EVO:Rail and the missing acquisition phase of hyperconverged storage

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It's rare that a storage-related technology arises without there being any acquisitions.

Look at flash. The startups emerged and pushed the big six to either buy some of them or to develop flash architectures from the ground up. Mostly big storage bought its way into the space, witness EMC/XtremIO, IBM/Texas Memory Sytems etc.

But hyperconverged compute/storage has seemingly sidestepped that familiar cycle. It's a hot area that emerged a couple of years ago from pioneers such as Nutanix, Simplivity and Scale Computing. They combine processing and storage in one box, with scale-out capability that allows the customer to grow capacity in grid-like fashion.

It allows easy setup and administration and with a VM-friendly architecture.

Then the font of software-defined everything, VMware, came along and brought out EVO:Rail.

EVO: Rail runs VMware virtualises CPUs with vSphere to, storage with VSAN, networks with NSX, while vCenter Log Insight and the EVO Engine handle deployment, configuration and management of resources.

Currently, EVO:Rail only scales to a 48TB four node cluster, but more is promised when the bigger EVO:Rack hits the market.

Right now, hardware makers that offer pre-configured EVO:Rail appliances include Dell, EMC, NetApp, Hitachi Data Systems, Fujitsu and HP. That's all the top seven storage vendors except IBM.

And so, with a big player weighing in from early on, ie VMware doing a good job of providing the software heart of hyperconverged computing, the usual cycle of acquisitions of startups has been bypassed.

So, will the pioneer hyperconverged players be eclipsed? You could imagine they might feel a bit lonely. They got to the dance first, knew all the trick moves but never got picked. VMware came along and swept all the big boys off their feet with EVO.

That's quite unusual in a world where startups not only innovate but often go on to form the core IP of a big players offerings when they are acquired.

But, the hyperconverged pioneers are not necessarily destined to stay as wallflowers. For a start they offer a choice of the hypervisors they run. Nutanix runs Microsoft Hyper-V and it looks like Simplivity has it planned. Meanwhile, Scale Computing's HC3 products are based on the open source KVM hypervisor.

So, despite the hyperconverged storage and compute market bypassing the usual acquisition phase, it looks like the pioneer startups have a comfortable niche in which to sit, especially given this is mostly an SME to midrange play where they can compete in terms of scale and functionality.

Hybrid flash horse is a winner, but did Dell mean to back it?

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When reflecting on the rise of flash storage over the last couple of years it's easy to come to the conclusion that some storage vendors have been more active, more free-spending, more progressive in the marketplace.

I have in mind the likes of EMC and IBM, with their big ticket flash startup acquisitions and the million-plus IOPS products that lead their all-flash offerings.

At the same time it has been easy to regard, for example, Dell (and others that have opted to retrofit existing arrays), that have not invested in dedicated all-flash arrays in the same way as EMC and IBM, as perhaps lagging behind somewhat.

But it has become apparent that hybrid flash is the most common application of SSD and that all-flash arrays are very much a minority interest. In a blog last year I cited a 451 Group survey that showed 67% of respondents had installed flash in SAN or NAS arrays while only 8% had all-flash arrays deployed.

So, as time has passed it has started to look like Dell may have hit the right spot in the market. Or maybe the right spot in the market has hit Dell?

Dell has all-flash array offerings; the Dell Compellent SC4020 can be completely populated with SSD. But its flash forays have largely been into the world of hybrid. The SC4020 can also house HDDs and there is also an EqualLogic iSCSI hybrid flash array, the PS6210XS.

It looks like Dell has been the beneficiary of a happy accident, but according to storage general manager, Alan Atkinson, Dell's bet in the hybrid vs all-flash stakes was a cert for a long time.

"It's a bit of a philosophical question," said Atkinson. "And we have taken sides."

"We considered all the options and honestly believed we didn't need to buy a flash startup or develop flash systems from the ground up. And I think the market has demonstrated that we didn't need to."

Atkinson's view is that flash is a disruptive technology but that it has transitioned from being most suited to high performance use cases.

"All-flash arrays started off expensive and were targeted at use cases that didn't need the full range of features like replication etc."

"That's a market and it is what it is. But what's happened is that as flash prices have decreased it has become a more general purpose storage medium."

Luckily for Dell, according to Atkinson, its Compellent storage operating system (OS), with its tiering capabilities, lent itself well to uses where flash is mixed with spinning media, and was re-written to some extent to optimise it for these use cases.

So, says Atkinson, Dell has no need for a separate all-flash array platform, especially as its customers want a common interface across HDD and SSD storage, or as he put it (IT marketing euphemism alert!), "all the wood behind one arrow," which, of course, you don't get with EMC or IBM, whose all-flash arrays run on discrete OSs.

It's quite a compelling argument, and the net result is that Dell has solid product offerings in flash in all but the most high-performance use cases. But was it what was intended all along? Hmm, well, the jury is still out on that one for me.

Cloud storage future shown by current limitations. Chapter 96: Ctera

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I've written recently that despite relatively low enterprise take-up of cloud storage - due to concerns over bandwidth, availability, security, compliance, data portability etc - vendors big and not so big are making moves into cloud storage; usually hybrid cloud storage, and always limited by the current capabilities of the cloud.

That's because cloud storage is not fully ready, for all the above reasons, for mission-critical enterprise use.

A vendor whose work in the space illustrates this is CTERA, which finds a way to exploit the currently-usable facets of the cloud to provide branch office storage and backup plus file sync and share for mobile users.

