APIs that stick in Storage

The competition in storage networking and data management is forever going to get fiercer. And there is always going to be the question of either having open standards APIs or proprietary APIs because storage networking and data management technologies constantly have to balance between gaining a competitive advantage with proprietary APIs  or getting greater market acceptance with open standards APIs.

The flip side, is having proprietary APIs could limit and stunt the growth of the solution but with much better integration and interoperability with complementary solutions. Open standards APIs could make the entire market a plain, vanilla one where there is little difference between technology A or B or C or X, and in the long run, could give lesser incentive for technology innovation.

I am not an API guy. I do not code or do development work on APIs, but I do like APIs (Application Programming Interface). I have my fair share of APIs which can be considered open or proprietary depending on who you talk to. My understanding is that an API might be more open if there are many ISVs, developers and industry supporters endorsing it and have a valid (and usually profit-related) agenda to make the API open.

I can share some work experience with some APIs I have either worked in the past or give my views of some present cool APIs that are related to storage networking and data management.

One of the API-related works I did was with the EMC Centera. I was working with Schlumberger to create a file-level archiving/lifecycle management solution for the GeoFrame seismic files with the EMC Centera. This was back in 2008.

EMC Centera does not present itself as a NAS box (even though I believe, IDC lumps Centera sales numbers to worldwide NAS market figures, unless I am no longer correct chronologically) but rather through ISVs and application-level integration with the EMC Centera API. Here’s a high-level look of how the EMC Centera talks to application with the API.

Note: EMC Centera can also present a NAS integration interface through NFS, CIFS, HTTP and FTP protocols, but the customer must involve (may have to purchase) the EMC Centera Universal Access software appliance. This is for applications that do not have the level of development and integration to interface with the EMC Centera API. 

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Can VSA help NetApp?

Almost a year ago, I had an interview with VMware Malaysia for a Senior SE position. They wanted a pre-sales guy who knows Oil & Gas and a strong technology background. I had a strong storage background, and I was involved in Oil & Gas upstream since my NetApp and EMC days.

I thought I was their guy having being led to believe (mostly by my own self-belief) to be so. I didn’t get the job but I did not find out the reason why I lost the opportunity. But I remembered well that I brashly mentioned to the Australian interviewer over the phone that VMware could become the next “storage technology” company. At that time, VMware just launched their VMware 5.0 and along with it, their vSphere Storage Appliance (VSA). This was a turning point of the virtual storage appliance space.

My friend, whose company is a VMware partner, said that the list price for the vSphere VSA was USD5,000.00 a pop. The price wasn’t too bad to the small-medium-enterprise businesses in Malaysia, minus the hardware and storage capacity cost. But what intrigued me back then was this virtual storage appliance concept was disruptive.

VMware could potentially take large JBOD farms, each for the minimum of 3 physical ESXi nodes and build a shared storage using the vSphere Storage Appliance (VSA). Who needs shared iSCSI or Fibre Channel LUNs anymore if VMware had its way?

But VMware still pretty much depended on their storage partners, especially its master, EMC and so I believe VMware held back pushing VSA for the reason of allowing its storage partner ecosystem to thrive. And for that reason, the vSphere Storage API such as VAAI and VASA were developed since vSphere 4 to enhance the deeper integration of these storage vendor’s technology into the VMware world.

But of course, long before the VMware’s VSA venture, HP LeftHand already had one on the cards. The LeftHand Virtual SAN Appliance (also VSA) was already getting rave comments from their partners and customers, impressed with how they were able to showcase HP LeftHand storage solution and technology brilliantly. Eventually, HP recognized the prowess of the LeftHand VSA and started marketing it as HP StoreVirtual VSA. I don’t hear much about the HP LeftHand (since has been renamed as P4000) VSA nowadays, seeing the HP guys in Malaysia preferring to pitch the physical storage than the virtual storage software.

