Is FC dead?!

SNIA Tech Center Computer Lab 2 switching hw (c) 2011 Silverton Consulting, Inc.
SNIA Tech Center Computer Lab 2 switching hw (c) 2011 Silverton Consulting, Inc.

Was at the Pacific Crest/Mosaic annual conference cocktail hour last night surrounded by a bunch of iSCSI/NAS storage vendors and they made the statement that FC is dead.

Apparently, 40GbE is just around the corner and 10GbE cards have started a steep drop in price and are beginning to proliferate through the enterprise.  The vendors present felt that an affordable 40GbE that does iSCSI and/or FCoE would be the death knell for FC as we know it.

As evidence they point to Brocade’s recent quarterly results that shows their storage business is in decline, down 5-6% YoY for the quarter. In contrast, Brocade’s Ethernet business is up this quarter 12-13% YoY (albeit, from a low starting point).  Further confusing the picture, Brocade is starting to roll out 16Gbps FC  (16GFC) while the storage market is still trying to ingest the changeover to 8Gbps FC.

But do we need the bandwidth?

One question is do we need 16GFC or even 40GbE for the enterprise today.  Most vendors speak of the high bandwidth requirements for server virtualization as a significant consumer of enterprise bandwidth.  But it’s unclear to me whether this is reality or just the next wave of technology needing to find a home.

Let’s consider for the moment what 16GFC and 40GbE can do for data transfer. If we assume ~10 bits pre byte then:

  • 16GFC can provide 1.6GB/s of data transfer,
  • 40GbE can provide 4GB/s of data transfer.

Using Storage Performance Council’s SPC-2 results the top data transfer subsystem (IBM DS8K) is rated at 9.7GB/s so with 40GbE it could use about 3 links and for the 16GFC it would be able to sustain this bandwidth using about 7 links.

So there’s at least one storage systems out there that can utilize the extreme bandwidth that such interfaces supply.

Now as for the server side nailing down the true need is a bit harder to do.  Using Amdahl’s IO law, which states there is 1 IO for every 50K instructions, and with Intel’s Core I7 Extreme edition rated at 159KMips, it should be generating about 3.2M IO/s and at 4KB per IO this would be about 12GB/sec.  So the current crop of high processors seem able to consume this level of bandwidth, if present.

FC or Ethernet?

Now the critical question, which interface does the data center use to provide that bandwidth.  The advantages of FC are becoming less so over time as FCoE becomes more widely adopted and any speed advantage that FC had should go away with the introduction of data center 40GbE.

The other benefit that Ethernet offers is a “single data center backbone” which can handle all network/storage traffic.  Many large customers are almost salivating at the possibility of getting by with a single infrastructure for everything vs. having to purchase and support separate cabling, switches and server cards to use FC.

On the other hand, having separate networks, segregated switching, isolation between network and storage traffic can provide better security, availability, and reliability that are hard to duplicate with a single network.

To summarize, one would have to say is that there are some substantive soft benefits to having both Ethernet and FC infrastructure but there are hard cost and operational advantages to having a single infrastructure based on 10GbE or hopefully, someday 40GbE.


So I would have to conclude that FC’s days are numbered especially when 40GbE becomes affordable and thereby, widely adopted in the data center.


SolidFire supplies scale-out SSD storage for cloud service providers

SolidFire SF3010 node (c) 2011 SolidFire (from their website)
SolidFire SF3010 node (c) 2011 SolidFire (from their website)

I was talking with a local start up called SolidFire the other day with an interesting twist on SSD storage.  They were targeting cloud service providers with a scale-out, cluster based SSD iSCSI storage system.  Apparently a portion of their team had come from Lefthand (now owned by HP) another local storage company and the rest came from Rackspace, a national cloud service provider.

The hardware

Their storage system is a scale-out cluster of storage nodes that can range from 3 to a theoretical maximum of 100 nodes (validated node count ?). Each node comes equipped with 2-2.4GHz, 6-core Intel processors and 10-300GB SSDs for a total of 3TB raw storage per node.  Also they have 8GB of non-volatile DRAM for write buffering and 72GB read cache resident on each node.