Sure, neither of these represent a full-blow enterprise storage use of cloud storage, but are an adaptation what the cloud offers at present.

CTERA's offer centres on CTERA Portal, a platform that allows users to connect to private and public cloud services with linkages to cloud storage environments from the key vendors.

With CTERA Portal customers can deliver, for example, storage and backup services to remote office users via an on-premises NAS appliance, and file and sync services for mobile users via a software agent on the endpoint device.

The appliance offers local disk capacity in what CTERA marketing VP Rani Osnat calls "disk-to-disk-to-cloud", AKA hybrid cloud, and does so with source and global deduplication.

The company's offerings allow enterprises to deliver remote office and/or mobile device data protection or they can be used by service providers to deliver to customers.

What is significant about them? It's another case where an enterprising business has spotted opportunities to exploit the cloud for storage, whilst at the same time recognising its limitations.

CTERA doesn't offer enterprise-class primary storage in the cloud. It can't. The cloud can't provide that - yet. Instead, it allows businesses to exploit cloud storage for the likes of backup and file sync and share.

In the case of its backup appliances, they are hybrid cloud. They have to be because you must stage to disk locally if you can't guarantee throughput across public networks. Mobile sync and share, meanwhile, deals in small volumes of data that are not time critical and dependent on LAN-like levels of connectivity.

So, for now we have numerous vendors exploiting the opportunities and limitations of cloud storage. It's an interesting space to watch and will be increasingly so as the boundaries of possibility change over time.

One day we may see the likes of CTERA - not to mention EMC and NetApp - bringing products that can truly offer primary data-capable enterprise cloud storage services to market.

But that will then raise the question: If the cloud becomes feasible as a tier 1 storage location, what will become of the existing set of vendors, tied as they are to a world of on-premises arrays?

Zadara enterprise bolt-ons show the limits of cloud storage

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Here at Powering the Cloud (formerly Storage Networking World Europe) in Frankfurt, many of the vendors and products actually highlight the current limits of the cloud.

One such example is Zadara, a company that's making a successful fist of exploiting the shortcomings of the cloud for enterprise customers.

It provides what it calls enterprise-storage-as-a-service. In other words it provides all we'd expect of the cloud - hourly billing, elasticity, zero downtime and no need for the customer to deal with the dark underbelly of storage infrastructure.

It does this with its own hardware - supplied on-premises, to colo facilities or linked to existing cloud facilities - that is built from commodity servers and its own fully cloud-featured storage software and with it offers services that the likes of Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure can't provide.

Cloud storage services from the big beasts are full of shortcomings for an enterprise customer, with volumes limited in number and size, likewise with clusters, a lack of snapshots, replication and thin provisioning and encryption keys in the hands of the cloud provider. And all this comes on top of potential issues with bandwidth and latency.

Zadara aims at filling these gaps, as a bolt-on service that provides so-called Virtual Private Storage Arrays with guaranteed RAM, CPU, drive and networking levels of service plus encryption that's totally in the hands of the customer.

Amazon and Microsoft refer their "more choosy" customers to Zadara because they know their own shortcomings for enterprise users, says Zadara VP for business development, Noam Shendar.

"The big cloud providers are built for millions of customers, and aim for the lowest common denominator," says Shendar. "We're built to provide enterprise service for the select few."

That appears to be true, but while such a situation remains it shows that the cloud is far from go-to option for enterprise users and while it is so companies like Zadara will fill the gaps.

Ideas EMC probably hates #96 - Seagate Kinetic drives

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In storage one of the key fault lines we see is between vendors keen to ensure it's their product that builds in the intelligence needed for storage or storage-related operations to take place.

I guess that's not an earth-shattering observation. The basic functions storage are in a way quite mundane - data is stored on pretty dumb drives - so it's the bells and whistles that count. The vendors usually call this "adding value".

On the one hand array makers are keen to maintain its location in the controller, while one the other hand hypervisor sellers try to drag it into their software (eg, VMware and its various storage and backup-related APIs).

You can probably count the latter among, "ideas that EMC, NetApp etc wish didn't really exist". And there is another idea that Big Storage would probably like to see un-invented, which is Seagate's Kinetic, a drive that cuts out the need for a storage array controller and associated hardware altogether.

It does this in Kinetic drives by building in the intelligence required for object storage data access to the drives themselves. Kinetic drives replace the storage controller as well as SAS, SATA controllers, RAID controllers etc with key value store capability that can scale to well in excess of the number of atoms in the universe.

In doing so they interface directly with object storage environments, including Ceph, OpenStack Swift and Scality. And all that is required is a JBOD enclosure with Ethernet connectivity to house Kinetic drives.

Sure, it's an object storage technology - definitely very much a minority interest currently - and only really useful for large-scale relatively slow access use cases, but in such cases customers can potentially exploit it to drive out cost in capital outlay on storage array controller hardware as well as in operational costs for power and cooling.

But in future - as data volumes increase and the technology matures - object storage is likely to come of age and widen this fault line. Add to that the growing tendency of storage software and hardware to separate at the level of controller and the big storage incumbent array makers have a challenging few years ahead.

VMworld 2014. No limits! Err, yes there are!

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"NO LIMITS" shout the 10ft high ad boards around the vast conference centre.

