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IXsystems: TrueNAS gets hyper-convergence

TrueNAS has added hyper-converged functionality to NAS and aims at the edge use cases left behind in the rush to the cloud

The power of the largest datacentres, but 10x smaller. That’s the offer SME and desktop NAS maker IXsystems goes into 2021 with, in the hope of convincing organisations to keep storage on-site rather than give in to the temptation of the cloud.

IXsystems claims it is optimised for high performance and remote working, with up to eight 100Gbps Ethernet ports to support simultaneous connections to more than 1,000 servers, and new functionality that brings hyper-convergence.

“In this period of remote working and economic uncertainty the cloud appears very attractive,” said IXsystems sales director Brett Davis during the recent virtual edition of the IT Press Tour. “But the cost of cloud provision per terabyte can be much more costly than that of a storage array on-site. The problem for organisations is the cost of buying hardware and the ongoing technical support they impose. But, we have a solution: Entirely open source NAS arrays.”

IXsystems’ offer comprises products based on free components, namely the BSD operating system and the OpenZFS file system. The latter is the flagship of storage technologies from Sun Microsystems.

“Our disk arrays are half the price of those of our competitors. Our system is open, with more than 250,000 users, with more than 200 integrators internationally who report more than 1,000 new customers a year,” said Davis.

IXsystems calls its collection of freely downloadable open source components, TrueNAS. It’s also the name of its hardware products.

Up to last year, TrueNAS was just our commercial products. We also offer a free version of our system that you can deploy on any x86 server with the right drives to make it into a storage array,” said Davis. “The free version was called FreeNAS. We have re-baptised it TrueNAS Core because the term ‘free’ was sometimes counter-productive when it came to getting into some organisations.”

Community supported

TrueNAS Core indicates it is community supported with rapid development and early availability.

At the beginning of 2021 TrueNAS released version 12, which brought three functions to its SME audience that are generally found in datacentre disk arrays.

These are encryption at file system level, remote access using double authentication (using Google Authenticator), and RAID disk management that allow for mixing of SSD and traditional hard drives in the same cluster.

On the TrueNAS M50 – what was the top of the range array in 2020 – this RAID optimisation allowed for global throughput of 11.7GBps, which compared to 9.9GBps on the previous version of TrueNAS.

TrueNAS 12 aims at being a smart backup system. It replicates its contents to third party object storage to retain a copy in case of cyber attack.

It can operate in redundant mode, with two active-active TrueNAS nodes, although that’s not possible in the free version.

VPN server

Beyond storage functionality, it also has a VPN server aimed at remote connectivity or other sites in the same organisation. Unsurprisingly, the software here comes from the open source OpenVPN.

Beyond software, the business of IXsystems is chiefly selling pre-configured hardware. In this space its catalogue is packed with products that are more performant than last year.

At the top of the range the new TrueNAS M60 benefits from the new RAID optimisation functionality by combining its disk drives with four 32GB NVRAM.

That combination makes for global throughput of 23GBps via NFS or SMB access. We don’t know currently if that NVRAM is Intel Optane or not.

Like the M50 and M40 previously, the M60 comes as a dual controller 4U node. With 64 cores of Xeon CPU and 1.5TB of RAM, its performance is 30% better than the M50.

The big difference in the M60 compared to its predecessors lies in its connectivity. It has eight 100Gbps Ethernet ports, which the company claims will support more than 1,000 hosts simultaneously.

The M60 accepts 24 drives, which can be HDDs of up to 18TB or SSDs of 7.6TB. This capacity can be extended via 12 external disk shelves connect to the Ethernet ports or via iSCSI. Here there are the 4U TrueNAS ES102 which can take 102 drives and the 2U TrueNAS ES24F which takes 24 SSDs. Filled to capacity, an M60 with all its disk shelves can offer 20PB in hard drive capacity and 24PB via SSD.

Read more about NAS storage

At the other end of the catalogue, the TrueNAS Mini products constitute the entry-level solutions. Two new products here aim to compete with Synology and Qnap via enhanced functionality.

The Mini X+ offers five HDDs with two SSDs for a capacity of 50TB to 85TB with two 10Gbps Ethernet connectors for a global throughput of 2GBps.

Its little brother, the Mini X has four 1Gbps connectors. IXsystems hasn’t advertised its bandwidth, but it’s like to be about four times inferior to the Mini X+. To support this throughput these machines are equipped with eight x86 processor cores and 16GB to 64GB of RAM.

IXsystems aims the Mini boxes at customers that want shared storage at edge computing use cases at production sites distant from the central datacentre. It is expected that the devices that connect to TrueNAS machines in these situations will be desktop PCs and video surveillance cameras.

IXsystems’ midrange products – the R series, from the 1U R10 to the 4U R50, which all offer 10Gbps via two 100Gbps Ethernet ports – haven’t changed at all. At least not in terms of hardware. Instead, they are pioneering a radical new departure for IXsystems.

“Our TrueNAS system doesn’t just function as a single node, or as one of two in active-active mode,” said Davis. “The big novelty this year is that we have launched TrueNAS Scale, which allows for expansion to four nodes plus one for redundancy. TrueNAS Scale even goes beyond that to become a hyper-converged system.”

Taking charge

Hyper-converged infrastructure is a cluster of servers that runs virtualised applications using all available processors while also presenting storage capacity from all disks present. The challenge was that while OpenZFS was designed for the latter, BSD wasn’t capable of taking charge of the first.

“In fact, TrueNAS Scale isn’t based on BSD but on Linux Debian,” said Davis. “So, we can virtualise applications in the form of virtual machines under the KVM hypervisor and in the form of Docker or Kubernetes containers.”

He added that the whole ensemble is still managed from the same admin console as previously, namely TrueCommand which is common to all IXsystems products.

There’s no doubt that this functionality is more than gimmickry for IXsystems. “There’s a real need for this type of new generation hyper-converged infrastructure that can run containers and that is that they are sufficiently light to be deployed at the edge,” said Davis.

Davis is convinced that this new version will open up new market segments for IXsystems that it didn’t dare to address previously.

“Lots of possibilities are opened up to us,” he said. “For example, we can connect a TrueNAS hyper-converged cluster to a VMware cluster to provide it with a virtual disk array. All you need is to run A TrueNAS VM in the VMware cluster. You have to realise, customers could add a cluster of 60PB of NAS storage by hooking up three M60 nodes with all their disk shelves.”

Beyond the technical elegance and the enthusiasm of its customers, IXsystems will be confident in taking on the giants of hyper-convergence, namely Dell-VMware and Nutanix. And why not? These players have put a lot into Kubernetes integration to be able to take their customer base to the hybrid cloud, so when these customers need Kubernetes backup at the edge, TrueNAS hopes to step in.

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