129: GreyBeards talk composable infrastructure with GigaIO’s, Matt Demas, Field CTO

We haven’t talked composable infrastructure in a while now but it’s been heating up lately. GigaIO has some interesting tech and I’ve been meaning to have them on the show but scheduling never seemed to work out. Finally, we managed to sync schedules and have Matt Demas, field CTO at GigaIO (@giga_io) on our show.

Also, please welcome Jason Collier (@bocanuts), a long time friend, technical guru and innovator to our show as another co-host. We used to have these crazy discussions in front of financial analysts where we disagreed completely on the direction of IT. We don’t do these anymore, probably because the complexities in this industry can be hard to grasp for some. From now on, Jason will be added to our gaggle of GreyBeard co-hosts.

GigaIO has taken a different route to composability than some other vendors we have talked with. For one, they seem inordinately focused on speed of access and reducing latencies. For another, they’re the only ones out there, to our knowledge, demonstrating how today’s technology can compose and share memory across servers, storage, GPUs and just about anything with DRAM hanging off a PCIe bus. Listen to the podcast to learn more.

GigaIO started out with pooling/composing memory across PCIe devices. Their current solution is built around a ToR (currently Gen4) PCIe switch with logic and a party of pooling appliances (JBoG[pus], JBoF[lash], JBoM[emory],…). They use their FabreX fabric to supply rack-scale composable infrastructure that can move (attach) PCIe componentry (GPUs, FPGAs, SSDs, etc.) to any server on the fabric, to service workloads.

We spent an awful long time talking about composing memory. I didn’t think this was currently available, at least not until the next version of CXL, but Matt said GigaIO together with their partner MemVerge, are doing it today over FabreX.

We’ve talked with MemVerge before (see: 102: GreyBeards talk big memory … episode). But when last we met, MemVerge had a memory appliance that virtualized DRAM and Optane into an auto-tiering, dual tier memory. Apparently, with GigaIO’s help they can now attach a third tier of memory to any server that needs it. I asked Matt what the extended DRAM response time to memory requests were and he said ~300ns. And then he said that the next gen PCIe technology will take this down considerably.

Matt and Jason started talking about High Bandwidth Memory (HBM) which is internal to GPUs, AI boards, HPC servers and some select CPUs that stacks synch DRAM (SDRAM) into a 3D package. 2nd gen HBM silicon is capable of 256 GB/sec per package. Given this level of access and performance. Matt indicated that GigaIO is capable of sharing this memory across the fabric as well.

We then started talking about software and how users can control FabreX and their technology to compose infrastructure. Matt said GigaIO has no GUI but rather uses Redfish management, a fully RESTfull interface and API. Redfish has been around for ~6 yrs now and has become the de facto standard for management of server infrastructure. GigaIO composable infrastructure support has been natively integrated into a couple of standard cluster managers. For example. CIQ Singularity & Fuzzball, Bright Computing cluster managers and SLURM cluster scheduling. Matt also mentioned they are well plugged into OCP.

Composable infrastructure seems to have generated new interest with HPC customers that are deploying bucketfuls of expensive GPUs with their congregation of compute cores. Using GigaIO, HPC environments like these can overnight, go from maybe 30% average GPU utilization to 70%. Doing so can substantially reduce acquisition and operational costs for GPU infrastructure significantly. One would think the cloud guys might be interested as well.

Matt Demas, Field CTO, GigaIO

Matt’s career spans two decades of experience in architecting innovative IT solutions, starting with the US Air Force. He has built federal, healthcare, and education-based vertical solutions at companies like Dell, where he was a Senior Solutions Architect. Immediately prior to joining GigaIO, he served as Field CTO at Liqid. 

Matt holds a Bachelor’s degree in Information Technology from American InterContinental University, and an MBA from Concordia University Austin.

122: GreyBeards talk big data archive with Floyd Christofferson, CEO StrongBox Data Solutions

The GreyBeards had a great discussion with Floyd Christofferson, CEO, StrongBox Data Solutions on their big data/HPC file and archive solution. Floyd’s is very knowledgeable on problems of extremely large data repositories and has been around the HPC and other data intensive industries for decades.