At VMworld Europe in Barcelona the virtualisation giant is keen to stress how rapidly moving and changeable is the world in which we live. It's a "liquid world", says CEO Pat Gelsinger, one where we have moved from "rigid structures to liquid business" where the old adage "built to last" must become "built to change".

In the world of IT this calls, says Gelsinger, for "agility, bravery, change". That's because IT is simply awash with barriers; between cloud and traditional applications, between on-premises and off-premises infrastructure etc etc. We must, said the Pennsylvania farm boy (his description) turned tech CEO, "conquer the silos" and change "or to and".

VMware does its best to hammer the message home with speaker-straining basslines, dry ice and dancers at the 9am keynote, and backs it up with apparently supporting quotes from the likes of real geniuses Isaac Newton and Arthur C Clarke.

But in reality the world of VMware is all about limits. It's not an open source community. It's a commercial business whose bottom line is its, err, bottom line, and its modus operandi is all about making sure there are limits; that once you're locked into the VMware ecosystem you're more or less stuck there.

In the small corner of VMware that interests me as storage editor the limits are all too apparent. Its VSAN storage virtualisation tool, for example, only works with VMware's vSphere platform (never mind other hypervisors or physical servers) and it only provides storage to VMware virtual machines via a proprietary protocol.

And in VMware's recently announced EVO:Rail hyper-converged appliance we have a product that only works with VMware virtual machines and at present is constrained by very definite limits of scalability.

All of which leaves aside the big picture that once you've deployed VMware as a virtualisation environment you're going to have to spend a lot of time and money to provide things like storage and backup for the new environment.

Why do companies like VMware try so hard to convince us they're some kind of altruistic foundation, when we all know they exist to make profits and the best way they can do that is to lock people in? And really, why over-egg the pudding with the language of freedom and liberation?

Please, tell us how you think your products are the best at what they do but do drop the pretence that you're providing IT without limits.

Look out Symantec! Virtual server backup specialist Veeam is behind you

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One of the big surprises of the recent TechTarget European Purchasing Intentions survey was the appearance of Veeam as number two customer choice of backup software product.

In the survey Symantec was recorded as the most popular backup product among the 511 storage professionals questioned, with 20% saying they had deployed it. Veeam came next with 19%, followed by HP (15%), EMC's NetWorker and Avamar products (13%), IBM Tivoli Storage Manager (TSM) (12%), then CommVault, CA, and Microsoft, all with 6% of respondents.

Veeam gained a healthy increase in share compared to the 2013 survey. Last year it was behind Symantec (30%), HP (16%) and IBM TSM (15%) and registered 12.5% of customer deployments.

Three years ago, in 2011, Veeam didn't show up at all. That year Symantec was top dog (37.5%), with HP (17.5%) and EMC (14%) second and third.

Veeam's position is surprising on a number of levels. Not because Veeam isn't a good product. There's no doubt it is. But it is surprising in some ways that a product that specialises in the backup of virtual machines only should reach such levels of popularity.

That's because enterprise backup products, from the likes of Symantec, EMC, IBM (Tivoli Storage Manager), HP, CommVault et al, have universally achieved the ability to backup virtual servers as well as physical ones, often with tight integration to the hypervisor and use of advanced features within.

It's also a surprise because, while most organisations (87%) have virtualised servers it's also commonplace for IT environments to be mixed between virtual and physical devices. And it makes sense - doesn't it? - to use a backup product that can operate across the two environments.

Or maybe it doesn't matter to many organisations that are happy to run different backup software for physical and virtual servers. Or maybe those that ticked Veeam are SME organisations where it's more likely that the server environment is 100% virtualised?

I've no cast iron solutions to this particular conundrum, and am happy to congratulate Veeam on its success. 

All-flash arrays: Will time run out for mainstream acceptance?

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The all-flash array has been the flavour of recent times in storageland. But, has the hype exceeded the reality?

It may well have done. Or maybe it's just its timing is off.

If we look at our recent Purchasing Intentions survey there's no doubt that flash storage is popular. More than half of respondents indicated they had flash in use (36%) or planned to implement (7%) or evaluate it (25%) this year.

That's a fair amount of traction for flash, but not so much of that kudos can stick to all-flash arrays, according to another survey we ran this summer on ComputerWeekly.com, this time from 451 Research.

Its survey gained more granularity on the flash question and found for most respondents (67%) flash in use now is installed in existing SAN/NAS storage arrays while 25% have put it in servers. A mere 8% reported having deployed an all-flash array.

What that shows is that for the most part IT departments see the addition of flash to existing storage or to servers as the best way to accelerate I/O performance for key applications. That should be no surprise - all-flash arrays don't come cheap and with constrained budgets it's clearly best to target fast access media where you need it.

But it is in contrast to storage industry hype, and perhaps more importantly, the billions spent to develop or buy all-flash arrays, such as EMC's purchase of XtremIO, IBM's Texas Memory Systems acquisition and its pledge to invest $1 billion in flash.

The survey results also show that for many applications right now, disk is quite adequate. Compare the percentage of those in the ComputerWeekly.com survey that have virtualised servers (87%) with the numbers that have flash in place (36%) and it looks like there isn't a rigid driving shaft between the deployment of virtualisation and the need for flash.  

And so, the all-flash array could turn out to be something that takes its time to become a must-have. There's little doubt that disk will one day be superceded by solid state media, but in the meantime alternatives to flash are being developed. The hope must be in Big Storage Towers that flash is still the solid state media of choice when disk has finally had its day.

Death of the LUN: Another nail in the coffin from Gridstore?

