Big Tin

Big tin: IT infrastructure used by organisations to run their businesses. And other stuff too when I feel like it…

How to stay safe on the Internet – trust no-one

key
Working close to the IT industry as I do, it’s hard to avoid the blizzard of announcements and general excitement around the growth of the Internet of things allied to location-based services. This, we are told, will be a great new way to market your goods and services to consumers.

You can get your sales assistants to greet shoppers by name! You can tell them about bargains by text as they walk past your store! You might even ring them up! Exclamation marks added for general effect.

But here’s the thing. Most people don’t trust big corporations any more, according to the recently published 2013 IT Risk/Reward Barometer report. Instead, finds this international study: “Across all markets surveyed, the vast majority of consumers worry that their information will be stolen (US: 90%, Mexico: 91%, India: 88%, UK: 86%).”

As a result, blizzard marketing of the kind that triangulation technologies now permits makes people feel uneasy at best and downright annoyed at worst. People ask themselves questions about who has their data, how they got it, and what control they have over that data once it’s escaped into the ether.

From ICASA’s point of view, this is largely the fault of individuals who don’t control their passwords properly or otherwise secure their systems. It’s an auditing organisation, so that’s not an unusual position to adopt. But I think it goes further than that.

As the study also points out: “Institutional trust is a critical success factor in an increasingly connected world. [...] Organisations have much work to do to increase consumer (and employee) trust in how personal information is used.”

In other words, companies need to work harder at winning your trust. Does that make you feel any better?

This is clearly not an issue that will be solved – ever. For every ten organisations that are trustworthy and manage personal data responsibly – you do read that text-wall of privacy policy each time you log onto a new site, don’t you? – there will be one that doesn’t. Even if all companies were trustworthy, people will still make mistakes and hackers will win the security battle from time to time, resulting in compromised personal data.

The only rational policy for the rest of us to adopt is to trust none of them, and that is what this study shows most people tend to do.

The least you should do is to use long, complex passwords and change them regularly, using a password safe (eg KeePass) so you don’t have commit them to memory – or worse, bits of paper.

FYI, the study was conducted by ICASA, which describes itself “an independent, nonprofit, global association, ISACA engages in the development, adoption and use of globally accepted, industry-leading knowledge and practices for information systems.”

Filed under: data protection, Security, Technology, , , ,

Storage roundup with PernixData, Arista Networks and Tarmin

There’s been a bit of a glut of storage announcements recently, so here’s a quick round-up the more interesting ones over recent weeks.

PernixData
This company is thinking ahead to a time when large proportions of servers in datacentres will have flash memory installed inside them. Right now, most storage is configured as a storage pool, connected via a dedicated storage network but this is sub-optimal for virtualised servers which generate large amounts of IOPS.

So instead, companies such as Fusion-io have developed flash memory systems for servers, so that data is local and so can be accessed much more quickly. This abandons one of the advantage of the storage network, namely storage sharing.

So PernixData has created FVP (Flash Virtualization Platform), a software shim that sits in the hypervisor and links the islands of data stored in flash memory inside each of the host servers. The way it works is to virtualise the server flash storage so it appears as a storage pool across physical hosts. Adding more flash to vSphere hosts – they have to be running VMware’s hypervisor – prompts FVP to expand the pool of flash. According to the company, it works irrespective of the storage vendor.

What this effectively does is to create a cache layer consisting of all the solid-state storage in the host pool that can boost the performance of reads and writes from and to the main storage network.

The company reckons that: “For the first time ever, companies can scale storage performance independent of storage capacity using server side flash.” And according to CEO Poojan Kumar: “We allow all virtual machines to use every piece of flash memory. The result is 17 times lower latency and 12 times more IOPS. It’s non-disruptive, it looks very simple and is easy to use.” It costs US$7,500 per physical host or US$10k for four hosts – a price point designed for smaller businesses.

It seems like a pretty good idea, and there’s some real-world testing info here.