StrongBox’s StrongLink solution offers a global namespace file system that virtualizes NFS, SMB, S3 and Posix file environments and maps this to a software-only, multi-tier, multi-site data repository that can span onsite flash, disk, S3 compatible or Azure object and LTFS tape iibrary storage as well as offsite versions of all the above tiers.

Typical StrongLink customers range in the 10s to 100s of PB, and ingesting or processing PBs a day. 200TB is a minimum StrongLink configuration, but Floyd said any shop with over 500TB has problems with data silos and other issues, but may not understand it yet. StrongLink manages data placement and movement, throughout this hierarchy to better support data access and economical storage. In the process StrongLink eliminates any data silos due to limitations of NAS systems while providing the most economic placement of data to meet user performance requirements.


Floyd said that StrongLink first installs in customer environment and then operates in the background to discover and ingest metadata from the primary customers file storage environment. Some point later the customer reconfigures their end-users share and mount points to StrongLink servers and it’s up and starts running.

The minimal StrongLink, HA environment consists of 3 nodes. They use a NoSQL metadata database which is replicated and sharded across the nodes. It’s shared for performance load balancing and fully replicated (2-way or 3-way) across all the StrongLink server nodes for HA.

The StrongLink nodes create a cluster, called a star in StrongBox vernacular. Multiple clusters onsite can be grouped together to form a StrongLink constellation. And multiple data center sites, can be grouped together to form a StrongLink galaxy. Presumably if you have a constellation or a galaxy, the same metadata is available to all the star clusters across all the sites.

They support any tape library and any NFS, SMB, S3 orAzure compatible object or file storage. Stronglink can move or copy data from one tier/cluster to another based on policies AND the end-users never sees any difference in their workflow or mount/share points.

One challenge with typical tape archives is that they can make use of proprietary tape data formats which are not accessible outside those systems. StrongLink has gone with a completely open-source, LTFS file format on tape, which is well documented and is available to anyone.

Floyd also made it a point of saying they don’t use any stubs, or soft links to provide their data placement magic. They only use standard file metadata.

File data moves across the hierarchy based on policies or by request. One of the secrets to StrongLink success is all the work they have done to ensure that any data movement can occur at line rate speeds. They heavily parallelize any data movement that’s required to support data placement across as many servers as the customer wants to throw at it. StrongBox services will help right-size the customer deployment to support any data movement performance that is required.

StrongLink supports up to 3-way replication of a customer’s data archives. This supports a primary archive and 3 more replicas of data.

Floyd mentioned a couple of big customers:

  • One autonomous automobile supplier, was downloading 2PB of data from cars in the field, processing this data and then moving it off their servers to get ready for the next day’s data load.
  • Another weather science research organization, had 150PB of data in an old tape archive and they brought in StrongLink to migrate all this data off and onto LTFS tape format as well as support their research activities which entail staging a significant chunk of file data on research servers to do a climate run/simulation.

NASA, another StrongLink customer, operates slightly differently than the above, in that they have integrated StrongLink functionality directly into their applications by making use of StrongBox’s API.

StrongLink can work in three ways.

  • Using normal file access services where StrongLink virtualizes your NFS, SMB, S3 or Posix file environment. For this service StrongLink is in the data path and you can use policy based management to have data moved or staged as the need arises.
  • Using StrongLink CLI to move or copy data from one tier to another. Many HPC customers use this approach through SLURM scripts or other orchestration solutions.
  • Using StrongLink API to move or copy data from one tier to another. This requires application changes to take advantage of data placement.

StrongBox customers can of course, use all three modes of operation, at the same time for their StrongLink data galaxy. StrongLink is billed by CPU/vCPU level and not for the amount of data customers throw into the archive. This has the effect of Customers gaining a flat expense cost, once StrongLink is deployed, at least until they decide to modify their server configuration.

Floyd Christofferson, CEO StrongBox Data Solutions

As a professional involved in content management and storage workflows for over 25 years, Floyd has focused on methods and technologies needed to manage massive volumes of data across many different storage types and use cases.

Prior to joining SBDS, Floyd worked with software and hardware companies in this space, including over 10 years at SGI, where he managed storage and data management products. In that role, he was part of the team that provided solutions used in some of the largest data environments around the world.

