Cirtas surfaces

Cirtas system (from www.Cirtas.com)
Cirtas system (from www.Cirtas.com)

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.

StorSimple

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.

Cirtas

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.

Panzura

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.

Cloud Storage Gateways Surface

Who says there are no clouds today by akakumo (cc) (from Flickr)
Who says there are no clouds today by akakumo (cc) (from Flickr)

One problem holding back general purpose cloud storage has been the lack of a “standard” way to get data in and out of the cloud.  Most cloud storage providers supply a REST interface, an object file interface or other proprietary ways to use their facilities.  The problem with this is that they all require some form of code development on the part of the cloud storage customer in order to make use of these interfaces.

It would be much easier if cloud storage could just talk iSCSI, FCoE, FC, NFS, CIFS, FTP,  etc. access protocols.  Then any data center could use the cloud with a NIC/HBA/CNA and just configure the cloud storage as a bunch of LUNs or file systems/mount points/shares.  Probably FCoE or FC might be difficult to use due to timeouts or other QoS (quality of service) issues but iSCSI and the file level protocols should be able to support cloud storage access without such concerns.

So which cloud storage support these protocols today?  Nirvanix supports CloudNAS used to access their facilities via NFS, CIFS and FTP,  ParaScale supports NFS and FTP, while Amazon S3 and Rackspace CloudFiles do not seem to support any of these interfaces.  There are probably other general purpose cloud storage providers I am missing here but these will suffice for now.   Wouldn’t it be better if some independent vendor supplied one way to talk to all of these storage environments.

How can gateways help?

For one example, Nasuni recently emerged from stealth mode, releasing a beta version of a cloud storage gateway that supports file access to a number of providers. Currently, Nasuni supports CIFS file protocol as a front end for Amazon S3, IronMountain ASP, Nirvanix, and coming soon Rackspace CloudFile.

However, Nasuni is more than just a file protocol converter for cloud storage.  It also supplies a data cache, file snapshot services, data compression/encryption, and other cloud storage management tools. Specifically,

  • Cloud data cache – their gateway maintains a disk cache of frequently accessed data that can be accessed directly without having to go out to the cloud storage.  File data is chunked by the gateway and flushed out of cache to the backend provider. How such a disk cache is maintained coherently across multiple gateway nodes was not discussed.
  • File snapshot services – their gateway supports a point-in-time copy of file date used for backup and other purposes.  The snapshot is created on a time schedule and provides an incremental backup of cloud file data.  Presumably these snapshot chunks are also stored in the cloud.
  • Data compression/encryption services – their gateway compresses file chunks and then encrypts it before sending them to the cloud.  Encryption keys can optionally be maintained by the customer or be automatically maintained by the gateway
  • Cloud storage management services – the gateway configures the cloud storage services needed to define volumes, monitors cloud and network performance and provides a single bill for all cloud storage used by the customer.

By chunking the files and caching them, data read from the cloud should be accessible much faster than normal cloud file access.  Also by providing a form of snapshot, cloud data should be easier to backup and subsequently restore. Although Nasuni’s website didn’t provide much information on the snapshot service, such capabilities have been around for a long time and found very useful in other storage systems.

Nasuni is provided as a software only solution. Once installed and activated on your server hardware, it’s billed for as a service and ultimately is charged for on top of any cloud storage you use.  You sign up for supported cloud storage providers through Nasuni’s service portal.

How well all this works is open for discussion.  We have discussed caching appliances before both from EMC and others.  Two issues have emerged from our discussions, how well caching coherence is maintained across nodes is non-trivial and the economics of a caching appliance are subject to some debate.  However, cloud gateways are more than just caching appliances and as a way of advancing cloud storage adoption, such gateways can only help.

Full disclosure: I currently do no business with Nasuni.