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Has the LUN had its day? It has been the de facto method of creating logical volumes on physical storage for decades, but in this era of virtualisation that may be becoming a thing of the past.

In VMware or Hyper-V environment the LUN still exists but only as a single large pool in which the virtualisation platforms' virtual drives are created.

But Gridstore, which substitutes so-called vLUNs for LUNs while providing storage for Microsoft Hyper-V virtual machines, claims to have done away with the LUN altogether, in something like the way Tintri does for VMware environments.

Gridstore combines storage arrays largely comprising cost efficient 3TB or 4TB SATA drives and MLC flash (500GB or 1TB in its performance nodes) with software that lives in Microsoft System Center

That software comprises a "vController" that matches Hyper-V virtual machines to vLUNs and provides quality of service (QoS) on storage provision. The vController, Gridstore says, emulates the single app-single server-DAS setup of the physical server world with data put in queues and sent in bursts rather than randomly as they occur.

"Virtual environments and the LUN are an architectural mismatch," says George Symons CEO at Gridstore, which makes scale-out array nodes in 12TB and 48TB base units, expandable to petabytes.

"A LUN must cater to many servers of different types of workload and are the site of the I/O blender effect", he says, referring to the way many and random I/O requests from virtual machines can overload physical storage.

In Gridstore arrays the vController can match storage performance to the needs of the VM, should that be sequential or random and can make sure "noisy" virtual machines do not disrupt others, alerting the admin if a VM isn't getting the gold, silver, bronze levels of performance set.

Gridstore claims 40,000 IOPS for the minimum three-node configuration of its 12TB devices. It doesn't sound a lot, when you think of the 500,000 and 1 million IOPS boasted by the all-flash provider.

But you don't need that, says Symons. "They talk of one and two million IOPS but 40,000 IOPS covers the needs of most people. To be honest most customers don't know what they need and most are in the 1,000 IOPS to 5,000 IOPS range. But in any case we can scale to 100,000 IOPS on nine nodes.

EMC's DSSD introduces the PCIe flash appliance

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It's always interesting when a new storage technology comes along, not least because we have to figure out what exactly we're looking at.

Under the microscope this time is the fruit of EMC's acquisition of DSSD, a Silicon Valley startup bought last month.

EMC calls it "rack-scale flash" and Dan Cobb, CTO of the flash division at EMC, told me DSSD had tried to do three things in its short existence.

These are, he said: "Achieve massive storage density, using flash and other components to build an all-flash appliance - as distinct from an array - in terms of the number of chips that can be co-located."

"Build a connection to hosts that is massively parallel - using the Gen 3 PCIe connect - to connect between 8,000 and 16,000 independent flash dies directly to the host with tremendously low latency, compared to one drive that that typically holds 16 dies via a single SAS or SATA interface."

"With all flash management, wear levelling, garbage collection etc integrated into system software to achieve incredible effectiveness."

What we have here is a PCIe-attached flash appliance with capacity of "hundreds of TB, approaching petabytes" that can operate as direct-attached storage (DAS) or, it is claimed, as an extension to RAM.

EMC is aiming it at in-memory database use and big data for real time operations.

Cobb said EMC would be working on three forms of connectivity for DSSD. These would be:

·         As a traditional block interface using NVME (non-volatile memory express) to connect via PCIe.

·         Via custom APIs. DSSD will have developed for it new API primitives, for example a plugin for HDFS low latency operations tailored for specific applications.

·         In-memory database use - for example with MongoDB - that will result in virtual memory primitives that allow the database to see one giant memory store in DSSD.

So, it looks like we have a new beast on our hands, a PCIe-connected flash appliance for use as extremely low latency DAS and/or as a RAM extension.

It's a bit like a server-side flash store but with capacity that massively outscales existing products, which will be able to, as Cobb put it, be used as "a very fast failover, for example running multiple SAP HANA instances."

And at the same time it might be something like the new memory channel storage products now emerging. Sure, it's not DIMM-connected but the very low latency claimed by EMC may allow it to become a RAM extension.

Anyway, more will certainly become clear over the next year, with EMC planning to "harden" the product and go for some kind of product launch this time next year.

Actifio gets funding, but what's the future for a good idea in storage?

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Actifio this week announced it had gained another $100m in funding, adding to a previous round of $107m, and according to Ash Ashutosh, founder and chief executive of Actifio, that pushes its market valuation to $1bn.

Actifio's Copy Data Storage Platform is the latest iteration of what we might call file virtualisation.

In the Actifio scheme numerous, isolated, many-times-duplicated versions of files are rationalised into the smallest number of copies required for the various requirements of the organisation - file access, backup, archiving and/or disaster recovery.

Whereas most businesses suffer the unwanted and unplanned multiplication of files as users copy, email, etc information between them, Actifio slims data down to a "golden copy", which is in practice the nearest one to the application that created or updated it.

Other copies are held elsewhere. They may be needed in production by other geographically located datacentres, or may be at different stages in their lifecycle, being backed up or archived, for example, and are updated from the golden copy so that all are eventually synchronised. Copies are retained with snapshot functionality, ie they can be rolled back to any point in time where changes were made.

Actifio targets the data protection and disaster recovery market and hopes to replace existing replication products, including at the storage array. It supplies the product as software or as an appliance on an x86 server. When customers deploy it Actifio discovers all the apps in the environment and policies can be set for their data - how many copies, on what tier of storage media it should be kept, etc.