Floyd’s background includes work at CBS Television Distribution, where he helped implement file-based content management and syndicated content distribution strategies, and Pathfire (now ExtremeReach), where he led the team that developed and implemented a satellite-based IP-multicast content distribution platform that manages delivery of syndicated content to nearly 1,000 TV stations throughout the US.

Earlier in his career, he ran Potomac Television, a news syndication and production service in Washington DC, and Manhattan Center Studios, an audio, video, graphics, and performance facility in New York.

120: GreyBeards talk CEPH storage with Phil Straw, Co-Founder & CEO, SoftIron

GreyBeards talk universal CEPH storage solutions with Phil Straw (@SoftIronCEO), CEO of SoftIron. Phil’s been around IT and electronics technology for a long time and has gone from scuba diving electronics, to DARPA/DOD researcher, to networking, and is now doing storage. He’s also their former CTO and co-founder of the company. SoftIron make hardware storage appliances for CEPH, an open source, software defined storage system.

CEPH storage includes file (CEPHFS, POSIX), object (S3) and block (RBD, RADOS block device, Kernel/librbd) services and has been out since 2006. CEPH storage also offers redundancy, mirroring, encryption, thin provisioning, snapshots, and a host of other storage options. CEPH is available as an open source solution, downloadable at CEPH.io, but it’s also offered as a licensed option from RedHat, SUSE and others. For SoftIron, it’s bundled into their HyperDrive storage appliances. Listen to the podcast to learn more.

SoftIron uses the open source version of CEPH and incorporates this into their own, HyperDrive storage appliances, purpose built to support CEPH storage.

There are two challenges to using open source solutions:

  • Support is generally non-existent. Yes, the open source community behind the (CEPH) project supplies bug fixes and can possibly answer some questions but this is not considered enterprise support where customers require 7x24x365 support for a product
  • Useability is typically abysmal. Yes, open source systems can do anything that anyone could possibly want (if not, code it yourself), but trying to figure out how to use any of that often requires a PHD or two.

SoftIron has taken both of these on to offer a CEPH commercial product offering.

Take support, SoftIron offers enterprise level support that customers can contract for on their own, even if they don’t use SoftIron hardware. Phil said the would often get kudos for their expert support of CEPH and have often been requested to offer this as a standalone CEPH service. Needless to say their support of SoftIron appliances is also excellent.

As for ease of operations, SoftIron makes the HyperDrive Storage Manager appliance, which offers a standalone GUI, that takes the PHD out of managing CEPH. Anything one can do with the CEPH CLI can be done with SoftIron’s Storage Manager. It’s also a very popular offering with SoftIron customers. Similar to SoftIron’s CEPH support above, customers are requesting that their Storage Manager be offered as a standalone solution for CEPH users as well.

HyperDrive hardware appliances are storage media boxes that offer extremely low-power storage for CEPH. Their appliances range from high density (120TB/1U) to high performance NVMe SSDs (26TB/1U) to just about everything in between. On their website, I count 8 different storage appliance offerings with various spinning disk, hybrid (disk-SSD), SATA and NVMe SSDs (SSD only) systems.

SoftIron designs, develops and manufacturers all their own appliance hardware. Manufacturing is entirely in the US and design and development takes place in the US and Europe only. This provides a secure provenance for HyperDrive appliances that other storage companies can only dream about. Defense, intelligence and other security conscious organizations/industries are increasingly concerned about where electronic systems come from and want assurances that there are no security compromises inside them. SoftIron puts this concern to rest.

Yes they use CPUs, DRAMs and other standardized chips as well as storage media manufactured by others, but SoftIron has have gone out of their way to source all of these other parts and media from secure, trusted suppliers.

All other major storage companies use storage servers, shelves and media that come from anywhere, usually sourced from manufacturers anywhere in the world.

Moreover, such off the shelf hardware usually comes with added hardware that increases cost and complexity, such as graphics memory/interfaces, Cables, over configured power supplies, etc., but aren’t required for storage. Phil mentioned that each HyperDrive appliance has been reduced to just what’s required to support their CEPH storage appliance.

Each appliance has 6Tbps network that connects all the components, which means no cabling in the box. Also, each storage appliance has CPUs matched to its performance requirements, for low performance appliances – ARM cores, for high performance appliances – AMD EPYC CPUs. All HyperDrive appliances support wire speed IO, i.e, if a box is configured to support 1GbE or 100GbE, it transfers data at that speed, across all ports connected to it.

