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.


Do we still need FAST (and its cohorts)?

In a recent conversation with an iXsystems™ reseller in Hong Kong, the topic of Storage Tiering was brought up. We went about our banter and I brought up the inter-array tiering and the intra-array tiering piece.

After that conversation, I started thinking a lot about intra-array tiering, where data blocks within the storage array were moved between fast and slow storage media. The general policy was simple. Find all the least frequently access blocks and move them from a fast tier like the SSD tier, to a slower tier like the spinning drives with different RPM speeds. And then promote the data blocks to the faster media when accessed frequently. Of course, there were other variables in the mix besides storage media and speeds.

My mind raced back 10 years or more to my first encounter with Compellent and 3PAR. Both were still independent companies then, and I had my first taste of intra-array tiering

The original Compellent and 3PAR logos

I couldn’t recall which encounter I had first, but I remembered the time of both events were close. I was at Impact Business Solutions in their office listening to their Compellent pitch. The Kuching boys (thank you Chyr and Winston!) were very passionate in evangelizing the Compellent Data Progression technology.

At about the same time, I was invited by PTC Singapore GM at the time, Ken Chua to grace their new Malaysian office and listen to their latest storage vendor partnership, 3PAR. I have known Ken through my NetApp® days, and he linked me up Nathan Boeger, 3PAR’s pre-sales consultant. 3PAR had their Adaptive Optimization (AO) disk tiering and Dynamic Optimization (DO) technology.

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Discovering OpenZFS Fusion Pool

Fusion Pool excites me, but unfortunately this new key feature of OpenZFS is hardly talked about. I would like to introduce the Fusion Pool feature as iXsystems™ expands the TrueNAS® Enterprise storage conversations.

I would not say that this technology is revolutionary. Other vendors already have the similar concept of Fusion Pool. The most notable (to me) is NetApp® Flash Pool, and I am sure other enterprise storage vendors have the same. But this is a big deal (for me) for an open source file system in OpenZFS.

What is Fusion Pool  (aka ZFS Allocation Classes)?

To understand Fusion Pool, we have to understand the basics of the ZFS zpool. A zpool is the aggregation (borrowing the NetApp® terminology) of vdevs (virtual devices), and vdevs are a collection of physical drives configured with the OpenZFS RAID levels (RAID-0, RAID-1, RAID-Z1, RAID-Z2, RAID-Z3 and a few nested RAID permutations). A zpool can start with one vdev, and new vdevs can be added on-the-fly, expanding the capacity of the zpool online.

There are several types of vdevs prior to Fusion Pool, and this is as of pre-TrueNAS® version 12.0. As shown below, these are the types of vdevs available to the zpool at present.

OpenZFS zpool and vdev types – Credit: Jim Salter and Arstechnica

Fusion Pool is a zpool that integrates with a new, special type of vdev, alongside other normal vdevs. This special vdev is designed to work with small data blocks between 4-16K, and is highly efficient in handling random reading and writing of these small blocks. This bodes well with the OpenZFS file system metadata blocks and other blocks of small files. And the random nature of the Read/Write I/Os works best with SSDs (can be read or write intensive SSDs).

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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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OpenZFS 2.0 exciting new future

The OpenZFS (virtual) Developer Summit ended over a weekend ago. I stayed up a bit (not much) to listen to some of the talks because it started midnight my time, and ran till 5am on the first day, and 2am on the second day. Like a giddy schoolboy, I was excited, not because I am working for iXsystems™ now, but I have been a fan and a follower of the ZFS file system for a long time.

History wise, ZFS was conceived at Sun Microsystems in 2005. I started working on ZFS reselling Nexenta in 2009 (my first venture into business with my company nextIQ) after I was professionally released by EMC early that year. I bought a Sun X4150 from one of Sun’s distributors, and started creating a lab server. I didn’t like the workings of NexentaStor (and NexentaCore) very much, and it was priced at 8TB per increment. Later, I started my second company with a partner and it was him who showed me the elegance and beauty of ZFS through the command lines. The creed of ZFS as a volume and a file system at the same time with the CLI had an effect on me. I was in love.

OpenZFS Developer Summit 2020 Logo

OpenZFS Developer Summit 2020 Logo

Exciting developments

Among the many talks shared in the OpenZFS Developer Summit 2020 , there were a few ideas and developments which were exciting to me. Here are 3 which I liked and I provide some commentary about them.