Arista Networks
Also new on the hardware front are products from Arista Networks.

This company started life a few years ago with a set of high performance network switches that challenged the established players – such as Cisco and Juniper – by offering products that were faster, denser, and cheaper per port. Aimed at the high performance computing market, which includes users such as life science projects, geological data, and financial institutions, they were the beachhead to establish the company’s reputation, something it found easy given that its founders included Jayshree Ullal (ex-Cisco senior vice-president) and Andy Bechtolsheim (co-founder of Sun Microsystems).

I recently spoke to Doug Gourlay, Arista’s vice-president of systems engineering, about the new kit, which Gourlay reckoned mean that Arista “can cover 100% of the deployment scenarios that customers come to us with”. He sees the company’s strength as its software, which is claimed to be “self-healing and very reliable, with an open ecosystem and offering smart upgrades”.

The new products are the 7300 and 7250 switches, filling out the 7000 X Series which, the company claims, optimises costs, automates provisioning, and builds more reliable scale-out architectures.

The main use cases of the new systems are for those with large numbers of servers of small datacentres, and for dense, high performance computing render farms, according to Gourlay. They are designed for today’s flatter networks: where a traditional datacentre network used three layers, a modern fabric type of network will use just two layers to offer the fewest numbers of hops from one server to any other server. In Arista-speak, the switches attaching directly to the servers and directing traffic between them are leaves, while the core datacentre network is the spine.

The 7300 X series consists of three devices, with the largest, the 21U 7316 offering 16 line card slots with 2,048 10Gbps ports, or 512 40Gbps ports. Claimed throughput is 40Tbps. The other two in the series, the 7308 and 7304 accommodate eight and four linecards respectively, with decreases in size (21U and 8U) and throughput (20Tbps and 10Tbps).

The 2U, fixed configuration 7250QX-64 offers 64 40Gbps ports or 256 10Gbps ports, and a claimed throughput of up to 5Tbps. All systems and series offer reversible airflow for rack positioning flexibility and a claimed latency of two microseconds. Gourlay claimed this device offers the highest port density in the world.

Tarmin
Tarmin was punting its core product, Gridbank, at the SNW show. It’s an object storage system with bells on.

Organisations deploy object storage technology to manage very large volumes of unstructured data – typically at the petabyte scale and above. Such data is created not just by workers but more so from machines. Machine generated data comes from scientific instrumentation, including seismic and exploration equipment, genomic research tools and medical sensors, industrial sensors and meters, to cite just a few examples.

Most object storage systems restrict themselves to managing the data on disk, and leave other specialist systems such as analytics tools to extract meaningful insights from the morass of bits but what distinguishes Tarmin is that Gridbank “takes an end to end approach to the challenges of gaining value from data,” according to CEO Shahbaz Ali.

He said: “Object technologies provide metadata but we go further – we have an understanding of the data which means we index the content. This means we can analyse a media file in one of the 500 formats we support, and can deliver information about that content.”

In other words, said Ali: “Our key differentiator is that we’re not focused on the media like most storage companies, but the data – we aim to provide transparency and independence of data from media. We do data-defined storage.” He called this an integrated approach which means that organisations “don’t need an archiving solution, or a management solution” but can instead rely on Gridbank.

All that sounds well and good but one of the biggest obstacles to adoption has to be the single sourcing of a technology that aims to manage all your data. It also has very few reference sites (I could find just two on its website) so it appears that the number of organisations taking the Tarmin medicine is small.

There are also of course a number of established players in the markets that GridBank straddles, and it remains to be seen if an end-to-end solution is what organisations want, when integrating best of breed products avoids proprietary vendor lock-in, to which companies are more sensitive than ever and is more likely to prove better for performance and flexibility.

Filed under: Storage, Technology, , , , ,

Seagate’s new KOS disk drives aim to entice cloud builders

Among the most interesting conversations I had at the storage show SNW (aka Powering the Cloud) in Frankfurt this year was with Seagate’s European cloud initiatives director Joe Fagan, as we talked about the company’s proposed Kinetic Open Storage (KOS) drives.