Because of their minimalist hardware design approach, HyperDrive appliances run much cooler and use less power than other storage appliances. They only consume 100W or 200W for high performance storage per appliance, where most other storage systems come in at around 1500W or more.

In fact, SoftIron HyperDrive boxes run so cold, that they don’t need fans for CPUs, they just redirect air flom from storage media over CPUs. And running colder, improves reliability of disk and SSD drives. Phil said they are seeing field results that are 2X better reliability than the drives normally see in the field.

They also offer a HyperDrive Storage Router that provides a NFS/SMB/iSCSI gateway to CEPH. With their Storage Router, customers using VMware, HyperV and other systems that depend on NFS/SMB/iSCSI for storage can just plug and play with SoftIron CEPH storage. With the Storage Router, the only storage interface HyperDrive appliances can’t support is FC.

Although we didn’t discuss this on the podcast, in addition to HyperDrive CEPH storage appliances, SoftIron also provides HyperCast, transcoding hardware designed for real time transcoding of one or more video streams and HyperSwitch networking hardware, which supplies a secure provenance, SONiC (Software for Open Networking in [the Azure] Cloud) SDN switch for 1GbE up to 100GbE networks.

Standing up PB of (CEPH) storage should always be this easy.

Phil Straw, Co-founder & CEO SoftIron

The technical visionary co-founder behind SoftIron, Phil Straw initially served as the company’s CTO before stepping into the role as CEO.

Previously Phil served as CEO of Heliox Technologies, co-founder and CTO of dotFX, VP of Engineering at Securify and worked in both technical and product roles at both Cisco and 3Com.

Phil holds a degree in Computer Science from UMIST.

116: GreyBeards talk VCF on VxBlock 1000 with Martin Hayes, DMTS, Dell Technologies

Sponsored By:

This past week, we had a great talk with Martin Hayes (@hayes_martinf), Distinguished Member Technical Staff at Dell Technologies about running VMware Cloud Foundation (VCF) on VxBlock 1000 converged infrastructure (CI). It used to be that Cloud Foundation required VMware vSAN primary storage but that changed a few years ago. . When that happened, the Dell Technologies team saw it as a great opportunity to support VCF on VxBlock CI.

This is the first GreyBeards podcast for Martin, but he was extremely knowledgeable about VxBlock and Cloud Foundation technologies. He’s been a technical product manager on the VxBlock converged infrastructure at Dell Technologies for many years. He’s an expert on Cloud Foundation and he knows an awful lot more about VMware NSX-T networking than seems reasonable (good thing). In any case, Martin’s expertise covers the whole gamut of VCF services as well as VxBlock 1000 infrastructure. The podcast is a bit longer than our normal sponsored podcast but there was a lot of information to cover. Listen to the podcast to learn more.

With VCF enabling primary storage on networked storage systems, all the storage vendors in the world gave a mighty cheer. But VMware Cloud Foundation still requires the vSAN servers to run its management domain. Late in 2020, VxBlock 1000 from Dell Technologies released a new software defined version of its Advanced Management Platform (AMP) to run on vSAN Ready Nodes. AMP is VxBlock’s management platform but also runs management domains for VCF and NSX-T.

For workload domains, VxBlock 1000 offers Cisco UCS M5 rack and blade servers, that can be configured to support just about any workload needed by a data center.

Historically, VMware vSphere problems with DR weren’t as much storage replication issues as networking problems. But NSX-T and VCF seemed to have solved that problem.

And with vRealize Automation plugins and NSX-T APIs, customers can have 0 touch network provisioning which enables the use of IaaS or infrastructure as code for their data center.

VMware vVOLs are now available with Dell EMC PowerMax storage. So, now VxBlock 1000 customers can use vSphere storage policy-based management (SPBM) as well as automated vVOL replication for data on PowerMax.

VMware NSX-T implements Application Virtual Networks (AVNs) using a GENEVE overlay network, which make extensive use of encapsulation. But where there’s encapsulation, de-encapsulation must follow to access outside networks. All this (encapsulation on ingress, de-encapsulation on egress) is done through NSX-T Edge clusters.

The net result of all this is that VMware customers have more choice, i.e., now they can run VCF on HCI or CI. And with VxBlock 1000 CI, VCF customers can select a best of breed components for each level of their 3-tier infrastructure.

