DS3, the BlackPearl and the way forward for … tape

Spectra Logic Summit 2013, Nathan Thompson, CEO talking about  Spectra Logic's historyJust got back from an analyst summit with Spectra Logic.  They announced a new interface to tape called, Deep Simple Storage Service (DS3) and an appliance that implements this interface named the BlackPearl.  The intent is to broaden the use of tape to include, todays more web services, application environments.

The main problems addressed by the new interface is how do you map an essentially sequential, high throughput but long latency access to first byte, removable media device to an essentially small file, get and put environment.  And is there a market for such services. I think Spectra Logic has answered the first set of questions and is about to embark on a journey to answer the second set of questions.

The new interface – it’s all about simplifying tape

The DS3 interface answers the first set of questions. With DS3 Specra Logic has extended Amazon’s S3 interface to expose some of the sequentiality and removability of tape to the object storage world.

As you should recall, Amazon S3 is a RESTful, web interface that uses HTTP type GET and PUT commands to move data to and from the S3 storage service.  The data you are moving is considered an object and the object name or identifier is unique across the storage service. When you “PUT” an object you get to add key-value pairs of information called meta-data to the object. When you “GET” an object you retrieve the data from the storage service. The other thing one needs to be aware of is that you get and put objects into “BUCKET”s.

With DS3, Spectra Logic has added essentially 4 new commands to S3 protocol, which are:

  • Bulk Put – this provides a list of objects that one wants to “PUT” into a DS3 storage service and the response from the DS3 storage service is an ordered list of which objects to PUT in sequence and which DS3 storage server node (essentially an IP address) to send the data.
  • Bulk Get – this supplies a list of objects that one wants to GET from a DS3 storage service and the response is an ordered list of the sequence to get those objects and the node address to use for those object gets
  • Export Bucket – this identifies a BUCKET that you wish to remove from a DS3 storage service.  Presumably the response would be where the bucket can be found,  the number of pieces of media to expect, and some identification of the media serial numbers that constitute a bucket on the DS3 storage service.
  • Import Bucket – this identifies a new bucket which will be imported into a DS3 storage service and will supply some necessary information such as how many pieces of media to expect and the serial numbers of the media.  Presumably the response will be a location which can be used to import the media.

With these four simple commands and an appropriate DS3 client, DS3 server and DS3 storage backend one now has everything they need to support a removable media object store. I could see real value for export/import like this on the “rare occasion” when a  cloud service provider goes out of business.

The DS3 interface will be publicly available and the intent is to both supply Spectra Logic developed clients as well a ISV/partner developed DS3 clients so as to provide removable media object stores for all sorts of other applications.

Spectra’s is providing developer tools and documentation so that anyone can write a DS3 client. To that end, the DS3 developer portal is up (couldn’t find a link this AM but will update this post when I find it) and available free of charge to anyone today (believe you need to register to gain access to the doc.). They have a DS3 server simulator that DS3 client developers can use to test out and validate their client software. They also have a try & buy service for client developers.

Essentially, the combination of DS3 clients, DS3 servers and DS3 backend storage create a really deep archive for object data. It’s not intended for primary or secondary storage access but it’s big, cheap, and power/space efficient storage that can be very effective if used for archive data.

BlackPearl, the first DS3 Server

Their second announcement is the first implementation of a DS3 server, Spectra Logic calls BlackPearl(™). The BlackPearl connects to one or more Spectra Logic tape libraries as a backend store which together essentially provides a DS3 object storage archive. The DS3 server talks to DS3 clients on the front end. BlackPearl uses SAS or FC connected tape transports, which can be any transport currently supported by SpectraLogic tape libraries, including IBM TS1140, LTO-4, -5 and -6.

In addition to BlackPearl, Spectra Logic is releasing the first DS3 client for Hadoop. In this case, the DS3 client implements a new version of the Hadoop DistCp (distributed copy) command which can be used to create a copy of an HDFS directory tree onto a DS3 storage service.

Current BlackPearl hardware is a standard 2U server with 4-400GB SSDs inside which act as sort of a speed matching buffer for the Object interface to SAS/FC tape interface.

We only saw a configuration with one BlackPearl in operation (GA of BlackPearl is expected this December). But the plan is to support multiple BlackPearl appliances to talk with the same DS3 backend storage. In that case, there will be a shared database and (tape) resource scheduler across all the appliances in the cluster.

Yes, but what about the market?

It’s a gutsy move for someone like Spectra Logic to define a new open interface to deep storage. The fact that the appliance exists outside the tape library itself and could potentially support any removable media offers interesting architectural capabilities. The current (beta) implementation lacked some sophistication but the expectation is that much of this will be resolved by GA or over time through incremental enhancements.