  • Block Reference Table
  • dRAID (declustered RAID)
  • Persistent L2ARC

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FreeNAS 11.2 & 11.3 eBook

[ Full disclosure: I work for iXsystems™ Inc. This eBook was 3/4 completed when I joined on July 1, 2020 ]

I am releasing my FreeNAS™ eBook today. It was completed about 4 weeks ago, but I wanted the release date to be significant which is August 31, 2020.

FreeNAS logo

Why August 31st? Because today is Malaysia’s Independence Day.

Why the book?

I am an avid book collector. To be specific, IT and storage technology related books. Since I started working on FreeNAS™ several years ago, I wanted to find a book to learn. But the FreeNAS™ books in the market are based on an old version of FreeNAS™. And the FreeNAS™ documentation is a User Guide where it explains every feature without going deeper with integration of real life networking services, and situational applications such as SMB or NFS client configuration.

Since I have been doing significant amount of feature “testings” of FreeNAS™ from version 9.10 till the present version 11,3 on Virtualbox™, I have decided to fill that gap. I have decided to write a cookbook-style FreeNAS™ on Virtualbox™ that covers most of the real-life integration work with various requirements including Active Directory, cloud integration and so on. All for extending beyond the FreeNAS™ documentation.

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Falconstor Software Defined Data Preservation for the Next Generation

Falconstor® Software is gaining momentum. Given its arduous climb back to the fore, it is beginning to soar again.

Tape technology and Digital Data Preservation

I mentioned that long term digital data preservation is a segment within the data lifecycle which has merits and prominence. SNIA® has proved that this is a strong growing market segment through its 2007 and 2017 “100 Year Archive” surveys, respectively. 3 critical challenges of this long, long-term digital data preservation is to keep the archives

  • Accessible
  • Undamaged
  • Usable

For the longest time, tape technology has been the king of the hill for digital data preservation. The technology is cheap, mature, and many enterprises has built their long term strategy around it. And the pulse in the tape technology market is still very healthy.

The challenges of tape remain. Every 5 years or so, companies have to consider moving the data on the existing tape technology to the next generation. It is widely known that LTO can read tapes of the previous 2 generations, and write to it a generation before. The tape transcription process of migrating digital data for the sake of data preservation is bad because it affects the structural integrity and quality of the content of the data.

In my times covering the Oil & Gas subsurface data management, I have seen NOCs (national oil companies) with 500,000 tapes of all generations, from 1/2″ to DDS, DAT to SDLT, 3590 to LTO 1-7. And millions are spent to transcribe these tapes every few years and we have folks like Katalyst DM, Troika and more hovering this landscape for their fill.

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The Falcon to soar again

One of the historical feats which had me mesmerized for a long time was the 14-year journey China’s imperial treasures took to escape the Japanese invasion in the early 1930s, sandwiched between rebellions and civil wars in China. More than 20,000 pieces of the imperial treasures took a perilous journey to the west and back again. Divided into 3 routes over a decade and four years, not a single piece of treasure was broken or lost. All in the name of preservation.

Today, that 20,000 over pieces live in perpetuity in 2 palaces – Beijing Palace Museum in China and National Palace Museum Taipei in Taiwan

Digital data preservation

Digital data preservation is on another end of the data lifecycle spectrum. More often than not, it is not the part that many pay attention to. In the past 2 decades, digital data has grown so much that it is now paramount to keep the data forever. Mind you, this is not the data hoarding kind but to preserve the knowledge and wisdom which is in the digital content of the data.

[ Note: If you are interested to know more about Data -> Information -> Knowledge -> Wisdom, check out my 2015 article on LinkedIn ]

SNIA (Storage Networking Industry Association) conducted 2 surveys – one in 2007 and another in 2017 – called the 100 Year Archive, and found that the requirement for preserving digital data has grown multiple folds over the 10 years. In the end, the final goal is to ensure that the perpetual digital contents are

  • Accessible
  • Undamaged
  • Usable

All at an affordable cost. Therefore, SNIA has the vision that the digital content must transcend beyond the storage medium, the storage system and the technology that holds it.

The Falcon reemerges

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to speak with Falconstor® Software‘s David Morris (VP of Global Product Strategy & Marketing) and Mark Delsman (CTO). It was my first engagement with Falconstor® in almost 9 years! I wrote a piece of Falconstor® in my blog in 2011.

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