NetApp, back in Q1 of 2012, also decided to go down the path of virtual storage appliance, announcing the ONTAP-v to the world here. It was initially resold through the Fujitsu partnership, but the Q1 announcement expands the ONTAP-v to a larger set of server vendors as shown below. The key component is to have a qualified RAID controller in each of the server vendors.

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VMware – the silent storage killer

When VMware 5.0 was launched last month, I heard the feature called Virtual Storage Appliance (VSA) was finally out and is now being offered as an SMB/SME “storage” solution. In my mind, alarm bells were ringing because in its own stealthy manner, VMware had just become a storage player.

What VMware is offering is “Hey! If you don’t have money to buy your enterprise storage array, don’t worry. Make your own shared storage with our very own VMware VSA“. VSA utilizes the internal disks of the ESX/ESXi host as its shared storage.

VSA is nothing new. For years, LeftHand Networks had one for its engineers to do demo and show the functionality of their solution. EMC had it too, and recently I found out that NetApp has its own VSA, but only resell through its partner, Fujitsu. I am not 100% sure about the NetApp thing and I need a NetApp guy to verify this.

Smaller players, but not insignificant, such as Nutanix, Nexenta and Tintri are already offering their own versions and implementation of VSA to their customers, each with its own uniqueness and differences. With the release of the VMware VSA into the open, we shall see all the big storage players offering their VSAs to VMware, like natives offering sacrifices to VMware God. Or perhaps, it has already begun. It is ala-Nexus 1000v all over again.

VMware has become a huge juggernaut and it is merely using its advantage to consolidate the storage component under its control. When VMware version 4.0 came out, vStorage API was introduced along with VAAI (vStorage API for Array Integration). VAAI was created to enhance the storage experience by offloading specific storage operations to the native features of that supported storage platform. That’s all I know about VAAI at this moment, but with this feature, the storage array is tightly integrating its platform to VMware, or should I say … quietly ensnared by VMware tentacles of doom! (Evil laugh in the background! Mua ha ha ha ….!)

In the recently past VMworld, this storage story is slowly being unfurled even more to the world. VASA (vStorage API for Storage Awareness) was recently announced and EMC’s COO Pat Gelsinger spoke about the tighter integration (that word again!) that blurs the administration domain of the VMware admin and the storage admin. Below is a video of Pat Gelsinger talking about VASA below (this is long 55 minute video – Click only if you have the time).

Mind you, the entire vStorage API is still evolving as VMware 5.0 rolls out but here’s the thing. VMware has come out and say that the storage world about LUNs, RAID groups and mount points are a level below what the VMware admin should be concerned about. VMware admins handles their storage at the VM level or as VMDK and therefore, anything below it is of little significance to them. Again, you can see that VMware is using its muscle to say “If you guys want to play, you have to play by my rules“.

So, some new announcements came out from VMworld for storage such as Capacity Pools, I/O Multiplexer, and Storage DRS (Storage Distributed Resource Management) and also an enhanced version (probably more storage resilient) SRM (Site Recovery Manager). All these are being managed at a level above the traditional storage admin level and VMware has said that the VMware admin would be able to carve out a VM volume with its own set of default storage properties, defined snapshot retentions, replication and perhaps even compression and deduplication. But all these will be happening at the VM volume or VMDK level, not a level below that.

Details are still sketchy at this point in time and we probably won’t see these GA until probably VMware version 6.0. But the inertia has been rocked quietly and the VMware storage momentum will gain strength as time passes by. We could see that VMware would just need JBOD (just a bunch of disks) because it has its own enterprise storage features through its vStorage APIs or its future storage specifications. We have seen it happening in VSA with VMware offering its own storage.

From the similar news, what surprised me was what was quoted as shown below.

The presenters said VMware developed the APIs with EMC, NetApp, Dell,
IBM and Hewlett-Packard,but they began the session with a disclaimer
that none of those vendors has committed to support the APIs in
their arrays.

Why the hell would EMC, NetApp, Dell, IBM and HP do something like that?!! Don’t they know that this could contribute to their insignificance in the future?

I am still perplexed but as the whole thing is still evolving, VMware seems to be only obvious winner here.