It all sounds like the way you'd do file storage if you were thinking it up from scratch.

But there could be obstacles.

For a start, with 300 customers gathered over five years it hasn't exactly set the world on fire. And while the Actifio scheme is a clever one that can save a lot of disk space, re-architecting an existing environment might be a big ask for a lot of customers and a nerve-jangling prospect.

Perhaps that's why more than half its customers have deployed Actifio where data is clearly separated from production data - 6% use it for analytics and 17% for test and dev - or into relatively new, greenfield, environments at the 30% of its customers who are service providers.

Then there's the fact that there are many vested interests in storage that work against the idea of reducing the need for disk capacity. Ashutosh says the market it is playing in is worth $46bn but how much of that will take a swipe at disk vendors' revenues?

Whatever happens, the future for Actifio looks like one of going public with an IPO or being bought. Let's hope if it's the latter that it's not bought by a disk array maker that puts it out to pasture. 

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BYOD backup: A looming Bring-Your-Own-Disaster?

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Recently I blogged my thoughts on why mainstream backup products don't protect BYOD devices - laptops, tablets, smartphones etc - and came to the conclusions a) BYOD backup is a different beast to mainstream fixed source backup and is only provided by some specialised suppliers, and b) many BYOD users are probably using Dropbox et al.

However, it turns out I was off the mark, especially on the second point. In fact most organisations are not backing up these portable devices at all. That's the conclusion to be drawn from last spring's SearchStorage.com purchasing intentions survey. It found that more than two thirds of tablets and smartphones and nearly half of all laptops are not backed up (see chart below).

I banged on about potential BYOD compliance risks to this in my previous blog. That, you would have thought, would be sufficient impetus for users to rectify this situation. Maybe they want to. But, even if the desire is there enterprise and midrange backup products simply don't protect these types of device.

All of which leads to the conclusion that the backup suppliers really are missing a trick. It is quite literally a huge unfulfilled market. If the backup software makers had BYOD backup functionality in their products they could deploy one of IT marketing's greatest weapons - fear. So, why they don't remains a mystery.


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Cold Storage, Helium and HAMR. Can they save the spinning disk HDD?

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While super-fast flash storage has hogged the headlines, recent months have seen the available capacity of spinning disk HDDs increase to 6TB with the shipping since last September of HGST's helium-filled SAS and SATA 3.5" HelioSeal drives. This is a 50% increase on the previously available 4TB drives.

HGST has been able to do this because it has got a jump on its rivals by patenting a method of sealing helium into drives instead of air. Helium, famously, due to its ability to produce a funny voice when sucked from a party balloon, is about 1/7th the density of air.

This reduces friction against spinning components in the HDD, when they start up and as they run, and brings, says HGST - which thinks it has an 18 month/two year lead on the competition - a 36% decrease in power usage plus, crucially for capacity, the ability to run seven (thinner) platters in the drive rather than the usual five.

As if a 50% boost in capacity was not enough, we're looking at the possibility of HDDs shipping with between 7TB and 10TB (with helium) by the end of this year and into 2015.

That's down to the adoption of new ways of writing data to the surface of platters and consequent increases in areal density as the HDD makers move from the current standard of perpendicular magnetic recording (PMR) to the next generation shingled magnetic recording (SMR).

Then, two or three years down the road we're looking at a tripling of current HDD capacities to around 12TB (with helium) with heat assisted magnetic recording (HAMR), which does what it says on the tin really, by heating up the surface of the drive and increasing the density of its storage capabilities.

It all sounds like great news until you think of the RAID rebuild times. These can currently stretch to days for 4TB drives that use the parity-based RAID levels (5 and 6) and will only get worse with capacities that double or triple that.

"It's not good," says HGST's EMEA sales VP Nigel Edwards. "As capacities increase so will RAID rebuild times. It is an issue, but we are seeing huge demand and are being pushed for larger capacity drives."

According to Edwards the future of such ultra-high capacity HDDs is in "cold storage", ie archiving that sacrifices access times for ultra-low cost per TB. Here, if HDD makers can bring the cost per TB price of spinning disk down to that of tape, service providers will offer data archive services using vast amounts of disk drives that are spun up as customer access needs dictate.

It's a plausible case. And it'll be interesting to watch how it plays out. Because, as the HDD makers drive for ever-higher capacity disk the tape makers too - with a head start in terms of capacities/densities - are also looking at more archive-friendly technologies, such as LTFS and SpectraLogic's Black Pearl implementation.

Oft-heard soundbite used to proclaim "tape's is/isn't dead". Now it seems there's a current of "disk isn't dead" emerging and finding use cases to ensure its survival.

Why don't backup products protect mobile/BYOD?

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It's a contemporary mystery. Why, when the trend towards ever-greater mobile device use is such a prominent one, do the mainstream backup software suppliers almost all fail to provide for such use cases?

You'd need to have lived in a cave (without a broadband connection) for two years not to have seen the rise of mobile, tablets, smartphones and the BYOD phenomenon. And even if you had dwelled in such a place you could still learn that, for example, of the top 5 IT projects planned by ComputerWeekly.com readers in 2014, three of them are "tablet PCs", "smartphones" and "mobility".

Of course, there's a huge need for these devices to be protected, and for a variety of reasons. They may contain data that's valuable in business terms or sensitive for data protection reasons. Meanwhile, many types of data held or generated on mobile devices can be the subject of legal e-discovery requests.

