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September 24, 2018  3:05 PM

Tape’s got a future but are use cases narrowing in the age of analytics?

Antony Adshead Profile: Antony Adshead

The headline grabbers in storage are usually the quick – flash, NVMe etc – or the harbingers of the next generation, such as the cloud. But in some ways these are the extremes, the outliers. In between, the vast bulk of the world’s business data resides on spinning disk hard drives and tape in long-term archives.

Of these, tape storage is set to see regular increases in capacity, with several other key advantages that make it likely to persist well into the future as the medium of choice for infrequently accessed data.

That was the key message in a recent article by Mark Lantz, manager of advanced tape technologies at IBM’s Zurich research facility.

In terms of its density, he said, we could soon see tape cartridges that run to hundreds of petabytes of data. That prospect came into view with the announcement last year by IBM of a new record in areal density for tape, based on nano-scale advances in tape and tape head technology.

That development could put 330TB on a standard tape cartridge, enough capacity for the contents of a bookshelf that would run from one end of Japan to the other, according to Lantz.

That’s not available yet, though, and maximum tape cartridge capacities currently run to about 15TB uncompressed (30TB compressed), while spinning disk HDDs can go to 60TB and flash drives to 30TB.

Nevertheless, for putting a lot of data in one place, Lantz is probably right to claim tape can claim top spot with the ability to build tape libraries that run to several hundred petabytes.

Tape also consumes no power when not in use, has failure rates several orders of magnitude lower than spinning disk, and the inherent offline “gap” between tape and the wider network provides a barrier to unauthorised access.

On top of all this, tape costs something like one sixth the cost of disk.

Of course, the kind of data you put on pricey flash is not the same as would go on magnetic tape; access times for tape are measured in seconds compared to milliseconds or fractions thereof for disk.

So, tape is best suited to infrequently-accessed data, and it seems to be the medium of choice for some of the biggest players in the cloud. Microsoft admitted in a roundabout way not too long ago that its biggest repositories of cold data are held on tape. Meanwhile, the last we knew, Amazon’s Glacier long term storage also relied on it.

And if tape fits the bill then you can be pretty sure it’s a future-proofed medium in the sense that tape capacities are set to scale – by about about 33% a year according to IBM – in a way that HDD and flash technology can no longer be due the limits on working in the media at ever smaller scale.

A lot of these are quite convincing arguments, but, there’s one key trend of contemporary IT that tape cannot fit with.

That’s the drive towards analytics, or at least not the kind of online analytics that seems to be on trend right now.

Many storage and backup vendors are increasingly working analytics into their offer, and this mirrors the trend of digital transformation in which organisations are going fully digital, with the aim, at least in part, to gain value from existing data.

That’s entirely possible as long as data resides on constantly-available media. But tape, with its long access times, precludes this.

Sure, you can access batches of data at a time from tape repositories and then run the numbers, but this isn’t analytics as it forms part of current trends.

So, tape is ideal to store very large amounts of data that you don’t need to access very often, but its use cases seem to be gradually narrowing as the need to apply intelligence to archives increases.

Tape doesn’t seem likely to die for some time yet, but it may be the case that, as advances are made elsewhere in IT, its field of operations will shrink.

April 25, 2018  12:04 PM

Scality gets $60m but keeps quiet about what it’ll spend it on

Antony Adshead Profile: Antony Adshead

French object storage specialist Scality recently raised $60m of funding, but what will that money go towards?

The company – most well-known for its RING object storage product – is in the middle of efforts to achieve “multi-cloud” operations, in which customers can operate within and between public cloud and on-premises environments.

According to Scality CEO Jerome Lecat, the $60m will go towards “engineering efforts”. Adding, “The idea is to give freedom in a multi-cloud world. To be able to manage multiple clouds seamlessly with metadata search and the ability to move and replicate across clouds.”

It has gone some way to achieving this with its Zenko “multi-cloud controller”, although as yet that’s in beta with one firm, Bloomberg, and GA planned for later this year.

If it means anything “seamless multi-cloud operations” must mean the ability to operate in hybrid cloud fashion, with something like the ability to drag and drop files/objects between locations, between private cloud and public, and between public clouds. Like a user in an organisation can do between drives and locations on a LAN, in effect.

I asked Lecat whether Scality aims to make Zenko drag-and-drop. Unfortunately, he couldn’t give any definite answers here.

