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.

A few months later, I started Network Appliance® (before they renamed as NetApp®) in Malaysia with a Sun sales rep (great guy!) as employee #2. That was July 2000. And I started to warm up to the storage appliance model. Obviously I was drinking the Kool-Aid of NetApp® but over the past 2 decades, I have grown to understand and appreciate this approach to this kind of data services platform. It made sense.

My story of software-defined storage begins …

There was no such thing as software defined storage (SDS) at that time. Proprietary storage OSes and operating environments ran on proprietary hardware – the Appliance Way. Linux was pushing its way through the enterprises and x86 architectures started to gain a foothold into the datacenter. Oracle® on Linux on x86 was big for me, because I became one of the few Oracle® Consulting Systems Engineer for Network Appliance® in Asia Pacific. I spent weekends in the office hacking, learning and tuning the Oracle® Enterprise RDBMS on RedHat® Linux with NFS. I was totally immersed in Oracle® with the storage appliance way. The x86 and open source revolution was well underway, and free open source storage software began to appear.

January 2009. I became jobless (thank you EMC®!). I started my first company, Next Logic, to work on this nascent rise of SDS. I invested in a Sun X4150 (config: 8 x 144GB 10K RPM SAS drives = 1.1TB raw) for the business and I signed up as one of the early resellers in Malaysia for Nexenta. My ZFS journey began, in full, and with the same fervent energy as always, I went all out with Nexenta. But I did not do well with the Next Logic and eventually was acquired by Real Data Matrix in 2010.

And I discovered FreeNAS™ about the same time circa 2010. SDS became another storage adventure for me.

Why a storage appliance model matters?

My grandfather stories aside, there is a technology advantage of the storage appliance model in my opinion. Because of my love of all things storage, I have learned to appreciate the finer things of the storage technology industry and the ecosystems in it.

Here are a few key factors why the storage appliance model matters more to me:

  • Purpose built – A storage appliance is often designed to performs its storage functions really well
  • Secure – The non-essential functions which are not related to the storage services are removed and this reduces the surfaces of attacks. An open source storage platform will have a faster time to fixes and updates and the code more open to inspection to find and investigate vulnerabilities
  • Efficient – Making the various components of the solutions integrated together makes the storage appliance a better oiled machine to deliver the services. In most cases a storage appliance is tuned to perform the functions better. High degree of resources utilization and technology alignment mean higher efficiency.
  • Availability – In HA (High Availability) situations, storage appliances tend to have specialized electronics to handle the low latency requirements of storage services failover and failback to ensure minimal disruptions and services continuity.
  • Simple – Most of the functions and services are designed to perform as a single delivery platform
  • Experience – The overall experience invested in the storage appliance feels “satisfying and complete”.

These factors translate to a better crafted and developed storage solution, and from them, benefits that come from these vantage points.

Not zero sum game. 

Both models are right, depending on circumstances and customer needs. As a storage consultant and solution architect, one must possess the skills and expertise to conjure up a well fitted and integrated storage solution for every requirement. The point to observe here is there is another layer above the storage infrastructure and the storage software. And I want to highlight this point that the storage technology is just another component of  the enterprise and cloud data framework and the primary platform that serves data. Data is at the heart of designing a storage infrastructure and data management solution. That is why I have always depend on the framework of A.P.P.A.R.M.S.C., something I put together 22+ years ago. This framework was constructed over the years since consuming the wisdom of Jon Toigo (God bless his soul) from the year 2000 onwards.

  • Availability
  • Protection
  • Performance
  • Accessibility
  • Recovery
  • Management
  • Security
  • Compliance

Stringing and stitching these data requirements together along with the storage infrastructure and storage software is at the core of what I do everyday. As such, storage architects are really the data solution tailors (or plumbers) at the foundation level that make data flow and used efficiently and effectively within the data management and storage ecosystem.

As the demands of the ever growing storage requirements come together to address the inundating volumes of data, the storage appliance design model remains one of the more capable ones. Workloads have changed as well, very much differentiated and become niched in many of the newer applications.

Thus, the storage appliance design model can be less flexible than the software defined one. There are also additional costs in putting the storage appliance design model together, but in most scenarios, the benefits and the advantages outweighs the deficiencies.

But given what is laid out on the table, the Zen master will probably say “We’ll see“. There is room for both.

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About cfheoh

I am a technology blogger with 30 years of IT experience. I write heavily on technologies related to storage networking and data management because those are my areas of interest and expertise. I introduce technologies with the objectives to get readers to know the facts and use that knowledge to cut through the marketing hypes, FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) and other fancy stuff. Only then, there will be progress. I am involved in SNIA (Storage Networking Industry Association) and between 2013-2015, I was SNIA South Asia & SNIA Malaysia non-voting representation to SNIA Technical Council. I currently employed at iXsystems as their General Manager for Asia Pacific Japan.

One Response to Stating the case for a Storage Appliance approach

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