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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As Disk Drive capacity gets larger (and larger), the resilient Filesystem matters

I just got home from the wonderful iXsystems™ Sales Summit in Knoxville, Tennessee. The key highlight was to christian the opening of iXsystems™ Maryville facility, the key operations center that will house iX engineering, support and part of marketing as well. News of this can be found here.

iX datacenter in the new Maryville facility

Western Digital® has always been a big advocate of iX, and at the Summit, they shared their hard disk drives HDD, solid state drives SSD, and other storage platforms roadmaps. I felt like a kid a candy store because I love all these excitements in the disk drive industry. Who says HDDs are going to be usurped by SSDs?

Several other disk drive manufacturers, including Western Digital®, have announced larger capacity drives. Here are some news of each vendor in recent months

Other than the AFR (annualized failure rates) numbers published by Backblaze every quarter, the Capacity factor has always been a measurement of high interest in the storage industry.

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Unstructured Data Observability with Datadobi StorageMAP

Let’s face it. Data is bursting through its storage seams. And every organization now is storing too much data that they don’t know they have.

By 2025, IDC predicts that 80% the world’s data will be unstructured. IDC‘s report Global Datasphere Forecast 2021-2025 will see the global data creation and replication capacity expand to 181 zettabytes, an unfathomable figure. Organizations are inundated. They struggle with data growth, with little understanding of what data they have, where the data is residing, what to do with the data, and how to manage the voluminous data deluge.

The simple knee-jerk action is to store it in cloud object storage where the price of storage is $0.0000xxx/GB/month. But many IT departments in these organizations often overlook the fact that that the data they have parked in the cloud require movement between the cloud and on-premises. I have been involved in numerous discussions where the customers realized that they moved the data in the cloud moved too frequently. Often it was an erred judgement or short term blindness (blinded by the cheap storage costs no doubt), further exacerbated by the pandemic. These oversights have resulted in expensive and painful monthly API calls and egress fees. Welcome to reality. Suddenly the cheap cloud storage doesn’t sound so cheap after all.

The same can said about storing non-active unstructured data on primary storage. Many organizations have not been disciplined to practise good data management. The primary Tier 1 storage becomes bloated over time, grinding sluggishly as the data capacity grows. I/O processing becomes painfully slow and backup takes longer and longer. Sounds familiar?

The A in ABC

I brought up the ABC mantra a few blogs ago. A is for Archive First. It is part of my data protection consulting practice conversation repertoire, and I use it often to advise IT organizations to be smart with their data management. Before archiving (some folks like to call it tiering, but I am not going down that argument today), we must know what to archive. We cannot blindly send all sorts of junk data to the secondary or tertiary storage premises. If we do that, it is akin to digging another hole to fill up the first hole.

We must know which unstructured data to move replicate or sync from the Tier 1 storage to a second (or third) less taxing storage premises. We must be able to see this data, observe its behaviour over time, and decide the best data management practice to apply to this data. Take note that I said best data management practice and not best storage location in the previous sentence. There has to be a clear distinction that a data management strategy is more prudent than to a “best” storage premises. The reason is many organizations are ignorantly thinking the best storage location (the thought of the “cheapest” always seems to creep up) is a good strategy while ignoring the fact that data is like water. It moves from premises to premises, from on-prem to cloud, cloud to other cloud. Data mobility is a variable in data management.

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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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Crash consistent data recovery for ZFS volumes

While TrueNAS® CORE and TrueNAS® Enterprise are more well known for its NAS (network attached storage) prowess, many organizations are also confidently placing their enterprise applications such as hypervisors and databases on TrueNAS® via SANs (storage area networks) as well. Both iSCSI and Fibre Channel™ (selected TrueNAS® Enterprise storage models) protocols are supported well.

To reliably protect these block-based applications via the SAN protocols, ZFS snapshot is the key technology that can be dependent upon to restore the enterprise applications quickly. However, there are still some confusions when it comes to the state of recovery from the ZFS snapshots. On that matter, this situations are not unique to the ZFS environments because as with many other storage technologies, the confusion often stem from the (mis)understanding of the consistency state of the data in the backups and in the snapshots.

Crash Consistency vs Application Consistency

To dispel this misunderstanding, we must first begin with the understanding of a generic filesystem agnostic snapshot. It is a point-in-time copy, just like a data copy on the tape or in the disks or in the cloud backup. It is a complete image of the data and the state of the data at the storage layer at the time the storage snapshot was taken. This means that the data and metadata in this snapshot copy/version has a consistent state at that point in time. This state is frozen for this particular snapshot version, and therefore it is often labeled as “crash consistent“.

In the event of a subsystem (application, compute, storage, rack, site, etc) failure or a power loss, data recovery can be initiated using the last known “crash consistent” state, i.e. restoring from the last good backup or snapshot copy. Depending on applications, operating systems, hypervisors, filesystems and the subsystems (journals, transaction logs, protocol resiliency primitives etc) that are aligned with them, some workloads will just continue from where it stopped. It may already have some recovery mechanisms or these workloads can accept data loss without data corruption and inconsistencies.

