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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Backup – Lest we forget

World Backup Day – March 31st

Last week was World Backup Day. It is on March 31st every year so that you don’t lose your data and become an April’s Fool the next day.

Amidst the growing awareness of the importance of backup, no thanks to the ever growing destructive nature of ransomware, it is important to look into other aspects of data protection – both a data backup/recovery and a data security –  point of view as well.

3-2-1 Rule, A-B-C and Air Gaps

I highlighted the basic 3-2-1 rule before. This must always be paired with a set of practised processes and policies to cultivate all stakeholders (aka the people) in the organization to understand the importance of protecting the data and ensuring data recoverability.

The A-B-C is to look at the production dataset and decide if the data should be stored in the Tier 1 storage. In most cases, the data becomes less active and these datasets may be good candidates to be archived. Once archived, the production dataset is smaller and data backup operations become lighter, faster and have positive causation as well.

Air gaps have returned to prominence since the heightened threats on data in recent years. The threats have pushed organizations to consider doing data offsite and offline with air gaps. Cost considerations and speed of recovery can be of concerns, and logical air gaps are also gaining style as an acceptable extra layer of data. protection.

Backup is not total Data Protection cyberdefence

If we view data protection more holistically and comprehensively, backup (and recovery) is not the total data protection solution. We must ignore the fancy rhetorics of the technology marketers that backup is the solution to ensure data protection because there is much more than that.

The well respected NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) Cybersecurity Framework places Recovery (along with backup) as the last pillar of its framework.

NIST Cybersecurity Framework

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Nakivo Backup Replication architecture and installation on TrueNAS – Part 1

Backup and Replication software have received strong mandates in organizations with enterprise mindsets and vision. But lower down the rung, small medium organizations are less invested in backup and replication software. These organizations know full well that they must backup, replicate and protect their servers, physical and virtual, and also new workloads in the clouds, given the threat of security breaches and ransomware is looming larger and larger all the time. But many are often put off by the cost of implementing and deploying a Backup and Replication software.

So I explored one of the lesser known backup and recovery software called Nakivo® Backup and Replication (NBR) and took the opportunity to build a backup and replication appliance in my homelab with TrueNAS®. My objective was to create a cost effective option for small medium organizations to enjoy enterprise-grade protection and recovery without the hefty price tag.

This blog, Part 1, writes about the architecture overview of Nakivo® and the installation of the NBR software in TrueNAS® to bake in and create the concept of a backup and replication appliance. Part 2, in a future blog post, will cover the administrative and operations usage of NBR.

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Please cultivate 3-2-1 and A-B-C of Data Management

My Sunday morning was muddled 2 weeks ago. There was a frenetic call from someone whom I knew a while back and he needed some advice. Turned out that his company’s files were encrypted and the “backups” (more on this later) were gone. With some detective work, I found that their files were stored in a Synology® NAS, often accessed via QuickConnect remotely, and “backed up” to Microsoft® Azure. I put “Backup” in inverted commas because their definition of “backup” was using Synology®’s Cloud Sync to Azure. It is not a true backup but a file synchronization service that often mislabeled as a data protection backup service.

All of his company’s projects files were encrypted and there were no backups to recover from. It was a typical ransomware cluster F crime scene.

I would have gloated because many of small medium businesses like his take a very poor and lackadaisical attitude towards good data management practices. No use crying over spilled milk when prevention is better than cure. But instead of investing early in the prevention, the cure would likely be 3x more expensive. And in this case, he wanted to use Deloitte® recovery services, which I did not know existed. Good luck with the recovery was all I said to him after my Sunday morning was made topsy turvy of sorts.

NAS is the ransomware goldmine

I have said it before and I am saying it again. NAS devices, especially the consumer and prosumer brands, are easy pickings because there was little attention paid to implement a good data management practice either by the respective vendor or the end users themselves. 2 years ago I was already seeing a consistent pattern of the heightened ransomware attacks on NAS devices, especially the NAS devices that proliferated the small medium businesses market segment.

The WFH (work from home) practice trigged by the Covid-19 pandemic has made NAS devices essential for businesses. NAS are the workhorses of many businesses after all.  The ease of connecting from anywhere with features similar to the Synology® QuickConnect I mentioned earlier, or through VPNs (virtual private networks), or a self created port forwarding (for those who wants to save a quick buck [ sarcasm ]), opened the doors to bad actors and easy ransomware incursions. Good data management practices are often sidestepped or ignored in exchange for simplicity, convenience, and trying to save foolish dollars. Until ….

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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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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 happened to NDMP?

The acronym NDMP shows up once in a while in NAS (Network Attached Storage) upgrade tenders. And for the less informed, NDMP (Network Data Management Protocol) was one of the early NAS data management (more like data mover specifications) initiatives to backup NAS devices, especially the NAS appliances that run proprietary operating systems code.


Backup software vendors often have agents developed specifically for an operating system or an operating environment. But back in the mid-1990s, 2000s, the internal file structures of these proprietary vendors were less exposed, making it harder for backup vendors to develop agents for them. Furthermore, there was a need to simplify the data movements of NAS files between backup servers and the NAS as a client, to the media servers and eventually to the tape or disk targets. The dominant network at the time ran at 100Mbits/sec.

To overcome this, Network Appliance® and PDC Solutions/Legato® developed the NDMP protocol, allowing proprietary NAS devices to run a standardized client-server architecture with the NDMP server daemon in the NAS and the backup service running as an NDMP client. Here is a simplified look at the NDMP architecture.

NDMP Client-Server Architecture

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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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