The disk drive company is trying to move up the stack from what has become commodity hardware by converting its drives into servers. Instead of attaching using a SATA or SAS connector, Kinetic drives will have – a SATA or SAS connector, not an RJ45. But the data flowing inside the connector will be using IP not storage protocols, while the connector remains the same for compatibility purposes.

The aim is to help builders of large-scale infrastructures, such as cloud providers, to build denser, object-based systems by putting the server on the storage, rather than, to paraphrase Fagan, spending the energy on a Xeon or two per server along with a bunch of other hardware. Seagate argues that KOS could eliminate a layer of hardware between applications and storage, so data will flow from the application servers directly to storage rather than, as now, being translated into a variety of protocols before it hits the disk.

Fagan said two cloud builders were interested in the technology.

Behind this is, of course, a bid to grab some of the cash that enterprises and consumers are spending on cloud applications and services.

There are a few ‘howevers’, as you might imagine. Among the first is that every disk drive will need an IP address. This has huge implications for the network infrastructure and for network managers. Suddenly, there will be a lot more IP addresses to deal with, they will have to be subnetted and VLANned – did I mention that Kinetic drives will use IPV4? – and all this assumes you can summon up enough v4 addresses to start with.

Another concern is that mechanical disk drives fail relatively frequently while servers don’t, as of course they have no moving parts. So when a drive fails – and in large-scale deployments they surely will – you have to throw away the internal server too. Could be expensive.

And finally, there’s also a huge amount of inertia in the shape of today’s installed systems and the expertise needed to manage and operate them.

Is that enough to halt the initiative? Seagate clearly hopes not, and hopes too that other drive makers will come on board and develop their own versions in order to help validate the concept. It has provided APIs to help app developers exploit the concept.

As ever, time will tell. But will you find these drives in a server near you any time soon? Don’t hold your breath.

Filed under: Data centre, Storage, , , , , , ,

Innergie mMini DC10 twin-USB charging car adapter

Innergie adapter 1

Clean design


We all travel with at least two gadgets these days – or is it just me? What you too often don’t think about though is that each widget adds to the task of battery management. The Innergie 2A adapter’s twin USB charging ports will help.
Twin USB ports

Twin USB ports


The company sent me a sample to try and I found the design to be clean and tidy, and it all works as expected. It’s also quite compact, measuring 70mm long from tip to tail, and protruding from the car’s power socket by just 28mm. This means it won’t take up too much precious space, an issue especially if the power socket is mounted in the glovebox.
Innergie adapter 2

Nice shiny contact


When activated the front lights up a pleasing blue, and it then allows you to charge your USB-fitted devices to its max 2A potential. This means that if your device’s battery capacity is 2,000mAh, which is reasonably typical, it’ll take an hour (in theory) to recharge from empty.

Officially, it costs £19 (probably less on the street), and there’s more about it here.

Filed under: Consumer, Technology, , , ,

Seagate launches new solid-state disks (SSD)

Seagate, the biggest maker of hard disks, recently launched a new range of solid state disk drives, as it aims to align itself better with current buying trends.

In particular, the company’s new 600 SSD is aimed at laptop users who want to speed their boot and data access times. This is Seagate’s first foray into this market segment.

Claiming a 4x boot time improvement, Seagate said that SSD-stored data is safer if the laptop is dropped. From my own experience over the last five years of using using SSDs in laptops, I can confirm both this, and that their lower power consumption helps to improve battery life too.

The 600 SSD is available with up to 480GB and in multiple heights including 5mm, which the company says makes it “ideal for most ultra-thin devices as well as standard laptop systems”. The drive features up to 480GB of capacity and comes in a 2.5 form factor. It’s compatible with the latest 6Gbps SATA interface.