The system also uses 2-10GbE links for host to storage IO and inter-cluster communications and support iSCSI LUNs.  There are another 2-1GigE links used for management communications.

SolidFire states that they can sustain 50K IO/sec per node. (This looks conservative from my viewpoint but didn’t state any specific R:W ratio or block size for this performance number.)

The software

They are targeting cloud service providers and as such the management interface was designed from the start as a RESTful API but they also have a web GUI built out of their API.  Cloud service providers will automate whatever they can and having a RESTful API seems like the right choice.

QoS and data reliability

The cluster supports 100K iSCSI LUNs and each LUN can have a QoS SLA associated with it.  According to SolidFire one can specify a minimum/maximum/burst level for IOPS and a maximum or burst level for throughput at a LUN granularity.

With LUN based QoS, one can divide cluster performance into many levels of support for multiple customers of a cloud provider.  Given these unique QoS capabilities it should be relatively easy for cloud providers to support multiple customers on the same storage providing very fine grained multi-tennancy capabilities.

This could potentially lead to system over commitment, but presumably they have some way to ascertain over commitment is near and not allowing this to occur.

Data reliability is supplied through replication across nodes which they call Helix(tm) data protection.  In this way if an SSD or node fails, it’s relatively easy to reconstruct the lost data onto another node’s SSD storage.  Which is probably why the minimum number of nodes per cluster is set at 3.

Storage efficiency

Aside from the QoS capabilities, the other interesting twist from a customer perspective is that they are trying to price an all-SSD storage solution at the $/GB of normal enterprise disk storage. They believe their node with 3TB raw SSD storage supports 12TB of “effective” data storage.

They are able to do this by offering storage efficiency features of enterprise storage using an all SSD configuration. Specifically they provide,

  • Thin provisioned storage – which allows physical storage to be over subscribed and used to support multiple LUNs when space hasn’t completely been written over.
  • Data compression – which searches for underlying redundancy in a chunk of data and compresses it out of the storage.
  • Data deduplication – which searches multiple blocks and multiple LUNs to see what data is duplicated and eliminates duplicative data across blocks and LUNs.
  • Space efficient snapshot and cloning – which allows users to take point-in-time copies which consume little space useful for backups and test-dev requirements.

Tape data compression gets anywhere from 2:1 to 3:1 reduction in storage space for typical data loads. Whether SolidFire’s system can reach these numbers is another question.  However, tape uses hardware compression and the traditional problem with software data compression is that it takes lots of processing power and/or time to perform it well.  As such, SolidFire has configured their node hardware to dedicate a CPU core to each physical disk drive (2-6 core processors for 10 SSDs in a node).

Deduplication savings are somewhat trickier to predict but ultimately depends on the data being stored in a system and the algorithm used to deduplicate it.  For user home directories, typical deduplication levels of 25-40% are readily attainable.  SolidFire stated that their deduplication algorithm is their own patented design and uses a small fixed block approach.

The savings from thin provisioning ultimately depends on how much physical data is actually consumed on a storage LUN but in typical environments can save 10-30% of physical storage by pooling non-written or free storage across all the LUNs configured on a storage system.

Space savings from point-in-time copies like snapshots and clones depends on data change rates and how long it’s been since a copy was made.  But, with space efficient copies and a short period of existence, (used for backups or temporary copies in test-development environments) such copies should take little physical storage.

Whether all of this can create a 4:1 multiplier for raw to effective data storage is another question but they also have a eScanner tool which can estimate savings one can achieve in their data center. Apparently the eScanner can be used by anyone to scan real customer LUNs and it will compute how much SolidFire storage will be required to support the scanned volumes.


There are a few items left on their current road map to be delivered later, namely remote replication or mirroring. But for now this looks to be a pretty complete package of iSCSI storage functionality.

SolidFire is currently signing up customers for Early Access but plan to go GA sometime around the end of the year. No pricing was disclosed at this time.