“The target is still the sysadmin kind of person, not the end user,” he said, implying that drag-and-drop simplicity is not needed for that target market, although that type of interface is in use commonly in other environments.

He went on to say, “Included in the latest RING software is the ability to visualise S3 buckets – it’s not quite drag-and-drop but you can see files in S3 buckets. But, in multi-cloud it is not drag-and-drop. It is a picklist, but you can pick the destination cloud and Zenko does the rest.”

Keen to get to what Scality was aiming for in its engineering efforts, I asked what needs to be done engineering-wise to get to seamless multi-cloud operations.

Lecat said: “Honestly, I’m going to pass on this question. There are problems to be solved but I don’t want to give them more visibility. It’s not easy to build this.”

He went on to outline what Scality had achieved

“What we have achieved is to provide a single namespace and validated four clouds across which data can be stored: Google, AWS, Azure and the Scality Ring [private cloud]. Also, we store in the native format of the cloud, for example, S3 in Amazon, Blobs in Azure, which is super-important to take advantage of value-added features in those clouds. And you can search and, for example, delete anything according to metadata attributes across those clouds.”

It’s an impressive list of achievements so far. But, it’s a case of watch-this-space to see whether the company can go further to achieve real seamless object storage ops between multiple public and private clouds.

April 18, 2018  12:54 PM

Microsoft revives MAID with Pelican, but tape can still sleep easy

Antony Adshead Profile: Antony Adshead

A decade ago storage journalists were quite keen on a new technology around at the time. That was MAID – Massive Array of Idle Disks – which were basically disk-based backup target devices with lots of drives that could be spun down when not in use and so were suited to infrequently-used data.

The key attraction was access times quicker than tape, but avoiding some or most of the cost of powering and cooling lots of hard drives. A UK company called Copan was a pioneer of this, but lots of mainstream and lesser-known storage box makers got on board for a bit.

By the turn of the decade Copan had been swallowed up by SGI and MAID seemed to run into the sand. A range of explanations were proffered, that ranged from the unsuitability of HDDs to power down and up to the simple economics of still not being as cheap as tape.

But, Microsoft is rolling out its own MAID-like array to its Azure datacentres, according to CTO Mark Russinovich in a presentation in Sydney this month.

It’s called Pelican and it weighs not far off a tonne and a half. Packed with 1,152 10TB drives in a non-standard 52U rack it can store up to 11.5PB.

The idleness of drives therein is enforced by the dual controllers (that also contain its object storage file scheme) that schedule and orchestrate spin up, spin down, rebuilds etc and the key operating principle that no more than 8% of drives can ever be spinning, which is what keeps Pelican within its cooling parameters.

Pelican is being developed and rolled out by Microsoft for its Azure cloud datacentres, and is explicitly only for those that are “not big enough” for tape infrastructure (Azure currently uses IBM TS3500 libraries), according to Russinovich.

Implicit in that, it seem, is an acknowledgement that even today’s MAID, with 10TB hard drives and massive density, still doesn’t compete with tape in all scenarios. If it did, Microsoft would roll it out to all their Azure datacentres and we’d be set to see it hit the wider market.

So, for now, tape may not be dead. And can rest easy for the time being.

April 11, 2018  2:19 PM

Is HTTP doomed? Could blockchain help replace the Internet as we know it?

Antony Adshead Profile: Antony Adshead

Tim Berners-Lee is rightly famous as the originator of HTTP, a fundamental of the World Wide Web as we know it.

But according to some, HTTP is old hat. It has helped create a web full of dead links, that is increasingly centralised, open to control by governments etc and prone to failure.

That’s the view of those behind IPFS, which seeks to replace HTTP as a means of accessing files on the web, and ropes in blockchain to help.

HTTP depends on IP, a device-specific method of addressing.

IPFS, on the other hand, relies on content addressing. In other words, each stored item has its own unique identifier, an immutable hash created for it alone.

This allows data to be stored anywhere, and those that request it can access it from the nearest location, or from many locations.

In fact, IPFS has characteristics somewhat similar to BitTorrent, the peer-to-peer protocol beloved of illegal movie downloaders and used by the likes of PirateBay.

Instead of downloading one file from one place a so-called Torrent swarm allows the user to download many shards of a file from many locations simultaneously.

In IPFS, as in a Torrent swarm, this is organised by a DHT, a distributed hash table.

And, with blockchain technology, you can record the hashes of data held – but not the data itself – with an immutable timestamp that also allows searching.