The other new SSD systems are aimed at enterprises. The most interesting of these is the X8 Accelerator, which is the result of Seagate’s investment in Virident, a direct competitor with Fusion-io, probably the best-known maker of directly-attached SSDs for servers. The Seagate product is also a PCIe card with a claimed IOPS of up to 1.1 million. The X8 offers up to 2.2TB in a half-height, half-length card.

Of the two other new drives, the 2.5-inch 480GB 600 Pro SSD and the 1200 Pro SSD, the first is targeted at cloud system builders, data centres, cloud service providers, content delivery networks, and virtualised environments, and is claimed to consume less power and so need less cooling. It consumes 2.8W, variable according to workload, which Seagate reckons is “the industry’s highest IOPS/watt”.

Up the performance scale is the 800GB 1200 Pro SSD, which is aimed at those needing high throughput. It attaches using dual-port 12Gbps SAS connectors and “uses algorithms that optimize performance for frequently accessed data by prioritizing which storage operations, reads or writes, occur first and optimizing where it is stored.”

Seagate said it buys its raw flash memory from Samsung and Toshiba but holds patents for its controller and system management technologies.

Filed under: Cloud computing, Data centre, Enterprise, Laptop, Storage, , , , , ,

Hard disks and flash storage will co-exist – for the moment

When it comes to personal storage, flash is now the default technology. It’s in your phone, tablet, camera, and increasingly in your laptop too. Is this about to change?

I’ve installed solid-state disks in my laptops for the last three or so years simply because it means they fire up very quickly and – more importantly – battery life is extended hugely. My Thinkpad now works happily for four or five hours while I’m using it quite intensively, where three hours used to be about the maximum.

The one downside is the price of the stuff. It remains stubbornly stuck at 10x or more the price per GB of spinning disks. When you’re using a laptop as I do, with most of my data in the cloud somewhere and only a working set kept on the machine, a low-end flash disk is big enough and therefore affordable: 120GB will store Windows and around 50GB of data and applications.

From a company’s point of view, the equation isn’t so different. Clearly, the volumes of data to be stored are bigger but despite the blandishments of those companies selling all-flash storage systems, many companies are not seeing the benefits. That’s according to one storage systems vendor which recently announced the results of an industry survey.

Caveat: industry surveys are almost always skewed because of sample size and/or the types of questions asked, so the results need to be taken with a pinch – maybe more – of salt.

Tegile Systems reckons that 99 percent of SME and enterprise users who are turning to solid state storage will overpay. They’re buying more than they need, the survey finds, at least according to the press release, which wastes no time by mentioning in its second paragraph that the company penning the release just happens to have the solution. So shameless!

Despite that, I think Tegile is onto something. Companies are less sensitive to the price per GB than they are to the price / performance ratio, usually expressed in IOPS, which is where solid-state delivers in spades. It’s much quicker than spinning disks at returning information to the processor, and it’s cheaper to run in terms of its demands on power and cooling.

Where the over-payment bit comes in is this (from the release): “More than 60% of those surveyed reported that these applications need only between 1,000 and 100,000 IOPS. Paying for an array built to deliver 1,000,000 IOPS to service an application that only needs 100,000 IOPS makes no sense when a hybrid array can service the same workload for a fraction of the cost.”

In other words, replacing spinning disks with flash means you’ve got more performance than you need, a claim justified by the assertion that only a small proportion of the data is being worked on at any one time. So, the logic goes, you store that hot data on flash for good performance but the rest can live on spinning disks, which are much cheaper to buy. In other words, don’t replace all your disks with flash, just a small proportion, depending on the size of your working data set.

It’s a so-called hybrid solution. And of course Tegile recommends you buy its tuned-up, all-in-one hybrid arrays which saves you the trouble of building your own.

Tegile is not alone in the field, with Pure Storage having recently launched in Europe. Pure uses ordinary consumer-grade disks, which should make it even cheaper although price comparisons are invariably difficult due to the ‘how long is a piece of string?’ problem.

