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

What If – The other side of Storage FUDs

Streaming on Disney+ now is Marvel Studios’ What If…? animated TV series. In the first episode, Peggy Carter, instead of Steve Rogers, took the super soldier serum and became the first Avenger. The TV series explores alternatives and possibilities of what we may have considered as precept and the order of things.

As storage practitioners, we are often faced with certain “dogmatic” arguments which were often a mix of measured actuality and marketing magic – aka FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt). Time and again, we are thrown a curve ball, like “Oh, your competitor can do this. Can you?” Suddenly you are feeling pinned to a corner, and the pressure to defend your turf rises. You fumbled; You have no answer; Game over!

I experienced these hearty objections many times over. The best experience was one particular meeting I had during my early days with NetApp® in 2000. I was only 1-2 months with the company, still wet between the ears with the technology. I was pitching the SnapMirror® to Ericsson Malaysia when the Scandinavian manager said, “I think you are lying!“. I was lost without a response. I fumbled spectacularly although I couldn’t remember if we won or lost that opportunity.

Here are a few I often encountered. Let’s play the game of What If …?

What If …?

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Where are your files living now?

[ This is Part One of a longer conversation ]

EMC2 (before the Dell® acquisition) in the 2000s had a tagline called “Where Information Lives™**. This was before the time of cloud storage. The tagline was an adage of enterprise data storage, proper and contemporaneous to the persistent narrative at the time – Data Consolidation. Within the data consolidation stories, thousands of files and folders moved about the networks of the organizations, from servers to clients, clients to servers. NAS (Network Attached Storage) was, and still is the work horse of many, many organizations.

[ **Side story ] There was an internal anti-EMC joke within NetApp® called “Information has a new address”.

EMC tagline “Where Information Lives”

This was a time where there were almost no concerns about Shadow IT; ransomware were less known; and most importantly, almost everyone knew where their files and folders were, more or less (except in Oil & Gas upstream – to be told in later in this blog). That was because there were concerted attempts to consolidate data, and inadvertently files and folders, in the organization.

Even when these organizations were spread across the world, there were distributed file technologies at the time that could deliver files and folders in an acceptable manner. Definitely not as good as what we have today in a cloudy world, but acceptable. I personally worked a project setting up Andrew File Systems for Intel® in Penang in the mid-90s, almost joined Tacit Networks in the mid-2000s, dabbled on Microsoft® Distributed File System with NetApp® and Windows File Servers while fixing the mountains of issues in deploying the worldwide GUSto (Global Unified Storage) Project in Shell 2006. Somewhere in my chronological listings, Acopia Networks (acquired by F5) and of course, EMC2 Rainfinity and NetApp® NuView OEM, Virtual File Manager.

The point I am trying to make here is most IT organizations had a good grip of where the files and folders were. I do not think this is very true anymore. Do you know where your files and folders are living today? 

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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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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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Blasphemous technical writing

This is so, so, so wrong! I want to hold back but I can’t hold back no more!

This article from Petapixel appeared in my daily news feed last week. When I saw the title “Seagate performed best in Backblaze’s 2020 Hard Drive Failure Report“, I literally jumped. My immediate thoughts were “This can’t be right“.

Labelling Seagate as the best performer in a Backblaze report not only sounded oxymoronic. It was moronic. For those of us who have the industry experience, we know enough that this cannot be true with just a one fell swoop statement.

Petapixel misleading article title

Backblaze report

Backblaze has been releasing Hard Drive Stats and Report every quarter since 2013. For many of us practitioners, the report has been the de facto standard and indicator of hard disks reliability. Inadvertently, it defines the quality of the hard disk drives associated with the respective manufacturer’s brand and models.

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The hot cold times of HCI

Hyperconverged Infrastructure (HCI) is a hot technology. It has been for the past decade since Nutanix™ took the first mover advantage from the Converged Infrastructure (CI) technology segment and made it pretty much its ownfor a while.

Hyper Converged Infrastructure

But the HCI market (not the technology) is a strange one. It is hot. It is cold. The perennial leader, Nutanix™, has yet to eke out a profitable year. VMware® is strong in the market. Cisco™, which was hot with their HyperFlex solution in 2019, was also stopped short with a dismal decline in the IDC Worldwide HCI 2Q2020 tracker below:

IDC Worldwide Hyperconverged Infrastructure Tracker – 2Q2020

dHCI = Disaggregated or discombobulated? 

dHCI is known as disaggregated HCI. The disaggregation part is disaggregated hardware, especially on the storage part. Vendors like HPE® with Nimble Storage, Hitachi Vantara, NetApp® and a few more have touted the disaggregation of the performance and capacity, the separation of storage and compute as a value proposition but through close inspection, it is just another marketing ploy to attach a SAN storage to servers. It was marketing old wine in a new bottle. As rightly pointed out by my friend, Charles Chow of Commvault® quoted in his blog

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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.

 

Storageless shan’t be thy name

Storageless??? What kind of a tech jargon is that???

This latest jargon irked me. Storage vendor NetApp® (through its acquisition of Spot) and Hammerspace, a metadata-driven storage agnostic orchestration technology company, have begun touting the “storageless” tech jargon in hope that it will become an industry buzzword. Once again, the hype cycle jargon junkies are hard at work.

Clear, empty storage containers

Clear, nondescript storage containers

It is obvious that the storageless jargon wants to ride on the hype of serverless computing, an abstraction method of computing resources where the allocation and the consumption of resources are defined by pieces of programmatic code of the running application. The “calling” of the underlying resources are based on the application’s code, and thus, rendering the computing resources invisible, insignificant and not sexy.

My stand

Among the 3 main infrastructure technology – compute, network, storage, storage technology is a bit of a science and a bit of dark magic. It is complex and that is what makes storage technology so beautiful. The constant innovation and technology advancement continue to make storage as a data services platform relentlessly interesting.

Cloud, Kubernetes and many data-as-a-service platforms require strong persistent storage. As defined by NIST Definition of Cloud Computing, the 4 of the 5 tenets – on-demand self-service, resource pooling, rapid elasticity, measured servicedemand storage to be abstracted. Therefore, I am all for abstraction of storage resources from the data services platform.

But the storageless jargon is doing a great disservice. It is not helping. It does not lend its weight glorifying the innovations of storage. In fact, IMHO, it felt like a weighted anchor sinking storage into the deepest depth, invisible, insignificant and not sexy. I am here dutifully to promote and evangelize storage innovations, and I am duly unimpressed with such a jargon.

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