performance power of this brand of storage. Does that sound open to you?

HP is doing it with its ProLiant servers; Dell is doing it with its ExpressFlash; EMC’s VFCache, while not advocating any brand of servers, is doing it because VFCache works only with EMC storage. We have seen Oracle doing it with Oracle ExaData. Oracle Enterprise database works best with Oracle’s own storage and the intelligence is in its SmartScan layer, a proprietary technology that works exclusively with the storage layer in the Exadata. Hitachi Japan, with its Hitachi servers (yes, Hitachi servers that we rarely see in Malaysia), already has such a technology since the last 2 years. I wouldn’t be surprised that IBM and Fujitsu already have something in store (or probably I missed the announcement).

NetApp has been slow in the game, but we hope to see them coming out with their own server-based caching products soon. More pure play storage are already singing the tune of SSDs (though not necessarily server-based).

The trend is obviously too, because the messaging is almost always about storage performance.

Yes, I totally agree that storage (any storage) has a performance bottleneck, especially when it comes to IOPS, response time and throughput. And every storage vendor is claiming SSDs, in one form or another, is the knight in shining armour, ready to rid the world of lousy storage performance. Well, SSDs are not the panacea of storage performance headaches because while they solve some performance issues, they introduce new ones somewhere else.

But it is becoming an excuse to introduce storage vendor lock-in, and how has the customers responded this new “concept”? Things are fairly new right now, but I would always advise customers to find out and ask questions.

Cloud storage for no vendor lock-in? Going to the cloud also has cloud service provider lock-in as well, but that’s another story.

 

Gartner WW ECB 4Q11

The Gartner Worldwide External Controller Based Disk Storage market numbers were out last night, and perennially follows IDC Disk Storage System Tracker.

The numbers posted little surprise, after a topsy-turvy year for vendors like IBM, HP and especially NetApp. Overall, the positions did not change much, but we can see that the 3 vendors I mentioned are facing very challenging waters ahead. Here’s a look at the overall 2011 numbers:

EMC is unstoppable, and gaining 3.6% market share and IBM lost 0.2% market share despite having strong sales with their XIV and StorWize V7000 solutions. This could be due to the lower than expected numbers from their jaded DS-series. IBM needs to ramp up.

HP stayed stagnant, even though their 3PAR numbers have been growing well. They were hit by poor numbers from the EVA (now renumbered as P6000s), and surprisingly their P4000s as well. Looks like they are short-lefthanded (pun intended) and given the C-level upheavals it went through in the past year, things are not looking good for HP.

Meanwhile, Dell is unable to shake off their EMC divorce alimony, losing 0.8% market share. We know that Dell has been pushing very, very hard with their Compellent, EqualLogic, and other technologies they acquired, but somehow things are not working as well yet.

HDS has been the one to watch, with its revenue numbers growing in double digits like NetApp and EMC. Their market share gain was 0.6%, which is very good for HDS standards. NetApp gained 0.8% market share but they seem vulnerable after 2 poor quarters.

The 4th quarter for 2011 numbers are shown below:

I did not blog about IDC QView numbers, which reports the storage software market share but just to give this entry a bit of perspective from a software point of view. From the charts of The Register, EMC has been gaining marketshare at the expense of the rest of the competitors like Symantec, IBM and NetApp.

Tabulated differently, here’s another set of data:

On all fronts, EMC is firing all cylinders. Like a well-oiled V12 engine, EMC is going at it with so much momentum right now. Who is going to stop EMC?

Oracle Bested the Best in Quality

I have been an avid reader of SearchStorage Storage magazine for many years now and have been downloading their free PDF copy every month. Quietly snugged at the end of January 2012’s issue, there it was, the Storage magazine 6th annual Quality Awards for NAS.

I was pleasantly surprised with the results because in the previous annual awards, it would dominated by NetApp and EMC but this time around, a dark horse has emerged. It is Oracle who took top honours in both the Enterprise and the Mid-range categories.

The awards are the result of Storage Magazine’s survey and below is an excerpt about the survey:

 

In both categories covering the Enterprise and the Mid-Range, the overall ratings are shown below:

 

 

Surprised? You bet because I was.

The survey does not focus on speeds and feeds or comparing scalability or performance. Rather, the survey focuses on the qualitative aspects of the NAS products. There were many storage vendors who were part of the participation lists but many did not qualify to be make a dent of what the top 6 did. Here’s a list of the vendors surveyed:

 

The qualitative aspects of the survey focused on 5 main areas:

  • Sales force competency
  • Initial Quality
  • Product Features
  • Product Reliability
  • Technical Support

In each of the 5 main areas, customers were asked a series of questions. Here is a breakdown of those questions of each area.

Sales Force Competency

  1. Are the sales force knowledgeable about their products and their customer’s industries?
  2. How flexible are their sales effort?
  3. How good are they keeping the customer’s interest levels up?

Initial Product Quality

  1. Does the product need little or no vendor intervention?
  2. Ease of installation and ease of use
  3. Good value for money
  4. Reasonable requirement from Professional Service or needing little Professional Service
  5. Installation without defects
  6. Getting it right the first time

Product Features

  1. Storage management features
  2. Mirroring features
  3. Capacity scaling features
  4. Interoperable with other vendor’s products
  5. Remote replication features
  6. Snapshotting features

Product Reliability

  1. Vendor provide comprehensive upgrading procedures
  2. Ability to meet Service Level Agreement (SLA)
  3. Experiences very little downtime
  4. Patches applied non-disruptively

Technical Support

  1. Taking ownership of the customer’s problem
  2. Timely problem resolution and technical advice
  3. Documentation
  4. Vendor supplies support contractually as specified
  5. Vendor’s 3rd party partners are knowledgeable
  6. Vendor provide adequate training

These are some of the intangibles that customers are looking for when they qualify the NAS solutions from vendors. And the surprising was Oracle just became something to be reckoned with, backed by the strong legacy of customer-centric focus of Sun and StorageTek. If this is truly happening in the US, then kudos to Oracle for maximizing the Sun-Storagetek enterprise genes to put their NAS products to be best-of-breed.

However, on the local front, it seems to me that Oracle isn’t doing much justice to the human potential they have inherited from Sun. A little bird has told me that they got rid of some good customer service people in Malaysia and Singapore just last month and more could be on the way in 2012. All this for the sake of meeting some silly key performance indices (KPIs) of being measured by tasks per day.

The Sun people that I know here in Malaysia and Singapore are gurus who has gone through the fire and thrived and there is no substitute for quality. Unfortunately, in Oracle, it’s all about numbers, whether it is sales or tasks per day.

Well, back to the survey. And of course, the final question would be, “Is the product good enough that you would buy it again?” And the results are …

 

Good for Oracle in the US but the results do not fully reflect what’s on the ground here in Malaysia, which is more likely dominated by NetApp, HP, EMC and IBM.