The reverse wars – DAS vs NAS vs SAN

It has been quite an interesting 2 decades.

In the beginning (starting in the early to mid-90s), SAN (Storage Area Network) was the dominant architecture. DAS (Direct Attached Storage) was on the wane as the channel-like throughput of Fibre Channel protocol coupled by the million-device addressing of FC obliterated parallel SCSI, which was only able to handle 16 devices and throughput up to 80 (later on 160 and 320) MB/sec.

NAS, defined by CIFS/SMB and NFS protocols – was happily chugging along the 100 Mbit/sec network, and occasionally getting sucked into the arguments about why SAN was better than NAS. I was already heavily dipped into NFS, because I was pretty much a SunOS/Solaris bigot back then.

When I joined NetApp in Malaysia in 2000, that NAS-SAN wars were going on, waiting for me. NetApp (or Network Appliance as it was known then) was trying to grow beyond its dot-com roots, into the enterprise space and guys like EMC and HDS were frequently trying to put NetApp down.

It’s a toy”  was the most common jibe I got in regular engagements until EMC suddenly decided to attack Network Appliance directly with their EMC CLARiiON IP4700. EMC guys would fondly remember this as the “NetApp killer“. Continue reading

Why demote archived data access?

We are all familiar with the concept of data archiving. Passive data gets archived from production storage and are migrated to a slower and often, cheaper storage medium such tapes or SATA disks. Hence the terms nearline and offline data are created. With that, IT constantly reminds users that the archived data is infrequently accessed, and therefore, they have to accept the slower access to passive, archived data.

The business conditions have certainly changed, because the need for data to be 100% online is becoming more relevant. The new competitive nature of businesses dictates that data must be at the fingertips, because speed and agility are the new competitive advantage. Often the total amount of data, production and archived data, is into hundred of TBs, even into PetaBytes!

The industries I am familiar with – Oil & Gas, and Media & Entertainment – are facing this situation. These industries have a deluge of files, and unstructured data in its archive, and much of it dormant, inactive and sitting on old tapes of a bygone era. Yet, these files and unstructured data have the most potential to be explored, mined and analyzed to realize its value to the organization. In short, the archived data and files must be democratized!

The flip side is, when the archived files and unstructured data are coupled with a slow access interface or unreliable storage infrastructure, the value of archived data is downgraded because of the aggravated interaction between access and applications and business requirements. How would organizations value archived data more if the access path to the archived data is so damn hard???!!!

An interesting solution fell upon my lap some months ago, and putting A and B together (A + B), I believe the access path to archived data can be unbelievably of high performance, simple, transparent and most importantly, remove the BLOODY PAIN of FILE AND DATA MIGRATION!  For storage administrators and engineers familiar with data migration, especially if the size of the migration is into hundreds of TBs or even PBs, you know what I mean!

I have known this solution for some time now, because I have been avidly following its development after its founders left NetApp following their Spinnaker venture to start Avere Systems.

avere_220

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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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Washing too much software defined

There’s been practically a firestorm when EMC announced ViPR, its own version of “software-defined storage” at EMC World last week. Whether you want to call it Virtualization Platform Re-defined or Re-imagined, competitors such as NetApp, HDS, Nexenta have taken pot-shots at EMC, and touting their own version of software-defined storage.

In the release announcement, EMC claimed the following (a cut-&-paste from the announcement):

  • The EMC ViPR Software-Defined Storage Platform uniquely provides the ability to both manage storage infrastructure (Control Plane) and the data residing within that infrastructure (Data Plane).
  • The EMC ViPR Controller leverages existing storage infrastructures for traditional workloads, but provisions new ViPR Object Data Services (with access via Amazon S3 or HDFS APIs) for next-generation workloads. ViPR Object Data Services integrate with OpenStack via Swift and can be run against enterprise or commodity storage.
  • EMC ViPR integrates tightly with VMware’s Software Defined Data Center through industry standard APIs and interoperates with Microsoft and OpenStack.

The separation of the Control Plane and the Data Plane of the ViPR allows the abstraction of 2 main layers.

Layer 1 is the abstraction of the underlying storage hardware infrastructure. Although I don’t have the full details (EMC guys please enlighten me, please!), I believe storage administrator no longer need to carve out LUNs from RAID groups or Storage Pools, striped and sliced them and further provision them into meta file systems before they are exported or shared through NAS protocols. I am , of course, quoting the underlying provisioning architecture of Celerra, which can be quite complex. Anyone who has done manual provisioning with Celerra Manager should know what I mean.

Here’s the provisioning architecture of Celerra:

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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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“I want to put in my own hard disk”

I want to put in my own hard disk“.

If a customer ever utter that sentence, it will trigger a storage vendor meltdown. Panic buttons, alarm bells, and everything else that will lead a salesman to go berserk. That’s a big NO, NO!

For decades, storage vendors have relied on proprietary hardware to keep customers in line, and have customers continue to sign hefty maintenance contracts until the next tech refresh. The maintenance contract, with support, software upgrades and hardware spares replacement, defines the storage networking industry that we are in. Even as some vendors have commoditized their hardware on the x86 platforms, and on standard enterprise hard disk drives (HDDs), NICs and HBAs, that openness and convenience of commodity hardware savings are usually not passed on the customers.

It is easy to explain to customers that keeping their enterprise data in reliable and high performance storage hardware with performance optimization and special firmware is paramount, and any unwarranted and unvalidated hardware would put the customer’s data at high risk.

There is a choice now. The ripple of enterprise-grade, open storage kernel and file system has just started its first ring, and we hope that this small ripple will reverberate across the storage industry in the next few years.

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