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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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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Is Software Defined right for Storage?

George Herbert Leigh Mallory, mountaineer extraordinaire, was once asked “Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?“, in which he replied “Because it’s there“. That retort demonstrated the indomitable human spirit and probably exemplified best the relationship between the human being’s desire to conquer the physical limits of nature. The software of humanity versus the hardware of the planet Earth.

Juxtaposing, similarities can be said between software and hardware in computer systems, in storage technology per se. In it, there are a few schools of thoughts when it comes to delivering storage services with the notable ones being the storage appliance model and the software-defined storage model.

There are arguments, of course. Some are genuinely partisan but many a times, these arguments come in the form of the flavour of the moment. I have experienced in my past companies touting the storage appliance model very strongly in the beginning, and only to be switching to a “software company” chorus years after that. That was what I meant about the “flavour of the moment”.

Software Defined Storage

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