It’s early days yet. There are some efforts ongoing to marry blockchain technology to distributed storage in a payment model, such as Storj and SIA.

And IPFS’s related project the Interplanetary Database, which sought to create an internet-scale blockchain database, gave up the ghost earlier this year.

But, the idea of being able to distribute storage, to hold data anywhere and access it from anywhere, in a system uncontrolled by large entities, is surely and attractive one?

Well, perhaps for many, but the potential is possibly there to undermine the current economic models of big storage, in the datacentre and even, as some now call it, the “legacy cloud”.

March 28, 2018  9:54 AM

FileShadow shows hybrid cloud push evident at SME and prosumer level

Antony Adshead Profile: Antony Adshead

There’s a drive towards hybrid cloud evident at the moment.

From hyper-converged products that offer cloud capability to single namespace file and object systems that allow seamless working between private datacentre and public cloud service.

While these mostly address midrange and enterprise customers, there are also hybrid cloud products for smaller-scale users that want on- and off-site interoperability.

One of these, FileShadow, last week added on-site Drobo NAS capability to its existing aggregation of multiple file-sync-and-share cloud-based services via its own file system.

The company aims its product at individuals and SMEs that have several cloud-based file share services and want to unify access to them. It has now added the ability to extend visibility to Drobo NAS products too, bringing hybrid cloud to smaller users.

FileShadow is a journaled file system that uses webhooks to access user data in cloud file-sync-and-share services, currently Box, Dropbox, one Drive, Google Drive and Adobe Creative Cloud. To these are now added access to Drobo, via agents on the NAS device.

FileShadow reads, encrypts and catalogues and indexes user data and stores it on the IBM Cloud Object Storage service. Its layering of services on indexed files allows, for example, images to be searched for by subject via metadata rather than just file name.

Fileshadow also allows files to undergo optical character recognition, for example, in PDFs to allow scanned documents to be searched.

Will FileShadow add more cloud services?

Tyrone Pike, president and CEO of FileShadow, said: “We’re covering about 96% of the market so far, but we hope to add some more, like Apple iCloud and some AWS services that are only available to Prime storage services.”

March 15, 2018  12:46 PM

File locking and workload limitations in Cloudian hybrid cloud storage

Antony Adshead Profile: Antony Adshead

Hybrid cloud has had a boost recently with the emergence of file/object environments that allow customers to operate a single namespace between on-premise and public cloud locations.

One of the pioneers here is Cloudian, which offers its HyperStore object storage-based environment with file-level access via NFS and/or CIFS, in HyperFile. The latter capability was first introduced last December in a partnership with Milan-based Infinity Storage and that has now been cemented by the acquisition by Cloudian of the Italian firm.

But, how exactly can file and object co-exist? After all, file systems bar simultaneous user access via file locking while object storage has no such mechanism.

Talking this week to Michael Tso, CEO, and Caterina Falchi, new on-board VP of file technologies at Cloudian, it was interesting to delve into how the two sides – file and object – relate to each other in Cloudian, and the limits that places on possible workloads.

There’s no doubt that what Cloudian offers is an exciting development that allows customers to operate with file or object access with a single namespace between on-premises locations and public cloud services from Amazon, Google and Microsoft. It’s part of an emerging class of products, that also include those from the likes of Scality, WekaIO, Qumulo and Elastifile.

The fundamentals of Cloudian are that data is kept as objects. “The ultimate version of the truth is object,” said Tso. And S3” is the protocol by which data stored as objects is communicated with.

Now there is file access via NFS and CIFS, but data is converted to object format behind this. File locking exists in NFS and CIFS but once data is in object format it can, in theory, be altered by more than one party at a time.

How will this be handled? Tso and Falchi say global file locking is on the roadmap, but for now, “There’s file locking from the file side,” says Tso. “But it’s not easy from the object side. That’s because we don’t want to change S3 standards that do not contain any locking mechanism. “It’s something we still debating if we need to do,” he added.

“We’ve not had any major issues,” says Tso. “People manage access at the application level. The only time it would be a problem if there was some incidental change in the flow, where you don’t expect someone to come in from a different interface.”

So, like Google drive or Dropbox, if someone has access at the same time then different versions are created.

From that, said Tso, use cases that are beyond the pale are, “Remote and branch office stuff, where people are collaborating, several people working on the same document making multiple edits at the same time.”

