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The rise of the specialized appliance

Compute and storage are 2 components within the IT infrastructure which are surely converging. SAN and NAS are facing their greatest adversary yet, and could be made insignificant if the cloud and virtualization game had their way. This is giving rise to the a new breed of solution, a specialized appliance where both compute and storage are ONE. Rising from the ashes of shared storage (SAN and NAS, take note), we are beginning to see things going back to way of direct, internal storage.

There were some scuffles in the bushes about 5 years, where Sun (now Oracle) was ahead of its game. The Sun Fire X4500 (aka Thumper) was one of the strong candidates to challenge the SAN/NAS duopoly in this networked storage period. X4500 integrated both the server and the storage components together, using ZFS as a file system and volume manager to deliver a very high throughput on all the JBOD disks very efficiently. ZFS acted as the RAID, so there was no need to have specialized RAID hardware. This proved that a very high performance storage solution can be easily integrated using standard off-the-shelf infrastructure components and the x86 architecture. By combining both compute and storage together, there were hints that the industry was about to rise up to Direct-Attached Storage (DAS) again, despite its perceived weakness against SAN and NAS.

Unfortunately, the applications were not ready for DAS then. Besides ZFS, applications such as databases, emails and file servers were not ready to jump into the DAS bandwagon and watch them ride into the sunset. But the fairy tale seems to be retold again, and this time, the evidence that DAS could rise again is much stronger.

The catalyst to this disruptive force? Virtualization!

I mentioned that VMware is the silent storage killer a few blogs ago. Needless to say, that ruffled a few featheres among the readers. I have no doubt that virtualization is changing how we storage guys look at SAN and NAS. In a traditional setup, the SAN or NAS is setup to provision LUNs or mount points to the data storage for VMFS volumes in the VMware environment. It will then be the storage array to provide snapshots, replications, thin provisioning and so on.

Perhaps VMware is nit picking that managing storage arrays for VMFS volumes is difficult. From the VMware administrators view, they are right. They don’t want to know what’s going on below the VM-level. All they want is storage, any kind of storage and VMware will manage the volumes, snapshots, replication and thinĀ  provisioning. Indeed they were already doing that since vStorage API was introduced. In the new release of VMware version 5.0, the ante has been upped even higher, making networked storage less and less significant.

If you want to know about vStorage API and stuff, below is a diagram of the integration of the various components at the VMware API level.

VMware can now use direct, internal storage look like shared storage. The Virtual Storage Appliance (VSA) does just that. VMware already has a thriving market from the community and hobbists for VMware Appliances.

The appliance market has now evolved into new infrastructure too. Using x86 architecture, off-the-shelf infrastructure components (sounds familiar?), companies such as Nutanix and Tintri are taking advantage of this booming trend to introduce specialized VMware appliances as shown in their advertisements on their respective web sites.

Here’s the Nutanix Ad:

Here’s the Tintri Ad:

Both Tintri and Nutanix are a new breed of appliances – specialized appliances for VMware.

At the same time, other applications are building these specialized appliances as well. I have mentioned Oracle Exadata many times in the past and Oracle Exadata is the perfect example an a fine-tuned, hardcore database engine to make the Oracle run at the best performance possible.

Likewise HP has announced their E5000 Messaging System for Microsoft Exchange. The E5000 is a specialized appliance optimized and well-tuned for the Microsoft Exchange Server 2010. From the words of HP,

“HP E5000 Messaging System is the industry’s first fully self-contained platform built for the next-generation of Microsoft Exchange to deliver enterprise-class messaging to businesses of all sizes. Built as a turnkey solution that can be up and running in a few hours vs. days, the HP E5000 Messaging System gives business users the experience they want most: large mailboxes, centralized archiving of mailboxes files and 24×7 access from any device. IT staffs benefit the solutions simplicity to setup, scale and manage and to meet new demands affordably. Ideal for multi-site enterprises as well as branch office and remote office environments, each HP Messaging System delivers greater simplicity and accelerates deployment with preconfigured solutions starting at 500 mailboxes up to 3000 mailboxes, while delivering large, 1 to 2.5GB mailbox sizes. Clients can grow by adding storage capacity or more appliances within the environment up from hundreds to thousands of mailboxes.”

What are the specs of this E5000 box, you say? Here you go:

And look at Row#2 in the table above … Direct, Internal Disks! Look at Row #4, Xeon CPUs! Both Compute and Storage in the same appliance!

While the HP E5000 announcement was recently, Hitachi Data Systems were already in the game early with their Unified Compute Platform and their Converged Platform for Microsoft Exchange with relatively the same idea – specialized appliances.

Perhaps the HDS solutions aren’t exactly direct, internal storage but the concept is still the same – specialized appliance. HDS Unified Compute Platform (UCP) has these components.

HDS Converged Platform for MS Exchange provides their specialized “appliance” with Reference Architectures that can support up to 68,000 Microsoft Exchange mailboxes. Here’s an architecture diagram of their “appliance”

There’s no denying that the networked storage landscape is changing. So are the computing platforms. We are already seeing the compute and storage components being integrated together, tighter than ever. The wave is rising for specialized appliances and it can only get more intense from now on.

No wonder HP’s Converged Infrastructure vision is betting on x86 architecture, simple storage platforms with SAS/SATA disks and Virtualization. Other vendors are doing the same as well – Cisco, NetApp and VMware with their FlexPod solution and EMC with their VBlocks of VMware, Cisco and EMC Storage.

Hail to the Rise of the Specialized Appliance!

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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.