There are other vendors too but I’ll leave you to find out who they are.

From a consumer point of view though, where’s the beef? There’s a good chance you’re already using a hybrid system if you use a recent desktop or laptop, as a number of hard disk manufacturers have taken to front-ending their mechanisms with flash to make them feel more responsive from a performance perspective.

Hard disks are not going away as the price per GB is falling just as quickly as it is for flash, although its characteristics are different. There will though come a time when flash disk capacities are big enough for ordinary use – just like my laptop – and everyone will get super-fast load times and longer battery life.

Assuming that laptops and desktops survive at all. But that’s another story for another time.

Filed under: Data centre, desktops, Laptop, Storage, Technology, , , , , ,

Whom do you trust?

Keeping your data secure is something you need to be constantly aware of. Apart from the army of people out there who actively seek your credit card and other financial and personal details, not to mention the breadcrumbs that accumulate to a substantial loaf of data on social media, it’s too easy to give the stuff away on your own.

It’s really all about trust. We’re not very good at choosing whom we trust, as we tend to trust people we know – or even people we have around us sometimes. As an example, I present a little scenario I encountered yesterday on a train.

The train divides en route, so to get to your destination, you need to be in the right portion of the train. An individual opposite me sat for 45 minutes through seemingly endless announcements – from the guard, the scrolling dot matrix screens, and the irritatingly frequent, automated announcements – all conveying the same information both before, during and after the three or four stops before we arrived at the decision point about which bit of the train to be in.

At the station where a decision had to be made, she leaned across and asked if she was in the right portion of the train for her destination.

Why? She would rather trust other passengers than the umpteen announcements. She’s not alone, as I’ve seen this happen countless times.

So it’s all about whom you trust. As passengers, we were trustworthy.

So presumably were the security researchers with clipboards standing at railway stations asking passengers for their company PC’s password in exchange for a cheap biro. They gathered plenty of passwords.

I recently left a USB phone charger in a hotel belonging to a major international chain. They said they would post it back if I sent them a scanned copy of my credit card to cover the postage. That they offered suggests there must be plenty of people willing to take the gamble that their email won’t be read by someone who shouldn’t. Not to mention what happens after the hotel has finished with the data. Can they be sure the email would be securely deleted?

I declined the offer and suggested that this major chain could afford the £7 it would cost to pop it in the post. Still waiting, but not with bated breath. I don’t trust them.

Filed under: data protection, Security, Technology

Solving the ‘too many passwords’ problem

Recent events at Evernote, which was hacked and whose file containing users’ passwords could have been stolen, reminds us that, despite the insistence of the IT security industry that passwords offer poor security, that’s what we all continue to use. But there is a way to make remembering passwords easier.

As ever, there’s a trade-off between convenience and security and, it would appear that most of us, especially at the small business and consumer level, don’t want the hassle that stronger security involves. Usually, it involves some form of two-part authentication – something know and something you have – and the banks have gone furthest in implementing this. You know the drill: give us a number and then tell us something else you know.

I reckon most people can cope with this – even I, with my appalling memory, can handle it.

And then there are the burgeoning numbers of passwords we need to remember for the rest of our lives which, whether we like it or not, we are increasingly being forced to conduct online. And this is my point.

I’ve been accessing online services since 1992, so I’ve used a lot of passwords. To start with, there weren’t that many, and it was easy to remember them. The numbers of services grew and I started using the same or similar passwords for services that fell into the same category.

That’s not great security – so after hunting for a solution, I discovered a free, lightweight password generator which I used for over 10 years – until about three years ago.

What happened? The generator worked fine and produced unique passwords tied to the name of the service, but it had a number of limitations.

First of these was its inability to tune passwords to the requirements of some sites – the ones that demand a specific password length and/or format – so many digits and capitals, and no repetitions, for example.

