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FalconStor’s rebirth with FreeStor

image In my preview post before attending: Virtualisation Field Day 6 Preview: FalconStor I raised my concerns whether FalconStor was “yet another storage company”. I thought it would be useful to detail what I learned during its Virtualisation Field Day presentation as well as speaking to other delegates.

Rebirth

FalconStor as a company seems to have had a much needed rebirth which it sorely needed after legal issues and a tragic CEO loss 4 years ago started to sink the ship. FalconStor then bled cash for a while and lost another CEO before current boss Gary Quinn took the helm. Current management as expected takes pains to distance themselves from the dark times and are passionate about the company’s future and believe they have what it takes to succeed.

I’ve also learned FalconStor previously didn’t have the best reputation for code quality leading to products with less than stellar stability. Apparently this has been rectified with a new team who managed to ink a lucrative partnership with Violin Memory to provide data services software to the lacking Violin arrays. Violin is in the business of high performing storage so this must have been a win partnership for FalconStor as it could learn all about high performing flash as part of the deal. Unfortunately it seems this buddying up dissolved a year or so ago and there doesn’t seem to be much information on why. I get the impression FalconStor wanted to continue but Violin didn’t so hopefully FalconStor received enough of what it needed to improve, speed up and modernise its codebase. Violin is going through its own issues including a tanking stock price yet FalconStor hasn’t been dragged down as well so the market sees Violin as overvalued and has some faith in FalconStor. More recent OEM deals are being done with X-IO Technologies, Kaminario as well as Huawei so FalconStor software seems in high demand.

FreeStor

FreeStor is the new product that FalconStor launched at the beginning of this year and is the culmination of work done since the rebirth. FreeStor is an amalgamation of previous point solution products FalconStor had but now with a single mission of providing virtualised storage in software. Obviously that means it can call it “software defined”.

I’m still not convinced FreeStor is the best name, Free is meant to be for “Freedom” but when someone sees the word Free they think of free as in cost and I’m sure salesfolks must get the “oh, it’s called Free but not actually free” which could be distracting. The cost pitch is interesting however, you pay a single license cost based on the amount of data managed by FreeStor and that’s it, no additional outlay for more features, that’s the Free(dom) part, you get all the functionality for the same price. You can argue whether this means it is more expensive as you are paying for features you may not be using but FalconStor sees it as giving you the flexibility to use as much of FreeStor as you want and turn on those features you may not normally use due to additional cost.

SDS

The premise of FreeStor is to create a single virtualised layer across any kind of storage. FreeStor becomes the front end for all your storage and to which your clients connect. On the back-end you attach any of your existing storage, SAN, NAS, physical with SSD, HDD, even tape etc. which now just act as a collection of dumb disks. You can therefore mix and match and have for example EMC storage in one office as well as some NetApp and then in another office Dell as well as HP servers with local disks or something else. Think of how many companies over the years change organisational structure and inherit new storage from an acquisition. FreeStor could be a way to unify all this disparate storage and be able to migrate workloads across them.

You create this virtualised FreeStor layer across all of them managed as a single pool. FreeStor handles the protection, replication, availability, snapshots etc. Think of it as RAID across disparate SANs. It also does HA for local as well as stretched clusters and de-duplication is inline. One of the benefits of FreeStor is that you can now use storage capabilities that your previous SANs may not have been able to do. An example may be VAAI. Freestore can run VAAI even if your existing storage doesn’t support all of it. Stretched clusters is another thing. Being able to HA across for example EMC and HP. Certainly this is a a good way to introduce more advanced storage features that your current arrays may not be able to do.

