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:


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!

HUS VM is not virtual storage appliance

I was very confused with an recent HDS announcement, and it has been at the back of my mind for several weeks now.

On the last week of September 2012, HDS announced their Hitachi Unified Storage VM, aimed at small/medium enterprises (SMEs). Nothing wrong with that, except the VM part. I am not sure if it was the Computerworld author’s mistake, but he specifically mentioned VM as “virtual machine”. Check out the link here and the screenshot below:

It got me a bit riled up thinking this was some kind of virtual storage ala VMware Virtual Storage Appliance or NetApp ONTAP-V or even the early innovation of HP Lefthand Virtual SAN Appliance. Apparently not!

I did some short investigation and found Nigel Poulton’s blog which gave a fantastic dissection about the HUS VM. The VM is not virtual machine, but Virtual Midrange!

The HUS VM architecture is deep in ASICs, given HDS long history in ASICs design and manufacturing. SiliconFS, is the NAS front end, while the iSCSI and FC part are being serviced from the same HDS microcode of the higher end HDS VSP. Here’s a look at the hardware architectural diagram from Nigel’s blog:

There are plenty of bells and whistles in the HUS VM, armed with plenty of 8Gbps FC ports, SAS 6Gbps backend, SSDs, and software such as Dynamic Provisioning (thin provisioning) and Dynamic Tiering.


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. (more…)

Expensive hard disk is good

No, I don’t mean to be bad, but the spinning HDDs’ prices will remain high even if the post-Thailand flood production has resumed to normalcy.

According to IHS iSuppli, a market research intelligence firm, the prices will continue to hold steady and will not fall to pre-flood level until 2014. The reason is simple. The prices of the hard disk drives are pretty much dictated by the only 2 real remaining hard disk companies in the world – Seagate and Western Digital. These guys controls more than 85% of the hard disk market and as demand of HDDs outstrips supply, the current hard disk prices are hitting the bottom line hard for just about everyone.

But the bad news is turning into good news for solid state storage devices. NAND-Flash based devices are driving a new clan of storage start-ups in the likes of Violin Memory, Kaminario, Pure Storage and Virident. The EMC acquisition of XtremIO was a strong endorsement that cements the cornerstone of all enterprise storage arrays to come. Even the Register predicted that the EMC VMAX will be the last primary storage array before the flash tsunami.

The NAND-Flash solid state of multi-level cells (MLCs) and single level cells (SLCs) and even triple level cells (TLCs) are going through birth, puberty, adolescent extremely fast because the demand for faster and faster IOPS, throughput and lower latency is hitting at full speed. And it is likely that all the xLCs (SLCs, MLCs and TLCs) could go through cycle in an extremely short lifespan, because there is a new class of solid state that is pushing the performance-price envelope closer and closer to speed of DRAM but with the price of Flash. This new type of solid state is Storage Class Memory (SCM). (more…)

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%. (more…)

ARC reactor also caches?

The fictional arc reactor in Iron Man’s suit was the epitome of coolness for us geeks. In the latest edition of Oracle Magazine, Iron Man is on the cover, as well as the other 5 Avengers in a limited edition series (see below).

Just about the same time, I am reading up on the ARC (Adaptive Replacement Caching) that is adopted in ZFS. I am learning in depth of how ZFS caching works as opposed to the more popular LRU (Least Recently Used) caching algorithm that is used in most storage cache memory. Having said that, most storage vendors employed a modified LRU algorithm, with the intention to keep the most recently accessed pages in memory as long as possible. This is true in NetApp’s Data ONTAP (maybe not the ONTAP GX in which I have little experience) and EMC FlareOE. ONTAP goes further to by keeping the most frequently accessed pages permanently in memory. EMC folks would probably refer to most recently accessed as spatial locality while most frequently accessed as temporal locality.

Why is ZFS using ARC and what is ARC? (more…)

4TB disks – the end of RAID

Seriously? 4 freaking terabyte disk drives?

The enterprise SATA/SAS disks have just grown larger, up to 4TB now. Just a few days ago, Hitachi boasted the shipment of the first 4TB HDD, the 7,200 RPM Ultrastar™ 7K4000 Enterprise-Class Hard Drive.

And just weeks ago, Seagate touted their Heat-Assisted Magnetic Recording (HAMR) technology will bring forth the 6TB hard disk drives in the near future, and 60TB HDDs not far in the horizon. 60TB is a lot of capacity but a big, big nightmare for disks availability and data backup. My NetApp Malaysia friend joked that the RAID reconstruction of 60TB HDDs would probably finish by the time his daughter finishes college, and his daughter is still in primary school!.