The second was more serious: it was Windows-only. That was fine at first as I still run mainly Windows, but as mobile devices have become more capable, I now access multiple services on tablets and smartphones too – they don’t run Windows.

At that point, the answer was clearly a password safe. After some research I lit on KeePass. As the product’s website says: “KeePass is a free open source password manager, which helps you to manage your passwords in a secure way. You can put all your passwords in one database, which is locked with one master key or a key file. So you only have to remember one single master password or select the key file to unlock the whole database. The databases are encrypted using the best and most secure encryption algorithms currently known (AES and Twofish).”

Even better, it’s cross-platform – as well as Windows, there are versions for iOS, Android, MacOS, J2ME, BlackBerry and Windows Phone 7 – and it works. You can drive it using hotkeys so, for example, Ctrl-Alt-K brings up the database containing your passwords, which you can import from pretty much any file format you like. Other hotkeys will auto-type passwords and/or usernames into your web browser, or you can cut and paste them, in which case the software removes them from memory after a short while to enhance security.

There’s a host of other features but it’s a very easy application to set up and to use – you can get into the more advanced stuff when you’re good and ready. For example, Evernote asked all users to reset their passwords as a following the hack. KeePass generated a new password for Evernote to a security standard I’m happy with, and that was it – no dramas.

So if you ever find that you have too many passwords to remember, take a look at KeePass: free, easy to use, and does the job superbly, in my view.

Filed under: Security, ,

Technology highlights 2013

I’ve been shamefully neglecting this blog recently, yet a lot of interesting new technologies and ideas have come my way. So by way of making amends, here’s quick round-up of the highlights.

Nivio
This is a company that delivers a virtual desktop service with a difference. Virtual desktops have been a persistent topic of conversation among IT managers for years, yet delivery has always been some way off. Bit like fusion energy only not as explosive.

The problem is that, unless you’re serving desktops to people who do a single task all day, which describes call centre workers but not most people, people expect a certain level of performance and customisation from their desktops. If you’re going to take a desktop computer away from someone who uses it intensively as a tool, you’d better make sure that the replacement technology is just as interactive.

Desktops provided by terminal services have tended to be slow and a bit clunky – and there’s no denying that Nivio’s virtual desktop service, which I’ve tried, isn’t quite as snappy as having 3.4GHz of raw compute power under your fingertips.

On the other hand, there’s a load of upsides. From an IT perspective, you don’t need to provide the frankly huge amounts of bandwidth needed to service multiple desktops. You don’t care what the end user wants to access the service with – so if you’re allowing people to bring and use their own devices into work, this will work with anything, needing only a browser to work. I’ve seen a Windows desktop running on an iPhone – scary…

And you don’t need to buy applications. The service provides them all for you from its standard set of over 40 applications – and if you need one the company doesn’t currently offer, they’ll supply it. Nivio also handles data migration, patching, and the back-end hardware.

All you need to do is hand over $35 per month per user.

Quantum
The company best known for its tape backup products launched a new range of tape libraries.

The DXi6800 is, says Quantum’s Stéphane Estevez, three times more scalable than any other such device, allowing you to scale from 13TB to 156TB. Aimed at mid-sized as well as large enterprises, it includes an array of disks that you effectively switch on with the purchase of a new licence. Until then, they’re dormant, not spinning. “We are taking a risk of shipping more disks than the customer is paying for – but we know customer storage is always growing. You unlock the extra storage when you need it,” said Estevez.

It can handle up to 16TB/hour which, is, reckons the company, four times faster than EMC’s DD670 – its main competitor – and all data is encrypted and protected by an electronic certificate so you can’t simply swap it into another Quantum library. And the management tools mean that you can manage multiple devices across datacentres.

Storage Fusion
If ever you wanted to know at a deep level how efficient your storage systems are, especially when it comes to virtual machine management, then Storage Fusion reckons it has the answers in the form of its storage analysis software, Storage Fusion Analyze.

