My name is Storage and I’ll be your Server tonight…

Ever since companies like Data General moved RAID control into an external disk sub-system back in the early ’90s it has been standard received knowledge that servers and storage should be separate.

While the capital cost of storage in the server is generally lower than for an external centralised storage subsystem, having storage as part of each server creates fragmentation and higher operational management overhead. Asset life-cycle management is also a consideration – servers typically last 3 years and storage can often be sweated for 5 years since the pace of storage technology change has traditionally been slower than for servers.

When you look at some common storage systems however, what you see is that they do include servers that have been ‘applianced’ i.e. closed off to general apps, so as to ensure reliability and supportability.

  • IBM DS8000 includes two POWER/AIX servers
  • IBM SAN Volume Controller includes two IBM SystemX x3650 Intel/Linux servers
  • IBM Storwize is a custom variant of the above SVC
  • IBM Storwize V7000U includes a pair of x3650 file heads running RHEL and Tivoli Storage Manager (TSM) clients and Space Management (HSM) clients
  • IBM GSS (GPFS Storage Server) also uses a pair of x3650 servers, running RHEL

At one point the DS8000 was available with LPAR separation into two storage servers (intended to cater to a split production/non-production environment) and there was talk at the time of the possibility of other apps such as TSM being able to be loaded onto an LPAR (a feature that was never released).

Apps or features?: There are a bunch of apps that could be run on storage systems, and in fact many already are, except they are usually called ‘features’ rather than apps. The clearest examples are probably in the NAS world, where TSM and Space Management and SAMBA/CTDB and Ganesha/NFS, and maybe LTFS, for example, could all be treated as features.

I also recall Netapp once talking about a Fujitsu-only implementation of ONTAP that could be run in a VM on a blade server, and EMC has talked up the possibility of running apps on storage.

GPFS: In my last post I illustrated an example of using IBM’s GPFS to construct a server-based shared storage system. The challenge with these kinds of systems is that they put onus onto the installer/administrator to get it right, rather than the traditional storage appliance approach where the vendor pre-constructs the system.

Virtualization: Reliability and supportability are vital, but virtualization does allow the possibility that we could have ring-fenced partitions for core storage functions and still provide server capacity for a range of other data-oriented functions e.g. MapReduce, Hadoop, OpenStack Cinder & Swift, as well as apps like TSM and HSM, and maybe even things like compression, dedup, anti-virus, LTFS etc., but treated not so much as storage system features, but more as genuine apps that you can buy from 3rd parties or write yourself, just as you would with traditional apps on servers.

The question is not so much ‘can this be done’, but more, ‘is it a good thing to do’? Would it be a good thing to open up storage systems and expose the fact that these are truly software-defined systems running on servers, or does that just make support harder and add no real value (apart from providing a new fashion to follow in a fashion-driven industry)? My guess is that there is a gradual path towards a happy medium to be explored here.

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