I was at SNIA’s BoD meeting the other week and stated my belief that SSDs will ultimately lead to the commoditization of storage.  By that I meant that it would be relatively easy to configure enough SSD hardware to create a 100K IO/sec  or 1GB/sec system without having to manage 1000 disk drives.  Lo and behold, SolidFire comes out the next week.  Of course, I said this would happen over the next decade – so I am off by a 9.99 years…


Top 10 storage technologies over the last decade

Aurora's Perception or I Schrive When I See Technology by Wonderlane (cc) (from Flickr)
Aurora's Perception or I Schrive When I See Technology by Wonderlane (cc) (from Flickr)

Some of these technologies were in development prior to 2000, some were available in other domains but not in storage, and some were in a few subsystems but had yet to become popular as they are today.  In no particular order here are my top 10 storage technologies for the decade:

  1. NAND based SSDs – DRAM and other technology solid state drives (SSDs) were available last century but over the last decade NAND Flash based devices have dominated SSD technology and have altered the storage industry forever more.  Today, it’s nigh impossible to find enterprise class storage that doesn’t support NAND SSDs.
  2. GMR head– Giant Magneto Resistance disk heads have become common place over the last decade and have allowed disk drive manufacturers to double data density every 18-24 months.  Now GMR heads are starting to transition over to tape storage and will enable that technology to increase data density dramatically
  3. Data DeduplicationDeduplication technologies emerged over the last decade as a complement to higher density disk drives as a means to more efficiently backup data.  Deduplication technology can be found in many different forms today, ranging from file and block storage systems, backup storage systems, to backup software only solutions.
  4. Thin provisioning – No one would argue that thin provisioning emerged last century but it took the last decade to really find its place in the storage pantheon.  One almost cannot find a data center class storage device that does not support thin provisioning today.
  5. Scale-out storage – Last century if you wanted to get higher IOPS from a storage subsystem you could add cache or disk drives but at some point you hit a subsystem performance wall.  With scale-out storage, one can now add more processing elements to a storage system cluster without having to replace the controller to obtain more IO processing power.  The link reference talks about the use of commodity hardware to provide added performance but scale-out storage can also be done with non-commodity hardware (see Hitachi’s VSP vs. VMAX).
  6. Storage virtualizationserver virtualization has taken off as the dominant data center paradigm over the last decade but a counterpart to this in storage has also become more viable as well.  Storage virtualization was originally used to migrate data from old subsystems to new storage but today can be used to manage and migrate data over PBs of physical storage dynamically optimizing data placement for cost and/or performance.
  7. LTO tape When IBM dominated IT in the mid to late last century, the tape format dejour always matched IBM’s tape technology.  As the decade dawned, IBM was no longer the dominant player and tape technology was starting to diverge into a babble of differing formats.  As a result, IBM, Quantum, and HP put their technology together and created a standard tape format, called LTO, which has become the new dominant tape format for the data center.
  8. Cloud storage Unclear just when over the last decade cloud storage emerged but it seemed to be a supplement to cloud computing that also appeared this past decade.  Storage service providers had existed earlier but due to bandwidth limitations and storage costs didn’t survive the dotcom bubble. But over this past decade both bandwidth and storage costs have come down considerably and cloud storage has now become a viable technological solution to many data center issues.
  9. iSCSI SCSI has taken on many forms over the last couple of decades but iSCSI has the altered the dominant block storage paradigm from a single, pure FC based SAN to a plurality of technologies.  Nowadays, SMB shops can have block storage without the cost and complexity of FC SANs over the LAN networking technology they already use.
  10. FCoEOne could argue that this technology is still maturing today but once again SCSI has taken opened up another way to access storage. FCoE has the potential to offer all the robustness and performance of FC SANs over data center Ethernet hardware simplifying and unifying data center networking onto one technology.

No doubt others would differ on their top 10 storage technologies over the last decade but I strived to find technologies that significantly changed data storage that existed in 2000 vs. today.  These 10 seemed to me to fit the bill better than most.