Pricing is appealing. When you add BlackPearl appliance(s), with a T950 Spectra Logic tape library using LTO drives which supports uncompressed data store of ~2.4PB of archive data, the purchase price is ~$0.10/GB. This compares especially well with current Amazon Glacier pricing of $0.01/GB/Month, so that for the price of 10 months of Glacier storage you could own your own DS3 storage service.

At larger capacities, such as BlackPearl using T950 with TS1140 tape drives supporting 6.4PB is even cheaper, at $0.09/GB. Other configurations are available and in general bigger congfigurations are cheaper on $/GB and smaller ones more expensive.  The configurations are speced by Spectra Logic to have all the media, tape drives and BlackPearl systems be needed to support an archives object store.

As for markets, Spectra Logic already has beta interest from a large well known web services customer and a number of media & entertainment customers.

In the long run, Spectra Logic believes that if they can simplify access to tape for an application where it’s well qualified to support (deep archive), that this will enable new applications to take advantage of tape, that weren’t even dreamed of before.  By opening up a Object Store interface to tape, anyone currently using S3 is a potential customer.

Amazon announced earlier this year that they have over 2 trillion objects is their S3. And as far as I can tell (see my post Who’s the next winner in storage?) they are growing with no end in sight.




Tape vs. Disk, the saga continues

Inside a (Spectra Logic) T950 library by ChrisDag (cc) (from Flickr)
Inside a (Spectra Logic) T950 library by ChrisDag (cc) (from Flickr)

Was on a call late last month where Oracle introduced their latest generation T1000C tape system (media and drive) holding 5TB native (uncompressed) capacity. In the last 6 months I have been hearing about the coming of a 3TB SATA disk drive from Hitachi GST and others. And last month, EMC announced a new Data Domain Archiver, a disk only archive appliance (see my post on EMC Data Domain products enter the archive market).

Oracle assures me that tape density is keeping up if not gaining on disk density trends and capacity. But density or capacity are not the only issues causing data to move off of tape in today’s enterprise data centers.

“Dedupe Rulz”

A problem with the data density trends discussion is that it’s one dimensional (well literally it’s 2 dimensional). With data compression, disk or tape systems can easily double the density on a piece of media. But with data deduplication, the multiples start becoming more like 5X to 30X depending on frequency of full backups or duplicated data. And number’s like those dwarf any discussion of density ratios and as such, get’s everyone’s attention.

I can remember talking to an avowed tape enginerr, years ago and he was describing deduplication technology at the VTL level as being architecturally inpure and inefficient. From his perspective it needed to be done much earlier in the data flow. But what they failed to see was the ability of VTL deduplication to be plug-compatible with the tape systems of that time. Such ease of adoption allowed deduplication systems to build a beach-head and economies of scale. From there such systems have no been able to move up stream, into earlier stages of the backup data flow.

Nowadays, what with Avamar, Symantec Pure Disk and others, source level deduplication, or close by source level deduplication is a reality. But all this came about because they were able to offer 30X the density on a piece of backup storage.

Tape’s next step

Tape could easily fight back. All that would be needed is some system in front of a tape library that provided deduplication capabilities not just to the disk media but the tape media as well. This way the 30X density over non-deduplicated storage could follow through all the way to the tape media.

In the past, this made little sense because a deduplicated tape would require potentially multiple volumes in order to restore a particular set of data. However, with today’s 5TB of data on a tape, maybe this doesn’t have to be the case anymore. In addition, by having a deduplication system in front of the tape library, it could support most of the immediate data restore activity while data restored from tape was sort of like pulling something out of an archive and as such, might take longer to perform. In any event, with LTO’s multi-partitioning and the other enterprise class tapes having multiple domains, creating a structure with meta-data partition and a data partition is easier than ever.

“Got Dedupe”

There are plenty of places, that today’s tape vendors can obtain deduplication capabilities. Permabit offers Dedupe code for OEM applications for those that have no dedupe systems today. FalconStor, Sepaton and others offer deduplication systems that can be OEMed. IBM, HP, and Quantum already have tape libraries and their own dedupe systems available today all of which can readily support a deduplicating front-end to their tape libraries, if they don’t already.

Where “Tape Rulz”

There are places where data deduplication doesn’t work very well today, mainly rich media, physics, biopharm and other non-compressible big-data applications. For these situations, tape still has a home but for the rest of the data center world today, deduplication is taking over, if it hasn’t already. The sooner tape get’s on the deduplication bandwagon the better for the IT industry.


Of course there are other problems hurting tape today. I know of at least one large conglomerate that has moved all backup off tape altogether, even data which doesn’t deduplicate well (see my previous Oracle RMAN posts). And at least another rich media conglomerate that is considering the very same move. For now, tape has a safe harbor in big science, but it won’t last long.