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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All the Sources and Sinks going to Object Storage

The vocabulary of sources and sinks are beginning to appear in the world of data storage as we witness the new addition of data processing frameworks and the applications in this space. I wrote about this in my blog “Rethinking data. processing frameworks systems in real time” a few months ago, introducing my take on this budding new set of I/O characteristics and data ecosystem. I also started learning about the Kappa Architecture (and Lambda as well), a framework designed to craft and develop a set of amalgamated technologies to handle stream processing of a series of data in relation to time.

In Computer Science, sources and sinks are considered external entities that often serve as connectors of input and output of disparate systems. They are often not in the purview of data storage architects. Also often, these sources and sinks are viewed as black boxes, and their inner workings are hidden from the views of the data storage architects.

Diagram from

The changing facade of data stream processing presents the constant motion of data, the continuous data being altered as it passes through the many integrated sources and sinks. We are also see much of the data processed in-memory as much as possible. Thus, the data services from a traditional storage model of SAN and NAS may straggle with the requirements demanded by this new generation of data stream processing.

As the world of traditional data storage processing is expanding into data streams processing and vice versa, and the chatter of sources and sinks can no longer be ignored.

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I built a 6-node Gluster cluster with TrueNAS SCALE

I haven’t had hands-on with Gluster for over a decade. My last blog about Gluster was in 2011, right after I did a proof-of-concept for the now defunct, Jaring, Malaysia’s first ISP (Internet Service Provider). But I followed Gluster’s development on and off, until I found out that Gluster was a feature in then upcoming TrueNAS® SCALE. That was almost 2 years ago, just before I accepted to offer to join iXsystems™, my present employer.

The eagerness to test drive Gluster (again) on TrueNAS® SCALE has always been there but I waited for SCALE to become GA. GA finally came on February 22, 2022. My plans for the test rig was laid out, and in the past few weeks, I have been diligently re-learning and putting up the scope to built a 6-node Gluster clustered storage with TrueNAS® SCALE VMs on Virtualbox®.

Gluster on OpenZFS with TrueNAS SCALE

Before we continue, I must warn that this is not pretty. I have limited computing resources in my homelab, but Gluster worked beautifully once I ironed out the inefficiencies. Secondly, this is not a performance test as well, for obvious reasons. So, this is the annals along with the trials and tribulations of my 6-node Gluster cluster test rig on TrueNAS® SCALE.

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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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A conceptual distributed enterprise HCI with open source software

Cloud computing has changed everything, at least at the infrastructure level. Kubernetes is changing everything as well, at the application level. Enterprises are attracted by tenets of cloud computing and thus, cloud adoption has escalated. But it does not have to be a zero-sum game. Hybrid computing can give enterprises a balanced choice, and they can take advantage of the best of both worlds.

Open Source has changed everything too because organizations now has a choice to balance their costs and expenditures with top enterprise-grade software. The challenge is what can organizations do to put these pieces together using open source software? Integration of open source infrastructure software and applications can be complex and costly.

The next version of HCI

Hyperconverged Infrastructure (HCI) also changed the game. Integration of compute, network and storage became easier, more seamless and less costly when HCI entered the market. Wrapped with a single control plane, the HCI management component can orchestrate VM (virtual machine) resources without much friction. That was HCI 1.0.

But HCI 1.0 was challenged, because several key components of its architecture were based on DAS (direct attached) storage. Scaling storage from a capacity point of view was limited by storage components attached to the HCI architecture. Some storage vendors decided to be creative and created dHCI (disaggregated HCI). If you break down the components one by one, in my opinion, dHCI is just a SAN (storage area network) to HCI. Maybe this should be HCI 1.5.

A new version of an HCI architecture is swimming in as Angelfish

Kubernetes came into the HCI picture in recent years. Without the weights and dependencies of VMs and DAS at the HCI server layer, lightweight containers orchestrated, mostly by, Kubernetes, made distribution of compute easier. From on-premises to cloud and in between, compute resources can easily spun up or down anywhere.

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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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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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