One platform to rule them all – Compellent&EqualLogic&Exanet from Dell

Compellent drive enclosure (c) 2010 Compellent (from
Compellent drive enclosure (c) 2010 Compellent (from

Dell and Compellent may be a great match because Compellent uses commodity hardware combined with specialized software to create their storage subsystem. If there’s any company out there that can take advantage of commodity hardware it’s probably Dell. (Of course Commodity hardware always loses in the end, but that’s another story).

Similarly, Dell’s EqualLogic iSCSI storage system uses commodity hardware to provide its iSCSI storage services.  It doesn’t take a big leap of imagination to have one storage system that combines the functionality of EqualLogic’s iSCSI and Compellent’s FC storage capabilities.  Of course there are others already doing this including Compellent themselves which have their own iSCSI support already built into their FC storage system.

Which way to integrate?

Does EqualLogic survive such a merger?  I think so.  It’s easy to imagine that Equal Logic may have the bigger market share today. If that’s so, the right thing might be  to merge Compellent FC functionality into EqualLogic.  If Compellent has the larger market, the correct approach is the opposite. The answer lies probably with a little of both.  It seems easiest to add iSCSI functionality to a FC storage system than the converse but the FC to iSCSI approach may be the optimum path for Dell, because of the popularity of their EqualLogic storage.

What about NAS?

The only thing missing from this storage system is NAS.  Of course the Compellent storage offers a NAS option through the use of a separate Windows Storage Server (WSS) front end.  Dell’s EqualLogic does the much the same to offer NAS protocols for their iSCSI system.  Neither of these are bad solutions but they are not a fully integrated NAS offering such as available from NetApp and others.

However, there is a little discussed part, the Dell-Exanet acquisition which happened earlier this year. Perhaps the right approach is to integrate Exanet with Compellent first and target this at the high end enterprise/HPC market place, keeping Equal Logic at the SMB end of the marketplace.  It’s been a while since I have heard about Exanet, and nothing since the acquisition earlier this year.  Does it make sense to backend a clustered NAS solution with FC storage – probably.


Much of this seems doable to me, but it all depends on taking the right moves once the purchase is closed.   But if I look at where Dell is weakest (baring their OEM agreement with EMC), it’s in the highend storage space.  Compellent probably didn’t have much of a foot print there as possible due to their limited distribution and support channel.  A Dell acquisition could easily eliminate these problems and open up this space without having to do much other than start to marketing, selling and supporting Compellent.

In the end, a storage solution supporting clustered NAS, FC, and iSCSI that combined functionality equivalent to Exanet, Compellent and EqualLogic based on commodity hardware (ouch!) could make a formidable competitor to what’s out there today if done properly. Whether Dell could actually pull this off and in a timely manner even if they purchase Compellent, is another question.


Cirtas surfaces

Cirtas system (from
Cirtas system (from

Yesterday, Cirtas came out of stealth mode and into the lime-light with their new Bluejet cloud storage controller hardware system.  Cirtas joins a number of other products offering cloud storage to the enterprise by supplying a more standard interface which we have discussed before (see Cloud storage gateways surface).

With Cirtas, the interface to the backend cloud storage is supplied as iSCSI, similar to StorSimple‘s product we reviewed previously (see More cloud storage gateways …).  However, StorSimple is focused on Microsoft environments only and select applications, namely Sharepoint, Exchange and Microsoft file services.  Cirtas seems aimed at the more general purpose application environment that uses iSCSI storage protocols.  The only other iSCSI cloud storage gateway providers appear to be TwinStrata and Panzura but the information on Panzura’s website is sketchy.

In addition, Cirtas, StorSimple (and Panzura) provide hardware appliances whereas most of the other cloud storage gateways (NasuniGladinet, TwinStrata) only come as software  packages.  Although Gladinet appears to be targeted at the home office environment.

Cirtas’s Bluejet controller includes onboard RAM cache, SSD flash drives and SAS drives (5TB total) that is used to provide higher performing cloud storage access.  Bluejet also supports space efficient snapshots, data encryption, thin provisioning, data deduplication, and data compression. The Cirtas team comes out of the WAN optimization space so they have incorporated some of these data saving technologies into their product to reduce bandwidth requirement and cloud storage demand.