But, he said, Cloudian will work for Internet of Things data, file sharing, and media archives, and looks to customers that want to move,, “from tape or Isilon [Dell EMC’s scale-out NAS product]”.

February 5, 2018  12:58 PM

Cloud on the rise as hybrid cloud storage shows real maturity

Antony Adshead Profile: Antony Adshead

This year’s storage news so far has provided a firm impression of the increasing prominence of the cloud, and in particular of attempts to harness the public cloud and private datacentre in hybrid operations.

Now, recent IDC figures provide some evidence for a strong trends towards the cloud forming an important part of IT operations, as the table below shows.

In 2017, IT infrastructure spending for deployment in cloud environments hit $46.5 billion, a year-on-year growth rate of 20.9%.

Public cloud attracted the bulk of that (65.3%) and grew the fastest, with an annual rate of 26.2%. Meanwhile, spend on traditional, non-cloud IT was expected to have declined by 2.6% in 2017. It still formed the majority (57.2%) of user spending but was down from 62.4% in 2016.
This comes on top of recent news that have been centred on the efforts of vendors to provide a unified storage environment across the hybrid cloud, between on-premises and public cloud operations.

These have included: Cloudian’s upgrade to its Hyperstore object and NAS storage software to allow hybrid operations to multiple cloud providers; Qumulo’s launch in Europe of its hybrid cloud NAS, effectively a parallel file system that mirrors the likes of Dell EMC’s Isilon but between cloud and on-site locations, and; Microsoft’s purchase of Avere, a storage software maker that included hybrid cloud storage functionality.

Such products solve a bunch of problems for hybrid cloud storage. It has long been possible to work between private and public cloud environments, but getting data into and back from the cloud hasn’t always been so easy. And data portability between clouds has long been an issue.

It just wasn’t possible to handle data on a common file system or scheme (so put because object storage doesn’t use a file system, as such) as it is now with the type of products emerging.

These allow seamless operations between on-site and public clouds that mean the latter can be easily used for burst workloads or as a tier behind on-site performance layers.

That seems to me to be a significant landmark and we should expect to see further developments along these lines.

Sure, there will likely be a question mark over the fundamental resilience, availability and latency aspects of the use of cloud. After all, connection loss is only a misplaced JCB shovel away, but the appearance of near-true unified hybrid storage environments is a great step forward.

IDC cloud vs trad IT spend

January 22, 2018  9:41 AM

Microsoft purchase of Avere marks a hybrid cloud-y start to 2018

Antony Adshead Profile: Antony Adshead

Microsoft’s acquisition of Avere for an undisclosed sum, announced at the beginning of the year, marks the swallowing of an always-interesting storage player and a significant move for Microsoft and its cloud strategy.

The move is a clear play to boost Microsoft’s hybrid cloud capabilities, and aims to meet the need of businesses for whom the cloud in its pure form still can’t cut it for their workloads, on grounds of availability or performance.

Avere’s products have always had something to do with improving performance across multiple locations

It started in 2008 with its NAS acceleration boxes – the FXT products, dubbed Edge Filers – that boosted access to core NAS clusters. Then Avere added the vFXT virtual versions of these and added cloud capability and tiering, within the cloud (using Amazon’s various classes of storage) and between on-site and cloud locations, including with a single namespace in its C2N hybrid cloud NAS-object storage appliance.

Such capabilities look likely to be added to the Azure stable at Microsoft and would offer customers a rich set of hybrid cloud possibilities, with tiering in the cloud and between on- and off-site locations.

The pull towards hybrid cloud is that increasingly organisations want data portability between on-site and cloud to be able to deal with availability issues as well as being able to burst for performance reasons.

What also stands out is that this is the first time I can recall a company like Microsoft – in the guise of cloud provider – acquiring a storage vendor.

The cloud is surely the future, with compute and storage increasingly provided as a service in the medium- to long-term, despite current concerns over availability, security etc.

Will this acquisition be the first of many in which storage is reconfigured as a hybrid function between datacentre and cloud?

December 6, 2017  11:56 AM

Hitachi Vantara: Storage with an Internet of Things advantage?

Antony Adshead Profile: Antony Adshead

Hitachi Data Systems is no more.

It has been rolled into a new division, Hitachi Vantara. That is, HDS, with its largely enterprise-focussed data storage products has been joined with the Internet of Things-focussed Hitachi Insight and the analytics arm, Pentaho.

