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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All the Sources and Sinks going to Object Storage

The vocabulary of sources and sinks are beginning to appear in the world of data storage as we witness the new addition of data processing frameworks and the applications in this space. I wrote about this in my blog “Rethinking data. processing frameworks systems in real time” a few months ago, introducing my take on this budding new set of I/O characteristics and data ecosystem. I also started learning about the Kappa Architecture (and Lambda as well), a framework designed to craft and develop a set of amalgamated technologies to handle stream processing of a series of data in relation to time.

In Computer Science, sources and sinks are considered external entities that often serve as connectors of input and output of disparate systems. They are often not in the purview of data storage architects. Also often, these sources and sinks are viewed as black boxes, and their inner workings are hidden from the views of the data storage architects.

Diagram from https://developer.here.com/documentation/get-started/dev_guide/shared_content/topics/olp/concepts/pipelines.html

The changing facade of data stream processing presents the constant motion of data, the continuous data being altered as it passes through the many integrated sources and sinks. We are also see much of the data processed in-memory as much as possible. Thus, the data services from a traditional storage model of SAN and NAS may straggle with the requirements demanded by this new generation of data stream processing.

As the world of traditional data storage processing is expanding into data streams processing and vice versa, and the chatter of sources and sinks can no longer be ignored.

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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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How well do you know your data and the storage platform that processes the data

Last week was consumed by many conversations on this topic. I was quite jaded, really. Unfortunately many still take a very simplistic view of all the storage technology, or should I say over-marketing of the storage technology. So much so that the end users make incredible assumptions of the benefits of a storage array or software defined storage platform or even cloud storage. And too often caveats of turning on a feature and tuning a configuration to the max are discarded or neglected. Regards for good storage and data management best practices? What’s that?

I share some of my thoughts handling conversations like these and try to set the right expectations rather than overhype a feature or a function in the data storage services.

Complex data networks and the storage services that serve it

I/O Characteristics

Applications and workloads (A&W) read and write from the data storage services platforms. These could be local DAS (direct access storage), network storage arrays in SAN and NAS, and now objects, or from cloud storage services. Regardless of structured or unstructured data, different A&Ws have different behavioural I/O patterns in accessing data from storage. Therefore storage has to be configured at best to match these patterns, so that it can perform optimally for these A&Ws. Without going into deep details, here are a few to think about:

  • Random and Sequential patterns
  • Block sizes of these A&Ws ranging from typically 4K to 1024K.
  • Causal effects of synchronous and asynchronous I/Os to and from the storage

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OpenZFS with Object Storage

At AWS re:Invent last week, Amazon Web Services announced Amazon FSx for OpenZFS. This is the 4th managed service under the Amazon FSx umbrella, joining NetApp® ONTAP™, Lustre and Windows File Server. The highly scalable OpenZFS filesystem can provide high throughput and IOPS bandwidth to Amazon EC2, ECS, EKS and VMware® Cloud on AWS.

I am assuming the AWS OpenZFS uses EBS as the block storage backend, given the announcement that it can deliver 4GB/sec of throughput and 160,000 IOPS from the “drives” without caching. How the OpenZFS is provisioned to the AWS clients is well documented in this blog here. It is an absolutely joy (for me) to see the open source OpenZFS filesystem getting the validation and recognization from AWS. This is one hell of a filesystem.

But this blog isn’t about AWS FSx for OpenZFS with block storage. It is about what is coming, and eventually AWS FSx for OpenZFS could expand into AWS’s proficient S3 storage as well.  Can OpenZFS integrate with an S3 object storage backend? This blog looks into the burning question.

In the recently concluded OpenZFS Developer Summit 2021, one of the topics was “ZFS on Object Storage“, and the short answer is a resounding YES!

OpenZFS Developer Summit 2021

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The burgeoning world of NVMe

When I wrote this article “Let’s smoke this storage peace pipe” 5 years ago, I quoted:

NVMe® and NVM®eF‰, as it evolves, can become the Great Peacemaker and bringing both divides and uniting them into a single storage fabric.

I envisioned NVMe® and NVMe®oF™ setting the equilibrium at the storage architecture level, finishing the great storage fabric into one. This balance in the storage ecosystem at the storage interface specifications and language-protocol level has rapidly unifying storage today, and we are already seeing the end-to-end NVMe paths directly from the PCIe bus of one host to another, via networks over Ethernet (with RoCE, iWARP, and TCP flavours) and Fibre Channel™. Technically we can have an end point device, example a tablet, talking the same NVMe language to its embedded storage as well as a cloud NVMe storage in an exascale storage far, far away. In the past, there were just too many bridges, links, viaducts, aqueducts, bypasses, tunnels, flyovers to cross just to deliver a storage command, or a data in a formats, encased and encoded (and decoded) in so many different ways.

Colours in equilibrium, like the rainbow

Simple basics of NVMe®

SATA (Serial Attached ATA) and SAS (Serial Attached SCSI) are not optimized for solid state devices. besides legacy stuff like AHCI (Advanced Host Controller Interface) in SATA, and archaic SCSI-3 primitives in SAS, NVM® has so much to offer. It can achieve very high bandwidth and support 65,535 I/O queues, each with a queue depth of 65,535. The queue depth alone is a massive jump compared to SAS which has a queue depth limit of 256.

A big part of this is how NVMe® handles I/O processing. It has a submission queue (SQ) and a completion queue (CQ), and together they are know as a Queue Pair (QP). The NVMe® controller handles tens of thousands at I/Os (reads and writes) simultaneously, alerted to switch between each SQ and CQ very quickly using the MSI or MSI-X interrupt. Think of MSI and MSI-X as a service bell, a hardware register that informs the NVM® controller when there are requests in the SQ, and informs the hosts that there are completed requests in the CQ. There will be plenty of “dings” by the MSI-X service register but the NVMe® controller can perform it very well, with some smart interrupt coalescing.

NVMe I/O processing

NVMe® 1.1, as I recalled, used to be have 3 admin commands and 10 base commands, which made it very lightweight compared to SCSI-3. However, newer commands were added to NVMe® 2.0 specifications included command sets fo key-value operations and zoned named space.

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The future of Fibre Channel in the Cloud Era

The world has pretty much settled that hybrid cloud is the way to go for IT infrastructure services today. Straddled between the enterprise data center and the infrastructure-as-a-service in public cloud offerings, hybrid clouds define the storage ecosystems and architecture of choice.

A recent Blocks & Files article, “Broadcom server-storage connectivity sales down but recovery coming” caught my attention. One segment mentioned that the server-storage connectivity sales was down 9% leading me to think “Is this a blip or is it a signal that Fibre Channel, the venerable SAN (storage area network) protocol is on the wane?

Fibre Channel Sign

Thus, I am pondering the position of Fibre Channel SANs in the cloud era. Where does it stand now and in the near future? Continue reading