Businesses go to great lengths to ensure virtual and physical server data is protected and a relatively small number of backup software suppliers make a healthy living from it, but curiously, almost none of them includes mobile device support in their products.

You can, if buying enterprise or midrange backup software from Symantec, CommVault, EMC, IBM, HP, Acronis, CA or Microsoft, ensure various levels of granularity of backup with at least the two biggest virtual machine hypervisors, probably integrate with their management consoles and with numerous applications as well use the cloud as a backup target.

But one thing you won't be able to do with most of those products is to backup tablets, smartphones, and possibly not even laptops.

There are specialist suppliers, however, such as Druva, that do make specialised backup products for mobile and laptop devices. Meanwhile, midrange backup supplier Acronis has indicated it wants to travel in this direction with the purchase of file sharing and collaboration tool GroupLogic, but this is more a DropBox-type tool than backup. In this space too HP has its Connected Backup (that's not integrated with HP's Data Protector backup product).

There are also of course DropBox itself and Box and other file sharing and collaboration tools aimed at mobile users.

So, we have a yawning chasm. On the one side we have the backup products aimed at virtual and physical server estates and on the other we have some specialist mobile/laptop backup products and the file sharing tools.

That can't be good for users. It is surely preferable to be able to deal with backups for all devices from one product that covers fixed and mobile.

And you would think vendors are missing a trick too. After all, with the proliferation of mobile devices that's a huge potential pool of licence sales to be tapped.

Perhaps it boils down to the nature of backup and data protection in the two spheres. On the one hand larger SME and datacentre backup needs an application that can schedule, manage and monitor the movement of large amounts of data on a regular basis. Meanwhile, mobile device use patterns dictate more atomised, individual levels of service on an irregular basis and of relatively small amounts and simply don't require the need to deal with scale in the same way.

So, perhaps never the twain shall meet and the world of backup is destined to remain a fragmented one. For me, it's a puzzle. If you have any clues what's holding the world of mainstream backup products back from sweeping up all those new mobile/BYOD users then please feel free to comment.

Startup watch: Gridstore targets Hyper-V storage market

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This week I spoke to Gridstore, a startup that offers storage arrays that integrate with the Microsoft Hyper-V virtualisation environment and with on-board smarts it claims boosts I/O for Hyper-V traffic.

Gridstore is delivered as a hardware appliance with its software configured on Dell servers it calls nodes. You can get two types of node - in a minimum of three - the H-Class high performance version with a mixture of PCIe flash and 12TB of spinning disk and the C-Class, aimed at less-demanding I/O applications that comes with spinning disk only. Building out these nodes can take you to a maximum capacity of around 3PB.

So far so box-standard array, but where the smarts come in is that Gridstore applies intelligence to the I/O queues. Normally, of course, virtualisation traffic creates the so-called I/O blender effect, which is when numerous virtual machines try to access disk and the potentially large number and random nature of the calls overwhelms the media.

What Gridstore does is to examine I/O coming in from different VMs and put it into queues and make that access sequential rather than random. The user can define the priority of access to storage for different VMs in a quality of service (QoS) gold, silver, bronze approach.

George Symons, CEO at Gridstore, says it "cleans up contention", and agrees its something like what Virsto (acquired by VMware in Feb 2013) does, but at the storage not the host.

What's also interesting is that Gridstore's controller software is integrated with Hyper-V at the level of its operating software, working like a driver specific to that OS, so can't be used with VMware.

"To be able to clean up I/O we need to operate at that level. When Hyper-V goes to write to the drive, we intercept it and deal with it. Hyper-V thinks it's dealing with a local drive," says Symons.

Due to this tight integration with Hyper-V, Gridstore can use advanced features such as data deduplication, thin provisioning, replication and snapshots in Windows Server 2012 that are usually the preserve of high-end storage hardware.

But being so tightly integrated into a specific hypervisor also means that a VMware ESX version is some way off, at least 12 months, says Symons.

The company (California-based) is making its first European push with the appointment of former NexSan man Andy Hill to VP for EMEA sales. The company is at B round in its funding cycle and late last year held a beta product programme of the block-based Hyper-V storage hardware with around 20 customers after switching its focus from scale-out NAS.

All of which means it's early days yet for Gridstore, but it's certainly bringing an interesting product to market, although tightly targeted at users of the, for now, minority hypervisor.

Pure Storage's Dietzen - we'll be up there with the storage giants

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It's not often you get the CEO of a tech startup tell you his company is going to be a market leader, in the tens of $billions of revenue category. That's what flash array maker Pure Storage CEO Scott Dietzen told me this week, so I thought it worth recording. After all, achieving such an aim would put Pure alongside the likes of EMC, NetApp, IBM etc in storage revenues.

Currently, Pure Storage has around 400 employees and "hundreds" of customers worldwide. Those magnitudes place it firmly in the startups camp, but it does have a healthy balance sheet and prospects.

It has, for example, attracted possibly the biggest funding injection in enterprise storage history. Talk is that it is IPO-ready, on the basis of a valuation, "north of $1 billion", said Dietzen and it has seen several quarters of growth in the region of 50%. The company could have gone for an IPO but decided to stay private, said the CEO.

Why would it do that? A company in such rude health must be getting offers it can't refuse. And it must face questions from customers concerned it could be snapped up by big six player, or that it could have a less-than-successful IPO, like Violin did.

