Linking Apple to SAN

Serendipity is what I would describe this encounter. I was introduced to Promise Technology Channel Sales Director early this week. When I saw his face, I realized that I already knew him, a Malaysian who previously worked at EMC in Taiwan, but has been residing in that country for many years. We laughed and joked like old buddies and hence, the story begins …

I have known of Promise through its popular VTrak storage, which many Apple users here ignorantly associate as an Apple product. Here it is, appearing on Apple’s website:

Yes, that’s the 3rd picture from your left.

Another very strong Apple product from Promise Technology is Pegasus, a storage line of direct-attached storage (DAS) sporting the Thunderbolt, a very fast interface that connects peripherals to Macs through its Mini DisplayPort. I found this strange having a graphics display port being used to connect to a storage device, but as I looked deeper into Thunderbolt, I found that the technology was meant to extend the PCIe bus with the DisplayPort into a conduit that delivers high throughput serially. Impressive!

The picture below shows the Thunderbolt link connections, in which
Intel will provide two types of Thunderbolt controllers, a 2 port type and a 1 port type.

But Thunderbolt is not a network-based technology. It is channel-based, and hence, connecting to a Fibre Channel SAN is like mixing oil with water. Apple is not known for accessing storage through Fibre Channel, and since Apple products do not have a Fibre Channel interface, Promise Technology has come up with Thunderbolt to Fibre Channel converter. They call it SANLink. And the picture below shows how it is done:

The SANLink can also be daisy-chained. In the example below, the Pegasus DAS is daisy-chained to a SANLink which then extends and expands its capacity from the Fibre Channel connected VTrak Ex30 or Ex10.

The connectivity can be 8Gbps for the VTrak Ex30, and 4Gbps for the Ex10, and it has been validated to work with MacOS X, Final Cut Studio and Apple’s Xsan.

This is targeted to the Apple’s presence in the video editing and video production environment. I have 1 customer using our storage for their Apple file sharing purpose, and I realized that these guys work in isolation most of the time. They are like a sheep-shearing house, taking one job, work on it a bit and then pass it on to another colleague for the next stage in the video production process. Sharing is clearly not well known in this type of environment. And Promise wants to change that by opening to those hermit-like video editors and producers to share and collaborate in their work.

I don’t know much about other vendors besides Apple that pushes the Thunderbolt technology. It is very high performance interface, capable of delivering 20Gbps but I am afraid that Thunderbolt may suffer from the Apple-only syndrome.

Apple tend to be very cutting-edge when it comes to most technologies that go into their products. That makes Apple high risk takers, and that puts Thunderbolt into that risky category when if Apple fails, Thunderbolt fails. So far, I have not seen Thunderbolt spreading like wildfire, but opening Apple to SAN, both iSCSI and Fibre Channel, is good. It is time Apple embrace more of the storage networking technologies and standards out there, rather than being steadfast with their proprietary implementation of storage. Apple File Protocol (AFP) and Thunderbolt (for now) comes to mind. It is good to be stubborn but …

Apple chomps Anobit

A few days ago, Apple paid USD$500 million to buy an Israeli startup, Anobit, a maker of flash storage technology.

Obviously, one of the reasons Apple did so is to move up a notch to differentiate itself from the competition and positions itself as a premier technology innovator. It has won the MP3 war with its iPod, but in the smartphones, tablets and notebooks space, Apple is being challenged strongly.

Today, flash storage technology is prevalent, and the demand to pack more capacity into a small real-estate of flash will eventually lead to reliability issues. The most common type of NAND flash storage is the MLC (multi-level cells) versus the more expensive type called SLC (single level cells).

But physically and the internal-build of MLC and SLC are the exactly the same, except that in SLC, one cell contains 1 bit of data. Obviously this means that 2 or more bits occupy one cell in MLC. That’s the only difference from a physical structure of NAND flash. However, if you can see from the diagram below, SLCs has advantages over MLCs.


NAND Flash uses electrical voltage to program a cell and it is always a challenge to store bits of data in a very, very small cell. If you apply too little voltage, the bit in the cell does not register and will result in something unreadable or an error. If you apply too much voltage, the adjacent cells are disturbed and resulting in errors in the flash. Voltage leak is not uncommon.

The demands of packing more and more data (i.e. more bits) into one cell geometry results in greater unreliability. Though the reliability of  the NAND Flash storage is predictable, i.e. we would roughly know when it will fail, we will eventually reach a point where the reliability of MLCs will no longer be desirable if we continue the trend of packing more and more capacity.

That’s when Anobit comes in. Anobit has designed and implemented architectural changes of the way NAND Flash storage is used. The technology in laymen terms comes in 2 stages.

