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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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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Intel is still a formidable force

It is easy to kick someone who is down. Bad news have stronger ripple effects than the good ones. Intel® is going through a rough patch, and perhaps the worst one so far. They delayed their 7nm manufacturing process, one which could have given Intel® the breathing room in the CPU war with rival AMD. And this delay has been pushed back to 2021, possibly 2022.

Intel Apple Collaboration and Partnership started in 2005

Their association with Apple® is coming to an end after 15 years, and more security flaws surfaced after the Spectre and Meltdown debacle. Extremetech probably said it best (or worst) last month:

If we look deeper (and I am sure you have), all these negative news were related to their processors. Intel® is much, much more than that.

Their Optane™ storage prowess

I have years of association with the folks at Intel® here in Malaysia dating back 20 years. And I hardly see Intel® beating it own drums when it comes to storage technologies but they are beginning to. The Optane™ revolution in storage, has been a game changer. Optane™ enables the implementation of persistent memory or storage class memory, a performance tier that sits between DRAM and the SSD. The speed and more notable the latency of Optane™ are several times faster than the Enterprise SSDs.

Intel pyramid of tiers of storage medium

If you want to know more about Optane™’s latency and speed, here is a very geeky article from Intel®:

The list of storage vendors who have embedded Intel® Optane™ into their gears is long. Vast Data, StorOne™, NetApp® MAX Data, Pure Storage® DirectMemory Modules, HPE 3PAR and Nimble Storage, Dell Technologies PowerMax, PowerScale, PowerScale and many more, cement Intel® storage prowess with Optane™.

3D Xpoint, the Phase Change Memory technology behind Optane™ was from the joint venture between Intel® and Micron®. That partnership was dissolved in 2019, but it has not diminished the momentum of next generation Optane™. Alder Stream and Barlow Pass are going to be Gen-2 SSD and Persistent Memory DC DIMM respectively. A screenshot of the Optane™ roadmap appeared in Blocks & Files last week.

Intel next generation Optane roadmap

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Dell EMC Isilon is an Emmy winner!

[ Disclosure: I was invited by GestaltIT as a delegate to their Storage Field Day 19 event from Jan 22-24, 2020 in the Silicon Valley USA. My expenses, travel, accommodation and conference fees were covered by GestaltIT, the organizer and I was not obligated to blog or promote the vendors’ technologies presented at this event. The content of this blog is of my own opinions and views ]

And the Emmy® goes to …

Yes, the Emmy® goes to Dell EMC Isilon! It was indeed a well deserved accolade and an honour!

Dell EMC Isilon had just won the Technology & Engineering Emmy® Awards a week before Storage Field Day 19, for their outstanding pioneering work on the NAS platform tiering technology of media and broadcasting content according to business value.

A lasting true clustered NAS

This is not a blog to praise Isilon but one that instill respect to a real true clustered, scale-out file system. I have known of OneFS for a long time, but never really took the opportunity to really put my hands on it since 2006 (there is a story). So here is a look at history …

Back in early to mid-2000, there was a lot of talks about large scale NAS. There were several players in the nascent scaling NAS market. NetApp was the filer king, with several competitors such as Polyserve, Ibrix, Spinnaker, Panasas and the young upstart Isilon. There were also Procom, BlueArc and NetApp’s predecessor Auspex. By the second half of the 2000 decade, the market consolidated and most of these NAS players were acquired.

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Open Source and Open Standards open the Future

[Disclosure: I was invited by GestaltIT as a delegate to their Storage Field Day 19 event from Jan 22-24, 2020 in the Silicon Valley USA. My expenses, travel, accommodation and conference fees were covered by GestaltIT, the organizer and I was not obligated to blog or promote the vendors’ technologies to be presented at this event. The content of this blog is of my own opinions and views]

Western Digital dived into Storage Field Day 19 in full force as they did in Storage Field Day 18. A series of high impact presentations, each curated for the diverse requirements of the audience. Several open source initiatives were shared, all open standards to address present inefficiencies and designed and developed for a greater future.

Zoned Storage

One of the initiatives is to increase the efficiencies around SMR and SSD zoning capabilities and removing the complexities and overlaps of both mediums. This is the Zoned Storage initiatives a technical working proposal to the existing NVMe standards. The resulting outcome will give applications in the user space more control on the placement of data blocks on zone aware devices and zoned SSDs, collectively as Zoned Block Device (ZBD). The implementation in the Linux user and kernel space is shown below:

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Zoned Technologies with Western Digital

[Disclosure: I am invited by GestaltIT as a delegate to their Storage Field Day 19 event from Jan 22-24, 2020 in the Silicon Valley USA. My expenses, travel, accommodation and conference fees will be covered by GestaltIT, the organizer and I am not obligated to blog or promote the vendors’ technologies to be presented at this event. The content of this blog is of my own opinions and views]

Storage Field Day 19 is a week away. And one of the vendors presenting is Western Digital, who also presented at Storage Field Day 18 almost a year ago. Here is my blog where I received the full force of Western Digital. In that 10 months or so, Western Digital has sold off their IntelliFlash assets to Data Direct Networks and leaving their ActiveScale object storage platform in limbo.

What is in store from Western D?

I am eager to find out what coming from Western Digital. They have tons of storage technologies that I have yet to encounter, and this anticipation is keeping me excited for the Western D session at Storage Field Day 19.