Dietzen said Pure had been approached by half a dozen potential buyers, but it has decided to hold out. He believes that Pure has the strength to stay the course to achieve a place alongside the giants of storage.

"Why? Our numbers are really good - we've been growing at 50% a quarter sequentially - and we have a desire to stay independent for the long term. All storage is going to shift to flash and if you're not growing at 40% to 50% a quarter you're not going to maintain market share there."

"I'm frequently called on to answer questions about why we're not entertaining M&A conversations. We're a private company that has shareholders to look after. But that said, our shareholders see that ultimately a market leader in the flash array space is worth tens of billions of dollars and that we are on track to achieve that."

"Ultimately, companies get to be as big as they deserve to be. If you do what you do as well as we have you are not available as an acquisition target. We've experienced huge growth and see the same in front of us. This is how market-leading companies get built; they're the ones that outpace the others."

And finally, Dietzen stuck the boot into hybrid flash arrays, which he characterised as a poor substitute for all-flash.

He said, "Hybrid flash is marketed as providing the performance of flash with the cost of disk. But often what you get is the performance of disk at the cost of flash. Disk is so much slower than flash so if 95% of I/O goes to flash and 5% to disk the overall performance will be 5x slower."

Whatever happened to Veeam's V-Index of virtualisation trends?

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We live in the Information Age, apparently, but sometimes it's far too easy to form the impression that decent information is at best hard to come by and at worst purposely withheld.

This week I spoke to Veeam, the virtualisation backup software specialist. The briefing was mostly a recap of some of the new features announced in version 7 of the Veeam product earlier this month, including WAN acceleration, array-based replication and tape support.

Also discussed was Veeam support for the latest versions of the VMware vSphere and Microsoft Hyper-V hypervisors; a result, said product strategy specialist Mike Resseler, of the company closely following virtualisation platform trends.

Now, if I'd wanted to check the relative penetration of the various hypervisors and the overall percentages of physical to virtual servers there was a time I could have quickly accessed Veeam's own V-Index surveys, carried out by Vanson Bourne, of more than 500 organisations in the US, UK, France and Germany.

There I could have seen stats for numbers of virtualised servers vs physical, the degree of server consolidation resulting from virtualisation and the relative penetration into datacentres of the various virtualisation hypervisors.

Sadly, however, V-Index was a very short-lived programme, lasting only, it appears, for one iteration of the survey.

Naturally, my suspicious journalist's mind suspected the results were not what Veeam wanted to see; the V-Index, for example, showed only about 35% of servers in the UK were virtualised in the last quarter of 2011. And that might be an argument for not buying Veeam, which only backs up virtual servers, and instead looking at a product from one of the larger incumbents that backup virtual and physical devices.

Veeam's public relations company reassures me my suspicions are wide of the mark, however, and that the company decided to concentrate its efforts on its annual Data Protection Report and to leave the kind of reporting done by the V-Index to the likes of Gartner and IDC.

But, Veeam's Data Protection Report clearly doesn't give the same metrics at all and you try finding Gartner or IDC figures that give the same information as the V-Index did. Oh, I'm sure they exist, but in nothing like the easily accessible format of Veeam's creditable efforts, which potentially could have provided a great resource that combined regular snapshots into a picture of virtualisation trends over time.

And that was Veeam's aim. In that July 2011 blog post Veeam VP for product strategy and chief evangelist Doug Hazelman told us about V-Index and how "very excited" he was about it. But yet by the end of that year the programme appears to have bitten the dust.

So, there's just one more thing, as I hover near the door Colombo-like, why was V-Index such a great idea in July 2011 but ditched less than half a year later? I can't help thinking I was right to be suspicious.

Supplier hype-watch: Violin and DataCore at SNW Europe

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IT trade events like SNW Europe this week are a great opportunity to study the techniques employed in IT suppliers' marketing messages.

Some use out-and-out distortions of commonly-understood technical terms.

Violin Memory, for example, loves to emphasise the second word in its name, ie "memory". A strapline it uses is, "Run business at the speed of memory" and we're asked to think not as storage admins but as "memory architects" using its "persistent memory architecture" etc etc.

But how does all that stack up? Memory traditionally is the media on the motherboard closest to the CPU where a portion of the data and the application reside during working operations. Now, Violin may produce some very fast all flash arrays but are we really talking "the speed of memory" here?

Its high-end 6000 Series, for example - "Primary storage at the speed of memory" - product specsheets don't distinguish between reads and writes and offer latencies of "under 250 μsec" for SLC variants and "under 500 μsec" for the MLC variants.

I asked Violin CTO Mick Bradley how they could call it "memory" when it doesn't appear to conform with the commonly understood meaning of memory either architecturally or in terms of performance. His reply was: "We call it memory because it's silicon and it is addressed in pages of 16K."

Hmmm, such a definition doesn't cut much ice, especially now there is flash storage that does operate at the speed of memory. An example of this so-called memory channel storage is Smart's UlltraDIMM, launched earlier this year. Such a product could claim to operate "at the speed of memory" with write latency of less than 5 μsec and being actually located in motherboard DIMM memory slots.

Meanwhile, others change the way they describe their product according to which way the wind is blowing.

Storage virtualisation software vendor DataCore is a great example here. At SNW Europe this week, DataCore EMEA solutions architect Christian Marczinke told us how the firm had been the pioneer of "software-defined storage".

