The All-Important Storage Appliance Mindset for HPC and AI projects

I am strong believer of using the right tool to do the job right. I have said this before 2 years ago, in my blog “Stating the case for a Storage Appliance approach“. It was written when I was previously working for an open source storage company. And I am an advocate of the crafter versus assembler mindset, especially in the enterprise and high- performance storage technology segments.

I have joined DDN. Even with DDN that same mindset does not change a bit. I have been saying all along that the storage appliance model should always be the mindset for the businesses’ peace-of-mind.

My view of the storage appliance model began almost 25 years. I came into NAS systems world via Sun Microsystems®. Sun was famous for running NFS servers on general Sun Solaris servers. NFS services on Unix systems. Back then, I remember arguing with one of the Sun distributors about the tenets of running NFS over 100Mbit/sec Ethernet on Sun servers. I was drinking Sun’s Kool-Aid big time.

When I joined Network Appliance® (now NetApp®) in 2000, my worldview of putting software on general purpose servers changed. Network Appliance®, had one product family, the FAS700 (720, 740, 760) family. All NetApp® did was to serve NFS services in the beginning. They were the NAS filers and nothing else.

I was completed sold on the appliance way with NetApp®. Firstly, it was my very first time knowing such network storage services could be provisioned with an appliance concept. This was different from Sun. I was used to manage NFS exports on a Sun SPARCstation 20 to Unix clients in the network.

Secondly, my mindset began to shape that “you have to have the right tool to the job correctly and extremely well“. Well, the toaster toasts bread very well and nothing else. And the fridge (an analogy used by Dave Hitz, I think) does what it does very well too. That is what the appliance does. You definitely cannot grill a steak with a bread toaster, just like you can’t run an excellent, ultra-high performance storage services to serve the demanding AI and HPC applications on a general server platform. You have to have a storage appliance solution for High-Speed Storage.

That little Network Appliance® toaster award given out to exemplary employees stood vividly in my mind. The NetApp® tagline back then was “Fast, Simple, Reliable”. That solidifies my mindset for the high-speed storage in AI and HPC projects in present times.

DDN AI400X2 Turbo Appliance

Costs Benefits and Risks

I like to think about what the end users are thinking about. There are investments costs involved, and along with it, risks to the investments as well as their benefits. Let’s just simplify and lump them into Cost-Benefits-Risk analysis triangle. These variables come into play in the decision making of AI and HPC projects.

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Disaggregation and Composability vital for AI/DL models to scale

New generations of applications and workloads like AI/DL (Artificial Intelligence/Deep Learning), and HPC (High Performance Computing) are breaking the seams of entrenched storage infrastructure models and frameworks. We cannot continue to scale-up or scale-out the storage infrastructure to meet these inundating fluctuating I/O demands. It is time to look at another storage architecture type of infrastructure technology – Composable Infrastructure Architecture.

Infrastructure is changing. The previous staid infrastructure architecture parts of compute, network and storage have long been thrown of the window, precipitated by the rise of x86 server virtualization almost 20 years now. It triggered a tsunami of virtualizing everything, including storage virtualization, which eventually found a more current nomenclature – Software Defined Storage. Both storage virtualization and software defined storage (SDS) are similar and yet different and should be revered through different contexts and similar goals. This Tech Target article laid out both nicely.

As virtualization raged on, converged infrastructure (CI) which evolved into hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) went fever pitch for a while. Companies like Maxta, Pivot3, Atlantis, are pretty much gone, with HPE® Simplivity and Cisco® Hyperflex occasionally blipped in my radar. In a market that matured very fast, HCI is now dominated by Nutanix™ and VMware®, with smaller Microsoft®, Dell EMC® following them.

From HCI, the attention of virtualization has shifted something more granular, more scalable in containerization. Despite a degree of complexity, containerization is taking agility and scalability to the next level. Kubernetes, Dockers are now mainstay nomenclature of infrastructure engineers and DevOps. So what is driving composable infrastructure? Have we reached the end of virtualization? Not really.

Evolution of infrastructure. Source: IDC

It is just that one part of the infrastructure landscape is changing. This new generation of AI/ML workloads are flipping the coin to the other side of virtualization. As we see the diagram above, IDC brought this mindset change to get us to Think Composability, the next phase of Infrastructure.

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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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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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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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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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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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