I spoke to Peter White, Storage Fusion’s operations director, who reckoned that companies are wasting storage capacity by not over-provisioning enough, and by leaving old snapshots and storage allocated to servers that no longer exist.

“Larger enterprise environments have the most reclaimable storage because they’re uncontrolled,” White said, “while smaller systems are better controlled.”

Because the company’s software has analysed large volumes of storage, White was in a position to talk about trends in storage usage.

For example, most companies have 25% capacity headroom, he said. “Customers need that level of comfort zone. Partners and end users say that the reason is because the purchasing process to get disk from purchase order to installation can take weeks or even months, so there’s a buffer built in. Best practice is around that level but you could go higher.”

You also get what White called system losses, due to formatting inefficiencies and OS storage. “And generally processes are often broken when it comes to decommissioning – without processes, there’s an assumption of infinite supply which leads to infinite demand and a lot of wastage.”

The sister product, Storage Fusion Virtualize “allows us to shine a torch into VMware environments,” White said. “It can see how VM storage is being used and consumed. It offers the same fast analysis, with no agents needed.”

Typical customers include not so much enterprises as systems integrators, service providers and consultants.

“We are complementary to main storage management tools such as those from NetApp and EMC,” White said. “Vendors take a global licence, and end users can buy via our partners – they can buy report packs to run it monthly or quarterly, for example.”

Solidfire
Another product aimed at service providers, SolidFire steps aside from the usual pitch for all solid-state disks (SSD). Yes solid-state is very fast when compared to spinning media but the company claims to be offering the ability to deliver a guarantee not just of uptime but of performance.

If you’re a provider of storage services in the cloud, one of your main problems, said the company’s Jay Prassl, is the noisy neighbour, the one tenant in a multi-tenant environment who sucks up all the storage performance with a single database call. This leaves the rest of the provider’s customers suffering from a poor response, leading to trouble tickets and support calls, so adding to the provider’s costs.

The aim, said Prassl, is to help service providers offer guarantees to enterprises they currently cannot offer because the technology hasn’t – until now – allowed it. “The cloud provider’s goal is to compute all the customer’s workload but high-performance loads can’t be deployed in the cloud right now,” he said.

So the company has built SSD technology that, because of the way that data is distributed across multiple solid-state devices – I hesitate to call them disks because they’re not – offers predictable latency.

“Some companies manage this by keeping few people on a single box but it’s a huge problem when you have hundreds or thousands of tenants,” Prassl said. “So service providers can now write a service level agreement (SLA) around performance, and they couldn’t do that before.”

Key to this is the automated way that the system distributes the data around the company’s eponymous storage systems, according to Prassl. It then sets a level of IOPS that a particular volume can achieve, and the service provider can then offer a performance SLA around it. “What we do for every volume is dictate a minimum, maximum and a burst level of performance,” he said. “It’s not a bolt-on but an architecture at the core of our work.”

Filed under: Business, Cloud computing, Data centre, desktops, Enterprise, Product, Product launch, Servers, Storage, Systems management, , , ,

2012: the tech year in view (part 2)

Here’s part 2 of my round-up of some of the more interesting news stories that came my way in 2012. Part 1 was published on 28 December 2012.

Datacentre infrastructure
NextIO impressed with its network consolidation product, vNet. This device virtualises the I/O of all the data to and from servers in a rack, so that they can share the bandwidth resource which is allocated according to need. It means that one adapter can look like multiple virtual adapters for sharing between both physical and virtual servers, with each virtual adapter looking like a physical adapter to each server. The main beneficiaries, according to the company, are cloud providers, who can then add more servers quickly and easily without having to physically reconfigure their systems and cables. According to the company, a typical virtualisation host can be integrated into the datacentre in minutes as opposed to hours.

In the same part of the forest, the longer-established Xsigo launched a new management layer for its Data Center Fabric appliances, its connectivity virtualisation products. This allows you to see all I/O traffic across all the servers, any protocol, and with a granularity that ranges from specific ports to entire servers.