Martin Hayes, DMTS, Dell Technologies

Martin Hayes is a Technical Product Manager at Dell Technologies, where he develops and executes data center product strategies that incorporate virtualization, software-defined networking (SDN) and converged systems.

Previously, he served in network advisory and architect roles at Dell EMC, converged systems pioneer VCE and Irish broadband provider eircom.

113: GreyBeards talk storage for next gen. workloads with Liran Zvibel, Co-Founder & CEO WekaIO

Sponsored By:

I’ve known Liran Zvibel, Co-founder and CEO of Weka IO for many years now and it’s the second time he’s been on our show, (see: Episode 56: GreyBeards talk high performance file storage...). In those days, WekaIO was just coming out and hitting the world with this extremely high-performing, scale out unstructured data solution. Well since then, they’ve just gotten better.

Keith and I had a great time talking with Liran again. Liran has deep knowledge about unstructured data and how enterprises use it these days. WekaIO’s story, over the last two years has gone beyond great performance to real world, hybrid cloud offerings e as well as going after the cloud native app’s (read Kubernetes [K8S]) persistent storage. Listen to the podcast to learn more.

We started with a history lesson on WekaIO. Back in those days (which persists today, I might add) there were many IO workloads that required companies to purchase different solutions for different work. For example, they needed DAS or SAN for performance, NAS for ease of access and object for scale. WekaIO came out with an answer to all these problems in a single, scaleable storage system. That is, they performed IO as fast as DAS or SAN block, had all the ease of access of NAS, and could scale as much as object.

However, the real culprit holding the world back was “NFS”. At the outset NFS was designed (back in the 1990s) with the then current networking speeds available (10-100Mbps), which performed just fine at those speeds. But when 10-100GbE came out in the 2000’s, NFS’s metadata overhead was too chatty to support wire speeds. Thus, any storage that depended on NFS protocols couldn’t supply (small) files fast enough for modern applications.

This is why WekaIO has moved to not only support NFS and SMB but also POSIX and NVIDIA® GPUDirect® Storage interfaces. By offering POSIX, WekaIO is able to plug into standard Linux and Windows server systems and provide excellent small file performance. Of course applications that demand small file performance today are mostly data analytics and AI/ML/DL workloads.

Consequently., NVIDIA came out with their GPUDirect Storage protocol to address getting small file (data) into GPUs faster. With GPUDirect, storage systems can RDMA data directly from storage to GPU memory and vice versa, with no OS intervention (other than to set up the transfer). If you happen to have a small file, high performing storage system attached to your fabric that supports GPUDirect , like WekaIO, you can significantly speed up your AI/ML/DL workloads.

Next we started talking K8S storage. WekaIO usestheir POSIX interface in their CSI plugin to support K8S container persistent storage. Again, supplying high performance for small files seems to be tailor made for K8S container applications that exist today and will for the foreseeable future.

Enter the cloud. Almong other things, WekaIO is a AWS primary storage vendor. It also offers snap to cloud. And with both of these in tandem, it’s just become a lot easier to move and access your unstructured data in the cloud. Liran mentioned that WekaIO primary storage in AWS operates across AZ’s. This means it can be configured to support better availability than EBS.

Large BioPharma companies are using WekaIO in AWS to store and process field data and research data, so that this work can be done around the world. Some companies have run out of compute in a single AZ (unbelievable I know but it’s COVID). By offering multi-AZ support unstructured data access with WekaIO, these companies can spread their compute across AZ’s and region and still access their data. And when their products are ready for gov’t certification, having all this data in the cloud, can make provide an easy way to have gov’t access this same data.

Liran Zvibel, Co-founder and CEO WekaIO

As Co-Founder and CEO, Mr. Liran Zvibel guides long term vision and strategy at WekaIO. Prior to creating the opportunity at WekaIO, he ran engineering at social startup and Fortune 100 organizations including Fusic, where he managed product definition, design, and development for a portfolio of rich social media applications.

Liran also held principal architectural responsibilities for the hardware platform, clustering infrastructure and overall systems integration for XIV Storage System, acquired by IBM in 2007.

Mr. Zvibel holds a BSc.in Mathematics and Computer Science from Tel Aviv University.