Some applications, especially databases, are more sensitive to data and state consistencies. That is because of how these applications are designed. Take for instance, the Oracle® database. When an Oracle® database instance is online, there is an SGA (system global area) which handles all the running mechanics of the database. SGA exists in the memory of the compute along with transaction logs, tablespaces, and open files that represent the Oracle® database instance. From time to time, often measured in seconds, the state of the Oracle® instance and the data it is processing have to be synched to non-volatile, persistent storage. This commit is important to ensure the integrity of the data at all times.

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Open Source Storage Technology Crafters

The conversation often starts with a challenge. “What’s so great about open source storage technology?

For the casual end users of storage systems, regardless of SAN (definitely not Fibre Channel) or NAS on-premises, or getting “files” from the personal cloud storage like Dropbox, OneDrive et al., there is a strong presumption that open source storage technology is cheap and flaky. This is not helped with the diet of consumer brands of NAS in the market, where the price is cheap, but the storage offering with capabilities, reliability and performance are found to be wanting. Thus this notion floats its way to the business and enterprise users, and often ended up with a negative perception of open source storage technology.

Highway Signpost with Open Source wording

Storage Assemblers

Anybody can “build” a storage system with open source storage software. Put the software together with any commodity x86 server, and it can function with the basic storage services. Most open source storage software can do the job pretty well. However, once the completed storage technology is put together, can it do the job well enough to serve a business critical end user? I have plenty of sob stories from end users I have spoken to in these many years in the industry related to so-called “enterprise” storage vendors. I wrote a few blogs in the past that related to these sad situations:

We have such storage offerings rigged with cybersecurity risks and holes too. In a recent Unit 42 report, 250,000 NAS devices are vulnerable and exposed to the public Internet. The brands in question are mentioned in the report.

I would categorize these as storage assemblers.

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Windows SMB synchronous writes with OpenZFS

Sometimes I get really pissed off with myself because I have taken a bigoted view, and ended up with eggs on my face. The past week was like that, and the problem was gnawing me on the inside all week, because I was determined to balance my equilibrium by finding the answer.

Early in the week, I was having a conversation with a potential customer. It evolved around the missing 10 seconds or so of the video footage between the users of a popular video editing software. The company had 70% Windows users, and 30% users on the Mac, both sides accessing the NAS device. The issue was the editors on the Windows side will store the raw and edited files to the NAS, but when the Mac users read them, they will often find 10 seconds or so of the stored video files missing.

The likeliest culprit of this problem is the way the SMB protocol write I/O behaves in Windows and in MacOS. Windows SMB, by default, writes I/O asynchronously while SMB on MacOS writes I/O synchronously.

I had a strong conviction I had the answer to this issue but this was not a TrueNAS®, It was another brand of NAS that I did not have knowledge of, and so, I left the conversation feeling quite embarrassed because I had the answer only on the TrueNAS® server side, not on the Windows client side. Bigotry blinded me. Hmmph! 

SMB (Server Message Block) client-server model

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Setting up Nextcloud on FreeNAS Part 1

I have started to enhance the work that I did last weekend with Nextcloud on FreeNAS™. I promised to share the innards of my work but first I have to set the right expectations for the readers. This blog is just a documentation of the early work I have been doing to get Nextcloud on FreeNAS™ off the ground quickly. Also there are far better blogs than mine on the Nextcloud topic.

Note:

Nextcloud 17 (latest version is version 21)

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Before we say good bye to AFP

The Apple Filing Protocol (AFP) file sharing service in the MacOS Server is gone. The AFP file server capability was dropped in MacOS version 11, aka Big Sur back in December last year. The AFP client is the last remaining piece in MacOS and may see its days numbered as well as the world of file services evolved from the simple local networks and workgroup collaboration of the 80s and 90s, to something more complex and demanding. The AFP’s decline was also probably aided by the premium prices of Apple hardware, and many past users have switched to Windows for frugality and prudence reasons. SMB/CIFS is the network file sharing services for Windows, and AFP is not offered in Windows natively.

MacOS supports 3 of the file sharing protocols natively – AFP, NFS and SMB/CIFSas a client. Therefore, it has the capability to collaborate well in many media and content development environments, and sharing and exchanging files easily, assuming that the access control and permissions and files/folders ownerships are worked out properly. The large scale Apple-only network environment is no longer feasible and many studios that continue to use Macs for media and content development have only a handful of machines and users.

NAS vendors that continue to support AFP file server services are not that many too, or at least those who advertise their support for AFP. iXsystems™ TrueNAS® is one of the few. This blog shows the steps to setup the AFP file services for MacOS clients.

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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.