The premise for the move is that we on the verge of a world in which data from machines will become increasingly important. So, potentially large amounts and varying types of data will need to be stored. And there is no question that to get the most from that data there will be a pressing need to make some sense of it via analytics.

That’s more or less the explanation of Steve Lewis, CTO of Hitachi Vantara, who said: “The reality for a lot of companies – and the message hasn’t changed – is that they are required to manage data in increasingly efficient ways. There will be more and more machine-to-machine data being generated and the questions will be, how do we store it, how long do we keep it, what intelligence can we gain from it?”

Hitachi Vantara would appear to be in a prime position to profit from an IoT future. It’s a small part of a vast conglomerate built mostly on manufacturing businesses whose products range from electronics to power stations via defence, automotive, medical and construction equipment, but also includes financial services.

That background should provide almost unique opportunities to develop data storage for a world of machine data and intelligence gathering therefrom.

Will there be any impacts on the datacentre and storage in particular?

Lewis said: “Storage will continue on the same trend with the growth of data volumes and the need for different levels of performance.”

“But, for example, where companies used fileshare as a dumping ground and didn’t know what they had, increasingly organisations need to know what data they hold, the value of it and make more use of metadata. ‘Metadata is the new data’, is something we’re hearing more and more.”

Lewis cited the example of the Met Police’s roll out of 20,000 body-worn cameras and the effects – with several GB of data per 30 minutes of video – on their networks (“never designed for video content”), on storage volumes, but also the need to store that data for long periods (100 years in the case of the police), be able to find it, make sense of it and delete it when required.

“So, it’s all less about initial purchase price and more about the cost of retention for its lifetime,” said Lewis.

Clearly, Hitachi Vantara aims to profit from these type of needs and plans to, said Lewis, “Develop its own IoT framework and operating environment.”

It should be in a good position to do this. Time will tell.

November 21, 2017  2:45 PM

Could Blockchain power private distributed cloud storage?

Antony Adshead Profile: Antony Adshead

Data storage has many fundamentals, but a key one is the idea that what we store should be or form part of a single, reliable copy.

This is what is being strived for in concepts such as the file system, with its locking mechanisms to ensure the integrity of a file as it is worked on, for example.

We know this is not practically achieved more widely and that multiple versions of files proliferate across corporate storage systems, via emails, the internet etc.

But, in some use cases it is absolutely essential that there is a single version of the truth, for financial transactions or in areas such as health records.

There are also good economic reasons to want to keep single copies of data. It’s simply cheaper than unnecessarily holding multiple iterations of files.

Enter Blockchain, which provides a self-verifying, tamper-proof chain (sharded, encypted and distributed) of data that can be viewed and shared – openly or via permissions – and so provides a single version of the truth that is distributed between all users.

It has, therefore, key qualities sought in providing storage. The Blockchain itself is in fact stored data, though practically it’s not a great idea to chain together more than small blocks because the whole chain would become too unwieldy.

So, it’s not storage as we know it. However, but some startups have started to apply Blockchain to storage.

Sia and Storj allow customers to store data on other people’s hard drives in distributed cloud storage protected via Blockchain.

These services allow “farmers” to offer spare hard drive capacity in return for cryptocurrency. The actual data is sharded and encrypted in redundant copies and protected by public/private key cryptography.

The Blockchain stores information such as shard location, that the farmer still has that shard and it is unmodified.

Storj and Sia offer storage at something like one tenth the cost of Amazon S3 because there are no datacentres to maintain.

Meanwhile, Blockchain has been brought into use to manage the storage of health records.

Like Storj and Sia, the data isn’t actually held on the chain, but is referenced and protected from it. Already, Estonia’s entire health records repository is kept this way.

There are other limited or private use cases too, such as backup product maker Acronis, which uses Blockchain to verify data held in its Acronis Storage cloud.

All this points in the direction of a potentially useful secondary/nearline storage use cases based on Blockchain. An organisation could make use of unused storage capacity around the datacentre in the manner of Storj or Sia and so achieve much better utilisation.

There may be products out there already that do this, and I’m sure their representatives will let me know, if they exist.

Meanwhile, there are much grander future scenarios based on Blockchain in development such as BigChainDB’s Inter-Planetary Database, that aims to be the database for the “emerging decentralized world computer”.

Somewhere down the line the Storj/Sia model could be universally applied to public cloud storage, but for now – given concerns over bandwidth and security in the public cloud – distributed private cloud based on Blockchain management would be a reasonable target.

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