Cirtas currently supports Amazon S3 and IronMountain cloud storage but more are on the way.  They also recently completed their Series A round of funding which included NEA and Amazon.

Cirtas says they can support local storage performance but have no benchmarks to prove this out.  With iSCSI there aren’t many benchmark options but one could use iSCSI to support Microsoft Exchange and submit something on the Exchange Solution Review Program (ESRP) which might show off this capability.

Nonetheless, cloud storage can be considerably cheaper than primary storage ($/GB basis) and no doubt even with the ~$70K Cirtas Bluejet cloud storage controller, Cirtas supports a significant cost advantage.   With the appliance purchase, you get a basic storage key which allows you to store up to 20TB of data on (through) the appliance, if you have more data to store, additional storage keys can be purchased separately.  This 20TB license does not include the cloud storage costs for storing data on the cloud nor the bandwidth costs to upload and/or access the data on the cloud.

Seems like interest in cloud storage gateways/controllers is heating up, with the addition of Cirtas I count at least 4 that target the enterprise space and when Panzura releases a product that will add another.

Anything I missed?

More cloud storage gateways come out

Strange Clouds by michaelroper (cc) (from Flickr)
Strange Clouds by michaelroper (cc) (from Flickr)

Multiple cloud storage gateways either have been announced or are coming out in the next quarter or so. We have talked before about Nasuni’s file cloud storage gateway appliance, but now that more are out one can have a better appreciation of the cloud gateway space.


Last week I was talking with StorSimple that just introduced their cloud storage gateway which provides a iSCSI block protocol interface to cloud storage with an onsite data caching.  Their appliance offers a cloud storage cache residing on disk and/or optional flash storage (SSDs) and provides iSCSI storage speeds for highly active working set data residing on the cache or cloud storage speeds for non-working set data.

Data is deduplicated to minimize storage space requirements.  In addition data sent to the cloud is compressed and encrypted. Both deduplication and compression can reduce WAN bandwidth requirements considerably.    Their appliance also offers snapshots and “cloud clones”.  Cloud clones are complete offsite (cloud) copies of a LUN which can then be maintained in synch with the gateway LUNs by copying daily change logs and applying the logs.

StorSimple works with Microsoft’s Azure, AT&T, EMC Atmos, Iron Mountan and Amazon’s S3 cloud storage providers.   A single appliance can support multiple cloud storage providers segregated on a LUN basis.  Although how cross-LUN deduplication works across multiple cloud storage providers was not discussed.

Their product can be purchased as a hardware appliance with a few 100GB of NAND/Flash storage up to a 150TB of SATA storage.  It also can be purchased as a virtual appliance at lower cost but also much lower performance.


In addition to StorSimple, I have talked with Cirtas which has yet to completely emerge from stealth but what’s apparent from their website is that the Cirtas appliance provides “storage protocols” to server systems, and can store data directly on storage subsystems or on cloud storage.

Storage protocols could mean any block storage protocol which could be FC and/or iSCSI but alternatively, it might mean file protocols I can’t be certain.  Having access to independent, standalone storage arrays may mean that  clients can use their own storage as a ‘cloud data cache’.  Unclear how Cirtas talks to their onsite backend storage but presumably this is FC and/or iSCSI as well.  And somehow some of this data is stored out on the cloud.

So from our perspective it looks somewhat similar to StorSimple with the exception that it uses external storage subsystems for its cloud data cache for Cirtas vs. internal storage for StorSimple.  Few other details were publicly available as this post went out.


Although I have not talked directly with Panzura they seem to offer a unique form of cloud storage gateway, one that is specific to some applications.  For example, the Panzura SharePoint appliance actually “runs” part of the SharePoint application (according to their website) and as such, can better ascertain which data should be local versus stored in the cloud.  It seems to have  both access to cloud storage as well as local independent storage appliances.

In addition to a SharePoint appliance they offer a “”backup/DR” target that apparently supports NDMP, VTL, iSCSI, and NFS/CIFS protocols to store (backup) data on the cloud. In this version they show no local storage behind their appliance by which I assume that backup data is only stored in the cloud.