Err, hang on there. DataCore's use of software-defined storage to describe its products is dates back less than nine months and is clearly a response to the use of the term by VMware with its overall software-defined datacentre push and EMC's ViPR hype.

In fact, until around a year ago DataCore referred to its product as a "storage hypervisor", clearly bending with the wind blown from VMware's direction. I dealt with that issue of nomenclature here.

Does all this quibbling over terminology matter? Well, on the one hand, it obviously matters to the likes of Violin and DataCore, who despite having great products, clearly feel the need to over-egg their puddings. And on the other hand to IT journalists it matters because it's our job to ensure customers get a clear view of what products actually are.

To be continued . . .


The VMworld ecosystem: Avatar's Pandora or Total Recall's Mars?

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Here at VMworld Europe in Barcelona the term ecosystem is being thrown around with gay abandon. It's a lovely-sounding word. It evokes life, the planet, lush green rainforests, myriad plants and animals living in harmony etc etc.

IT vendors like to use it for those reasons and all its positive associations.

VMware is particularly keen on it, and it seems most apt. The layers of virtualisation they have laid onto physical servers are now being joined by levels of abstraction above the networks and storage infrastructures and into those hypervisor(s) they are gathering the intelligence to run nearly all aspects of the datacentre via ever fewer screens.

But stop for a second to think about what it means to step outside your ecosystem. Or alternatively, think about the movie Total Recall where the governor of Mars, Vilos Cohaagen, exercised his power through a total monopoly on breathable air.

Now, of course I'm not likening VMware's gathering of datacentre functionality to Cohaagen's tyranny, but look what happened when Cohaagen got sucked out of the safety of his ecosystem and onto the Martian surface.

Obviously this won't happen to you just because you deploy VMware in your datacentre, but there are good reasons to think deeply about what you're getting into.

Not least with storage, probably the area most affected by virtualisation. It accounts for something north of 50% of datacentre hardware costs and Gartner has predicted those rise by 600% upon virtualising your infrastructure. That's because packing lots of virtual servers into relatively few physical devices makes direct-attached storage unsuited to the massive and random I/O demands, and almost always means an upgrade to shared storage SAN or NAS arrays.

The day-to-day consequences of this are that storage will become more difficult to manage - masked by the VMware ecosystem - as it fills up more quickly, requires more rapid provisioning and generates ever more complex and potentially rapidly changing and easily broken dependencies and access profiles. And that's before we get to replication, mirroring, backup etc, all of which also presents a massively complex and dependency-heavy payload on the VM infrastructure.

All of which goes to show there's a downside to the concept of an ecosystem. VMware et al like to portray themselves as the Na'vi in Avatar, as guardians of their idyllic world. But the reality can end up more like Total Recall, where breathing the air is costly but stepping outside is even more difficult and dangerous.

For that reason it pays to exercise due diligence over the consequences of datacentre virtualisation, the likely costs and knock-on effects into storage and backup and to be sure to you have surveyed all the alternatives available in the market.

Simplivity converged storage converges with the hyperscale

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If you could build a datacentre - and more importantly its contents - from scratch chances are it wouldn't look much like many of them do now. Technologies have come along, have served their purpose as an advance on what went before, but later become the next generation's roadblock to efficient operations.

Take the x86 server. It replaced the mainframe or RISC UNIX server. In comparison to them it was cheap; you could put one app on each and keep adding them. But then, of course we ended up with silos of under-used compute and storage. And latterly, to this was added shared storage - the SAN and NAS - that solved many problems but has challenges of its own.

How would the datacentre be designed if it was built from the ground-up now?

Well, there are two answers (at least) to that one. The first is to look at what the likes of Amazon, Google et al have done with so-called hyperscale compute and storage. This is where commodity servers and direct-attached storage are pooled on a massive scale with redundancy at the level of the entire compute/storage device rather than at the component level of enterprise computing.

The second answer (or at least one of them) is to look at the companies bringing so-called converged storage and compute to the market.

I spoke to one of them this week, Simplivity. This four-year-old startup has sold Omnicubes since early 2103. These are 20TB to 40TB capacity compute and storage nodes that can be clustered in pools that scale capacity, compute and availability as they grow, and all manageable from VMware's vCenter console.

Omnicubes are essentially a Dell server with two things added. First is a PCIe/FPGA hardware-accelerated "Data Virtualisation Engine" that sees data on ingest broken into 4KB to 8KB blocks, deduplicated, compressed and distributed across multiple nodes for data protection as well as being tiered between RAM, flash, HDD and the cloud.

Second is its operating system (OS), built from scratch to ensure data is dealt with at sufficient levels of granularity and with dedupe and compression built in plus its own global, parallel file system.

With all this, Simplivity claims in one fell swoop to have replaced product categories including the server, storage, backup, data deduplication, WAN optimisation and the cloud gateway.

And to some extent the claim rings true. By dealing with data in an optimum fashion from ingest onwards, parsing it in the most efficient way and distributing it according to what's most efficient and safe, it has come up with something like how you'd deal with data in the datacentre if you were to design its parts from scratch right now.

That's not to say it's without limitations. Currently Simplivity is only compatible with the VMware hypervisor, though KVM and Microsoft Hyper-V variants are planned. And it is of course a proprietary product, despite the essentially commodity hardware platform (except the acceleration card) it sits upon, and you might not put that on your wishlist of required attributes in the 2013 datacentre.

Still, it's an interesting development, and one that demonstrates a storage industry getting to grips with the hyperscale bar that the internet giants have set.