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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Object Storage becoming storage lingua franca of Edge-Core-Cloud

Data Fabric was a big buzzword going back several years. I wrote a piece talking about Data Fabric, mostly NetApp®’s,  almost 7 years ago, which I titled “The Transcendence of Data Fabric“. Regardless of storage brands and technology platforms, and each has its own version and interpretations, one thing holds true. There must be a one layer of Data Singularity. But this is easier said than done.

Fast forward to present. The latest buzzword is Edge-to-Core-Cloud or Cloud-to-Core-Edge. The proliferation of Cloud Computing services, has spawned beyond to multiclouds, superclouds and of course, to Edge Computing. Data is reaching to so many premises everywhere, and like water, data has found its way.

Edge-to-Core-to-Cloud (Gratitude thanks to

The question on my mind is can we have a single storage platform to serve the Edge-to-Core-to-Cloud paradigm? Is there a storage technology which can be the seamless singularity of data? 7+ years onwards since my Data Fabric blog, The answer is obvious. Object Storage.

The ubiquitous object storage and the S3 access protocol

For a storage technology that was initially labeled “cheap and deep”, object storage has become immensely popular with developers, cloud storage providers and is fast becoming storage repositories for data connectors. I wrote a piece called “All the Sources and Sinks going to Object Storage” over a month back, which aptly articulate how far this technology has come.

But unknown to many (Google NASD and little is found), object storage started its presence in SNIA (it was developed in Carnegie-Mellon University prior to that) in the early 90s, then known as NASD (network attached secure disk). As it is made its way into the ANSI T10 INCITS standards development, it became known as Object-based Storage Device or OSD.

The introduction of object storage services 16+ years ago by Amazon Web Services (AWS) via their Simple Storage Services (S3) further strengthened the march of object storage, solidified its status as a top tier storage platform. It was to AWS’ genius to put the REST API over HTTP/HTTPS with its game changing approach to use CRUD (create, retrieve, update, delete) operations to work with object storage. Hence the S3 protocol, which has become the de facto access protocol to object storage.

Yes, I wrote those 2 blogs 11 and 9 years ago respectively because I saw that object storage technology was a natural fit to the burgeoning new world of storage computing. It has since come true many times over.

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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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Computational Storage embodies Data Velocity and Locality

I have been earnestly observing the growth of Computational Storage for a number of years now.  It was known by several previous names, with the name “in-situ data processing” stuck with me the most. The Computational Storage nomenclature became more cohesive when SNIA® put together the CMSI (Compute Memory Storage Initiative) some time back. This initiative is where several standards bodies, the major technology players and several SIGs (special interest groups) in SNIA® collaborated to advance Computational Storage segment in the storage technology industry we know of today.

The use cases for Computational Storage are burgeoning, and the functional implementations of Computational Storage are becoming vital to tackle the explosive data tsunami. In 2018 IDC, in its Worldwide Global Datasphere Forecast 2021-2025 report, predicted that the world will have 175 ZB (zettabytes) of data. That number, according to hearsay, has been revised to a heady figure of 250ZB, given the superlative rate data is being originated, spawned and more.

Computational Storage driving factors

If we take the Computer Science definition of in-situ processing, Computational Storage can be distilled as processing data where it resides. In a nutshell, “Bring Compute closer to Storage“. This means that there is a processing unit within the storage subsystem which does not require the host CPU to perform processing. In a very simplistic manner, a RAID card in a storage array can be considered a Computational Storage device because it performs the RAID functions instead of the host CPU. But this new generation of Computational Storage has much more prowess than just the RAID function in a RAID card.

There are many factors in Computational Storage that make a lot sense. Here are a few:

  1. Voluminous data inundate the centralized architecture of the cloud platforms and the enterprise systems today. Much of the data come from end point devices – mobile devices, sensors, IoT, point-of-sales, video cameras, Pre-processing the data at the origin data points can help filter the data, reduce the size to be processed centrally, and secure the data before they are ingested into the central data processing systems
  2. Real-time processing of the data at the moment the data is received gives the opportunity to create the Velocity of Data Analytics. Much of the data do not need to move to a central data processing system for analysis. Often in use cases like autonomous vehicles, fraud detection, recommendation systems, disaster alerts etc require near instantaneous responses. Performing early data analytics at the data origin point has tremendous advantages.
  3. Moore’s Law is waning. The CPU (central processing unit) is no longer the center of the universe. We are beginning to see CPU offloading technologies to augment the CPU’s duties such as compression, encryption, transcoding and more. SmartNICs, DPUs (data processing units), VPUs (visual processing units), GPUs (graphics processing units), etc have come forth to formulate a new computing paradigm.
  4. Freeing up central resources with Computational Storage also accelerates the overall distributed data processing in the whole data architecture. The CPU and the adjoining memory subsystem are less required to perform context switching caused by I/O interrupts as in most of the compute/storage architecture today. The total effect relieves the CPU and giving back more CPU cycles to perform higher processing tasks, resulting in faster performance overall.
  5. The rise of memory interconnects is enabling a more distributed computing fabric of data processing subsystems. The rising CXL (Compute Express Link™) interconnect protocol, especially after the Gen-Z annex, has emerged a force to be reckoned with. This rise of memory interconnects will likely strengthen the testimony of Computational Storage in the fast approaching future.

Computational Storage Deployment Models

SNIA Computational Storage Universe in 2019

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Celebrating MinIO

Essentially MinIO is a web server …

I vaguely recalled Anand Babu Periasamy (AB as he is known), the CEO of MinIO saying that when I first met him in 2017. I was fresh “playing around” with MinIO and instantly I fell in love with software technology. Wait a minute. Object storage wasn’t supposed to be so easy. It was not supposed to be that simple to set up and use, but MinIO burst into my storage universe like the birth of the Infinity Stones. There was a eureka moment. And I was attending one of the Storage Field Days in the US shortly after my MinIO discovery in late 2017. What an opportunity!

I could not recall how I made the appointment to meeting MinIO, but I recalled myself taking an Uber to their cosy office on University Avenue in Palo Alto to meet. Through Andy Watson (one of the CTOs then), I was introduced to AB, Garima Kapoor, MinIO’s COO and his wife, Frank Wessels, Zamin (one of the business people who is no longer there) and Ugur Tigli (East Coast CTO) who was on the Polycom. I was awe struck.

Last week, MinIO scored a major Series B round funding of USD103 million. It was delayed by the pandemic because I recalled Garima telling me that the funding was happening in 2020. But I think the delay made it better, because the world now is even more ready for MinIO than ever before.

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Rethinking data processing frameworks systems in real time

“Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream…”

Except the stream isn’t gentle at all in the data processing’s new context.

For many of us in the storage infrastructure and data management world, the well known framework is storing and retrieve data from a storage media. That media could be a disk-based storage array, a tape, or some cloud storage where the storage media is abstracted from the users and the applications. The model of post processing the data after the data has safely and persistently stored on that media is a well understood and a mature one. Users, applications and workloads (A&W) process this data in its resting phase, retrieve it, work on it, and write it back to the resting phase again.

There is another model of data processing that has been bubbling over the years and now reaching a boiling point. Still it has not reached its apex yet. This is processing the data in flight, while it is still flowing as it passes through processing engine. The nature of this kind of data is described in one 2018 conference I chanced upon a year ago.

letgo marketplace processing numbers in 2018

  • * NRT = near real time

From a storage technology infrastructure perspective, this kind of data processing piqued my curiosity immensely. And I have been studying this burgeoning new data processing model in my spare time, and where it fits, bringing the understanding back into the storage infrastructure and data management side.

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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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What the heck is Storage Modernization?

We often hear the word “modernization” thrown around these days. The push is to get the end user to refresh their infrastructure, and the storage infrastructure market is rife with modernization word. Is your storage ripe for “modernization“?

Many possibilities to modernize storage

To modernize, it has to be relative to legacy storage hardware, and the operating environment that came with it. But if the so-called “legacy” still does the job, should you modernize?

Big Data is right

When the word “Big Data” came into prominence a while back, it stirred the IT industry into a frenzy. At one point, Apache Hadoop became the poster elephant (pun intended) for this exciting new segment. So many Vs came out, but I settled with 4 Vs as the framework of my IT conversations. The 4Vs we often hear are:

  • Volume
  • Velocity
  • Variety
  • Veracity

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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