Finally, they offer a “file sharing” appliance used to share files across multiple sites where files reside both locally and in the cloud.  It appears that cloud copies of shared files are locked/WORM like but I can’t be certain.  Having not talked to Panzura before, much of their product is unclear.

In summary

We now have both a file access and at least one iSCSI block protocol cloud storage gateway, currently available, publicly announced, i.e., Nasuni and StorSimple.  Cirtas, which is in the process of coming out, will support a “storage protocol” access to cloud storage and Panzura offers it all (SharePoint direct, iSCSI, CIFS, NFS, VTL & NDMP cloud storage access protocols).  There are other gateways just focused on backup data, but I reserve the term cloud storage gateways for those that provide some sort of general purpose storage or file protocol access.

However, Since last weeks discussion of eventual consistency, I am becoming a bit more concerned about cloud storage gateways and their capabilities.  This deserves some serious discussion at the cloud storage provider level and but most assuredly, at the gateway level.  We need some sort of generic statement that says they guarantee immediate consistency for data at the gateway level even though most cloud storage providers only support “eventual consistency”.  Barring that, using cloud storage for anything that is updated frequently would be considered unwise.

If anyone knows of another cloud storage gateway I would appreciate a heads up.  In any case, the technology is still young yet and I would say that this isn’t the last gateway to come out but it feels like these provide coverage for just about any file or block protocol one might use to access cloud storage.

ESRP 1K to 5Kmbox performance – chart of the month

ESRP 1001 to 5000 mailboxes, database transfers/second/spindle
ESRP 1001 to 5000 mailboxes, database transfers/second/spindle

One astute reader of our performance reports pointed out that some ESRP results could be skewed by the number of drives that are used during a run.  So, we included a database transfers per spindle chart in our latest Exchange Solution Review Program (ESRP) report on 1001 to 5000 mailboxes in our latest newsletter.  The chart shown here is reproduced from that report and shows the number of overall database transfers attained (total of read and write) for the top 10 storage subsystems reporting in the latest ESRP results.

This cut of the system performance shows a number of diverse systems:

  • Some storage systems had 20 disk drives and others had 4.
  • Some of these systems were FC storage (2), some were SAS attached storage (3), but most were iSCSI storage.
  • Mailbox counts supported by these subsystems ranged from 1400 to 5000 mailboxes.

What’s not shown is the speed of the disk spindles. Also none of these systems are using SSD or NAND cards to help sustain their respective workloads.

A couple of surprises here:

  • iSCSI systems should have shown up much worse than FC storage. True, the number 1 system (NetApp FAS2040) is FC while the numbers 2&3 are iSCSI, the differences are not that great.  It would seem that protocol overhead is not a large determinant in spindle performance for ESRP workloads.
  • The number of drives used also doesn’t seem to matter much.  The FAS2040 had 12 spindles while the AX4-5i only had 4.  Although this cut of the data should minimize drive count variability, one would think that more drives would result in higher overall performance for all drives.
  • Such performance approaches drive limits of just what a 15Krpm drive can sustain.  No doubt some of this is helped by system caching, but no amount of cache can hold all the database write and read data for the duration of a Jetstress run.  It’s still pretty impressive, considering typical 15Krpm drives (e.g., Seagate 15K.6) can probably do ~172 random 64Kbyte block IOs/second. The NetApp FAS2040 hit almost 182 database transfers/second/spindle, perhaps not 64Kbyte blocks and maybe not completely random, but impressive nonetheless.

The other nice thing about this metric, is that it doesn’t correlate that well with any other ESRP metrics we track, such as aggregate database transfers, database latencies, database backup throughput etc. So it seems to measure a completely different dimension of Exchange performance.

The full ESRP report went out to our newsletter subscribers last month and a copy of the report will be up on the dispatches page of our website later this month. However, you can get this information now and subscribe to future newsletters to receive future full reports even earlier, just subscribe by email.

As always, we welcome any suggestions on how to improve our analysis of ESRP or any of our other storage system performance results.  This new chart was a result of one such suggestion.