Nutanix came up with a twist on virtualisation by cramming all the pieces you need for a virtualisation infrastructure into a single box. The result, says the company, is a converged virtualisation appliance that allows you to build a datacentre with no need for separate storage systems. “Our mission is to make virtualisation simple by eliminating the need for network storage,” reckons the company. Its all-in-one appliances mean faster setup and reduced hardware expenditure, the company claims. However, like any do-it-all device, its desirability depends on how much you value the ability to customise over ease of use and setup. Most tend to prefer separates so they can pick and choose.

Cooling servers is a major problem: it costs money and wastes energy that could be more usefully employed doing computing. This is why Iceotope has developed a server that’s entirely enclosed and filled with an inert liquid: 3M Novec 7300. This convects heat away from heat-generating components and is, according to chemical giant 3M, environmentally friendly and thermally stable. The fluid needs no pumping, instead using convection currents to transport heat and dump it to a water-filled radiator. The water is pumped but, Iceotope says, you need only a 72W pump for a 20kW cabinet of servers, a far cry from a typical 1:1 ratio of cooling energy to compute power when using air as the transmission medium.

Networking
Vello Systems launched its Data Center Gateway incorporating VellOS, its operating system designed for software-defined networking (SDN) – probably the biggest revolution in network technology over the last decade. The box is among the first SDN products – as opposed to vapourware – to emerge. The OS can manage not just Vello’s own products but other SDN compliant systems too.

Cloud computing
One of the highlights of my cloud computing year was a visit to Lille, to see one of OVH‘s datacentres. One of France’s biggest cloud providers, OVH is unusual in that it builds everything itself from standard components. You’ll find no HP, IBM or Dell servers here, just bare Supermicro motherboards in open trays, cooled by fresh air. The motivation, says the company comes from thefact there are no external investors and a high level of technical and engineering expertise at the top. Effectively, the company does it this way because it has the resources to do so, and “because we are techies and it’s one of our strong values.” The claimed benefit is lower costs for its customers.

I had an interesting discussion with Martino Corbelli, the chief customer officer at Star, a UK-based cloud services provider. He said that the UK’s mid-market firms are getting stuck in bad relationships with cloud services vendors because they lack both the management and negotiation skills required to handle issues and the budget to cover the cost of swapping out.

“The industry for managed services and cloud is full of examples of people who over promise and under deliver and don’t meet expectations,” he said, reckoning that discussions with potential customers now revolve more around business issues than technology. “Now it’s about the peer-to-peer relationship,” he said. “Can you trust them, are you on the same wavelength, do you feel that your CFO can call their CFO and talk to them as equals?”

We also saw the launch of new cloud computing providers and services from mid-market specialist Dedipower, CloudBees with a Java-based platform service, and Doyenz with a disaster recovery service aimed at smaller businesses.

Storage
Coraid boasted of attracting over 1,500 customers for its unique ATA-over-Ethernet (AoE) storage products. This means that storage is using native Ethernet rather than storage-specific protocols. Coraid reckons this reduces protocol overheads and so is three to five times faster than iSCSI. The company makes a range of storage systems but, although AoE is an open standard, no other company is designing and selling products with it.

WhipTail joined the growing list of vendors selling all-flash storage systems with its Accela products. Solid-state gives you huge performance advantages but the raw storage (as opposed to the surrounding support infrastructure) costs ten times as much compared to spinning disks, so the value proposition is that the added performance allows you to make more money.

Eventually, the bulk of storage will be solid-state, as the price comes down, with disk relegated to storing backups, archives and low-priority data, but that time has yet to come. It’s a delicate balancing operation for companies such as WhipTail and Violin Memory: they don’t want to be too far ahead of the mass market and don’t want to miss the boat when flash storage becomes mainstream.

Filed under: Business, Cloud computing, Data centre, Enterprise, Networking, operating systems, Product launch, Storage, Systems management, Technology, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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