  1. Error reduction – by understanding what causes flash impairment. This could be cross-coupling, read disturbs, data retention impairments, program disturbs, endurance impairments
  2. Error Correction and Signal Processing – Advanced ECC (error-correcting code), and introducing the patented (and other patents pending) Memory Signal Processing (TM) to improve the reliability and performance of the NAND Flash storage as show in the diagram below:

In a nutshell, Anobit’s new and innovative approach will result in

  • More reliable MLCs
  • Better performing MLCs
  • Cheaper NAND Flash technology

This will indeed extend the NAND Flash technology into greater innovation of flash storage technology in the near future. Whatever Apple will do with Anobit’s technology is anybody’s guess but one thing is certain. It’s going to propel Apple into newer heights.

Cloud Computing and it’s not iCloud

Steve Jobs was great with what he has done, but when it comes to Cloud Computing, Jeff Bezos of Amazon is the one. And I believe the Amazon Web Services (AWS) is bigger than Apple’s iCloud, in this present time and the future. Why do I say that knowing that the Apple fan boys could be using me as target practice? Because I believe what Amazon is doing is the future of Cloud Computing. Jeff Bezos is a true visionary.

One thing we have to note is that we play different roles when it comes to Cloud Computing. There are Cloud Service Providers (CSP) and there are enterprise subscribers. On a personal level, there are CSPs that cater for consumer-level type of services and there are subscribers of this kind as well. The diagram below shows the needs from an enterprise perspective, for both providers and subscribers.


Also we recognize Amazon from a less enterprise perspective, and they are probably better known for their engagement at the consumer level. But what Amazon is brewing could already be what Cloud Computing should be and I don’t think Apple iCloud is quite there yet.

Amazon Web Services cater for the enterprise and the IT crowd, providing both Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) and Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) through its delectable offerings of the

  • Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2)
  • SimpleDB
  • Simple Storage Service (S3)
  • Elastic Block Store (EBS)
  • Elastic Beanstalk
  • CloudFormation
  • many more

And AWS has been operational and serving enterprise customers for 5-6 years now. Netflix, Zynga, Farmville are some of AWS customers.  This is something Apple iCloud do not have, a Cloud Computing ecosystems for enterprise customers. Apple iCloud do not offer PaaS or IaaS. Perhaps that’s Apple vision not to get into the enterprise, but eventually the world evolve around businesses and businesses are adopting Cloud Computing. Many readers may disagree with what I say now in this paragraph but I will share with you later that even at the consumer level, Amazon is putting right moves in place, probably more so than Apple’s vision. (more about this later).

But the recent announcement of Kindle Fire, their USD$199 Android-based gadget, was to me, the final piece to Amazon’s Phase I jigsaw – the move to conquer the Cloud Computing space. I read somewhere that USD$199 Kindle Fire actually costs about USD$201.XX to manufacture. Apple’s iPad costs USD$499. So Amazon is making a loss for each gadget they sell. So what! It’s no big deal.

Let me share with you this table that will rattle your thinking a little bit. Remember this: Cloud Computing is defined as a “utility”. Cloud Computing is about services, content. 

The table was taken from a recent Wired Magazine article. It featured the interview with Jeff Bezos. Go check out the interview. It’s very refreshing and humbling.

I hope the table is convincing you enough to say that the device or the gadget doesn’t matter. Yes, Apple and Amazon have different visions when it comes to Cloud Computing, but if you take some time to analyze the comparison, Amazon does not lock you into buying expensive (but very good) hardware, unlike Apple.

Take for instance the last point. Apple promotes downloaded media while Amazon uses streamed media. If you think about it, that what Cloud Computing should be because the services and the contents are utility. Amazon is providing services and content as a utility. Apple’s thinking is more old-school, still very much the PC-era type of mentality. You have to download the applications onto your gadget before you can use it.

Even the Amazon Silk browser concept is more revolutionary that Apple’s Safari. The Silk browser splits some of the processing in the Amazon Cloud, taking advantage of the power of the Amazon Cloud to do the processing for the user. Here’s a little video about Amazon Silk browser.

The Apple Safari is still very PC-centric, where most of the Web content has to be downloaded onto the browser to be viewed and processed. No doubt the Amazon Silk also download contents, but some of the processing such as read-ahead, applet-processing functions have been moved to Amazon Cloud. That’s changing our paradigm. That’s Cloud Computing. And iCloud does not have anything like that yet.

Someone once told me that Cloud is about economics. How incredibly true! It is about having the lowest costs to both providers and consumers. It’s about bringing a motherload of contents  that can be delivered to you on the network. Amazon has tons of digital books, music, movies, TV and computing power to sell to you. And they are doing it at a responsible pace, with low margins. With low margins, the barrier of entry is lower, which in turn accelerates the Cloud Computing adoption. And Amazon is very good at that. Heck, they are selling their Kindle Fire at a loss.

Jeff Bezos has stressed that what they are doing is long term, much longer term than most. To me, Jeff Bezos is the better visionary of Cloud Computing. I am sorry but the reality is Steve Jobs wants high margins from the gadgets they sell to you. That is Apple’s vision for you.

 Photo courtesy of Wired magazine.