But the joke reflects something very serious we are facing as the capacity of the HDDs is forever growing into something that could be unmanageable if the traditional implementation of RAID does not change to meet such monstrous capacity.

Yes, RAID has changed since 1988 as every vendor approaches RAID differently. NetApp was always about RAID-4 and later RAID-DP and I remembered the days when EMC had a RAID-S. There was even a vendor in the past who marketed RAID-7 but it was proprietary and wasn’t an industry standard. But fundamentally, RAID did not change in a revolutionary way and continued to withstand the ever ballooning capacities (and pressures) of the HDDs. RAID-6 was introduced when the first 1TB HDDs first came out, to address the risk of a possible second disk failure in a parity-based RAID like RAID-4 or RAID-5. But today, the 4TB HDDs could be the last straw that will break the camel’s back, or in this case, RAID’s back.

RAID-5 obviously is dead. Even RAID-6 might be considered insufficient now. Having a 3rd parity drive (3P) is an option and the only commercial technology that I know of which has 3 parity drives support is ZFS. But having 3P will cause additional overhead in performance and usable capacity. Will the fickle customer ever accept such inadequate factors?

Note that 3P is not RAID-7. RAID-7 is a trademark of a old company called Storage Computer Corporation and RAID-7 is not a standard definition of RAID.

One of the biggest concerns is rebuild times. If a 4TB HDD fails, the average rebuild speed could take days. The failure of a second HDD could up the rebuild times to a week or so … and there is vulnerability when the disks are being rebuilt.

There are a lot of talks about declustered RAID, and I think it is about time we learn about this RAID technology. At the same time, we should demand this technology before we even consider buying storage arrays with 4TB hard disk drives!

I have said this before. I am still trying to wrap my head around declustered RAID. So I invite the gurus on this matter to comment on this concept, but I am giving my understanding on the subject of declustered RAID.

Panasas‘ founder, Dr. Garth Gibson is one of the people who proposed RAID declustering way back in 1999. He is a true visionary.

One of the issues of traditional RAID today is that we still treat the hard disk component in a RAID domain as a whole device. Traditional RAID is designed to protect whole disks with block-level redundancy.  An array of disks is treated as a RAID group, or protection domain, that can tolerate one or more failures and still recover a failed disk by the redundancy encoded on other drives. The RAID recovery requires reading all the surviving blocks on the other disks in the RAID group to recompute blocks lost on the failed disk. In short, the recovery, in the event of a disk failure, is on the whole object and therefore, a entire 4TB HDD has to be recovered. This is not good.

The concept of RAID declustering is to break away from the whole device idea. Apply RAID at a more granular scale. IBM GPFS works with logical tracks and RAID is applied at the logical track level. Here’s an overview of how is compares to the traditional RAID:

The logical tracks are spread out algorithmically spread out across all physical HDDs and the RAID protection layer is applied at the track level, not at the HDD device level. So, when a disk actually fails, the RAID rebuild is applied at the track level. This significant improves the rebuild times of the failed device, and does not affect the performance of the entire RAID volume much. The diagram below shows the declustered RAID’s time and performance impact when compared to a traditional RAID:

While the IBM GPFS approach to declustered RAID is applied at a semi-device level, the future is leaning towards OSD. OSD or object storage device is the next generation of storage and I blogged about it some time back. Panasas is the leader when it comes to OSD and their radical approach to this is applying RAID at the object level. They call this Object RAID.

With object RAID, data protection occurs at the file-level. The Panasas system integrates the file system and data protection to provide novel, robust data protection for the file system.  Each file is divided into chunks that are stored in different objects on different storage devices (OSD).  File data is written into those container objects using a RAID algorithm to produce redundant data specific to that file.  If any object is damaged for whatever reason, the system can recompute the lost object(s) using redundant information in other objects that store the rest of the file.

The above was a quote from the blog of Brent Welch, Panasas’ Director of Software Architecture. As mentioned, the RAID protection of the objects in the OSD architecture in Panasas occurs at file-level, and the file or files constitute the object. Therefore, the recovery domain in Object RAID is at the file level, confining the risk and damage of data loss within the file level and not at the entire device level. Consequently, the speed of recovery is much, much faster, even for 4TB HDDs.

Reliability is the key objective here. Without reliability, there is no availability. Without availability, there is no performance factors to consider. Therefore, the system’s reliability is paramount when it comes to having the data protected. RAID has been the guardian all these years. It’s time to have a revolutionary approach to safeguard the reliability and ensure data availability.

So, how many vendors can claim they have declustered RAID?

Panasas is a big YES, and they apply their intelligence in large HPC (high performance computing) environments. Their technology is tried and tested. IBM GPFS is another. But where are the rest?


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.