For a few years I have been keen on a few Western D’s technologies which were moving up the value chain. They are:

In my patch, the signals of the 3 Western D’s technologies have gone weak in the past year. However, there is a lot of momentum right now for Zoned Storage and Zoned Name Space and I believe this could be what is in store for the storage propeller heads like us at Storage Field Day 19.

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Green Storage? Meh!

Something triggered my thoughts a few days ago. A few of us got together talking about climate change and a friend asked how green was the datacenter in IT. With cloud computing booming, I would say that green computing isn’t really the hottest thing at present. That in turn, leads us to one of the most voracious energy beasts in the datacenter, storage. Where is green storage in the equation?

What is green?

Over the past decade, several storage related technologies were touted as more energy efficient. These include

  • Tape – when tapes are offline, they do not consume power and do not require cooling
  • Virtualization – Virtualization reduces the number of servers and desktops, and of course storage too
  • MAID (Massive Array of Independent Disks) – the arrays spin down the HDDs if idle for a period of time
  • SSD (Solid State Drives) – Compared to HDDs, SSDs consume much less power, and overall reduce the cooling needs
  • Data Footprint Reduction – Deduplication, compression and other technologies to reduce copies of data
  • SMR (Shingled Magnetic Recording) Drives – Higher areal density means less drives but limited by physics.

The largest gorilla in storage technology

HDDs still dominate the market and they are the biggest producers of heat and vibration in a storage array, along with the redundant power supplies and fans. Until and unless SSDs dominate, we have to live with the fact that storage disk drives are not green. The statistics from Statistica below forecasts that in 2021, the shipment of SSDs will surpass HDDs.

Today the areal density of HDDs have increased. With SMR (shingled magnetic recording), the areal density jumped about 25% more than the 1Tb/inch (Terabit per inch) in the CMR (conventional magnetic recording) drives. The largest SMR in the market today is 16TB from Seagate with 18TB SMR in the horizon. That capacity is going to grow significantly when EAMR (energy assisted magnetic recording) – which counts heat assisted and microwave assisted – drives enter the market next year. The areal density will grow to 1.6Tb/inch with a roadmap to 4.0Tb/inch. Continue reading

Thinking small to solve Big

[This article was posted in my LinkedIn at on Sep 9th 2019]

The world’s economy has certainly turned. And organizations, especially the SMEs, are demanding more. There were times that many technology vendors and their tier 1 systems integrators could get away with plenty of high level hobnobbing, and showering the prospect with their marketing wow-factor. But those fancy, smancy days are drying up and SMEs now do a lot of research and demand a more elaborate and a more comprehensive technology solution to their requirements.

The SMEs have the same problems faced by the larger organizations. They want more data stored, protected and recoverable, and maximize the value of data. However, their risk factors are much higher than the larger enterprises, because a disruption or a simple breakdown could affect their business and operations far greater than larger organizations. In most situations, they have no safety net.

So, the past 3 odd years, I have learned that as a technology solution provider, as a systems integrator to SMEs, I have to be on-the-ball with their pains all the time. And I have to always remember that they do not have the deep pockets, especially when the economy in Malaysia has been soft for years.

That is why I have gravitated to technology solutions that matter to the SMEs and gentle to their pockets as well. Take for instance a small company called Itxotic I discovered earlier this year. Itxotic is a 100% Malaysian home-grown technology startup, focusing on customized industry intelligence, notably computer vision AI. Their prominent technology include defect detection in a manufacturing production line.


At the Enterprise level, it is easy for large technology providers like Hitachi or GE or Siemens to peddle similar high-tech solutions to SMEs requirements. But this would come with a price tag of hundreds of thousands of ringgit. SMEs will balk at such a large investment because the price tag is definitely something not comprehensible to the SME factories. That is why I gravitated to the small thinking of Itxotic, where their small, yet powerful technology solves big problems in the SMEs.

And this came about when more Industry 4.0 opportunities started to come into my radar. Similarly, I was also approached to look into a edge-network data analytics technology to be integrated into PLCs (programmable logic controllers). At present, the industry consultants who invited me, are peddling a foreign technology solution, and the technology costs RM13,000 per CPU core. In a typical 4-core processor IPC (industrial PC), that is a whopping RM52,000, minus the hardware and integration services. This can easily drive up the selling price of over RM100K, again, a price tag that will trigger a mini heart attack with the SMEs.

I am tasked by the industry consultants to design a more cost-friendly, aka cheaper solution and today, we are already building an alternative with Apache Kafka, its connectors and Grafana for visual reporting. And I think the cost to build this alternative technology will be probably 70-80% cheaper than the one they are reselling now. The “think small, solve Big” mantra is beginning to take hold, and I am excited about it.

In the “small” mantra, I mean to be intimate and humble with the end users. One lesson I have learned over the past years is, the SMEs count on their technology partners to be with them. They have no room for failure because a costly failure is likely to be devastating to their operations and business. Know the technology you are pitching well, so that the SMEs are confident that you can deliver, not some over-the-top high-level technology pitch. Look deep into the technology integration with their existing technology and operations, and carefully and meticulously craft and curate a well mapped plan for them. Commit to their journey to ensure their success.

I have often seen technology vendors and resellers leaving SMEs high and dry when it comes to something outside their scope, and this has been painful. That is why this isn’t a downgrade for me when I started working with the SMEs more often in the past 3 years, even though I have served the enterprise for more than 25 years. This invaluable lesson is an upgrade for me to serve my SME customers better.

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