FalconStor Intelligent Abstraction Layer

Components

FreeStor is just software and can be installed on your own hardware with some recommended Software Appliance Kit configs if you want or can also be purchased in a pre-configured hardware appliances from FalconStor if that’s the way you roll.

imageFreeStor has a FreeStor Management Server which does all the coordination and can run as a VM or physical. The front-end servers are called FreeStor Storage Servers (FSS) and need to be physical, use your own servers or buy the appliance. . You can manage 128 Storage Servers per Management Server. The Storage Servers are where clients connect. If you are using FreeStore for the storage for your virtualisation cluster, your ESXi hosts would have LUNs connected to FreeStor. The nodes also act as the cache so you install SSDs which cache reads and writes from/to your SANs. You need enough CPU and memory grunt on these nodes to handle whatever storage processing you need, they are in effect becoming your SAN heads. You will also obviously need enough network connectivity for your clients.

For migrating data, you need swing space somewhere so you would need to free enough space on your SANs to be able to add it to FreeStor. You can these easily use svMotion to move VMs into FreeStor and then migrate the recently freed storage.

Client connectivity currently is supported for FC and iSCSI (Block) but File and Object (S3) is being worked on. This is interesting as FalconStor has previously said you don’t really need file or object yet are working on it, at least they are happy to move where the market is going.

If you want to do de-duplication (and why wouldn’t you?) you need some separate physical servers to handle the CPU heavy loads to do the de-dupe crunching. These are called FreeStor Global DeDupe Repository servers (FDR). Interestingly this also changes your data access path. Data will come from Disk (your re-used SANs) through the FDRs and then through your front-end Storage Servers. This seems a long way for data to travel, surely adding latency. Dedupe is global which means you don’t have separate silos of dedupe within across your physical arrays but can dedupe across all of them.

Target customers are:

  • Companies with current mixed legacy tech who need to unify them and provide more advanced software features,
  • Managed Service Providers who are looking at building cloud storage
  • OEMs who need FreeStor’s software on top of their own arrays (like Kaminario, X-IO & Huawei)

Can it do it all?

FreeStor does seem like the perfect solution to many problems and perhaps counter intuitively this worries me somewhat. Tim Sheets is Marketing VP and was the FalconStor presenter who did a very good job presenting at Virtualisation Field Day 6 but I came away with the impression that it sounded all too good to be all true. Any question we lobbed at him he answered saying that FreeStor can do it all. Storage is complicated and needs to be treated with the utmost respect as its the only real thing in a data center with state. We are talking about storing data for applications which can’t just spawn a new instance. There is an implicit level of trust that needs to be earned with any storage system and saying you can do everything under the sun is a tall order to live up to. Perhaps I’m being unfair and FreeStor can deliver, time will tell.

Marketing

What will help though is sorting out the FalconStor website, there’s just far too little technical information for a product that does a huge with rather too much brochureware. It needs some serious deep dive performance information or people will assume it can’t deliver. Some whitepapers are available which require you to fill in a form in order to download which puts people off. FalconStor has a lot of marketing work to do to educate potential customers on its solution.

Past or Future?

Is FreeStor a product you use mainly to prolong the life of legacy storage or is it also something more forward looking? Sure, it can bring more advanced storage features to older arrays that don’t have them and can also potentially let you turn off expensive additional storage functions on your old arrays and use the FreeStor version if its better/cheaper. However VAAI has been around for a while and a lot of arrays have it. What would be more interesting is FreeStor doing VVols which is taking a long time to roll out to new arrays due to the extra compute required in the heads to support the additional metadata. FreeStor should be able to di this as its all software on commodity hardware that can support the compute requirements.

FreeStor also gives you more flexibility in purchasing whatever flash for cache you want rather then whatever your old arrays can come with. This could give you a performance boost at possibly lower cost than putting new flash in your array. However how does it compare though to offerings from modern storage arrays, can it compete with their all flash in-line dedupe performance etc.? Your cache speed and software intelligence done in the Storage Servers will need to be at least as good as your best All Flash Array if you want to be able to reach that performance and if something isn’t in FreeStor’s cache it will need to be read from your All Flash Array, through the FDR appliance and then through the FSS before getting to clients. Did FalconStor learn enough from its partnership with Violin to make this a performant reality or are there too many hoops?

I also have concerns about performance if the data is in effect being striped across multiple arrays/HDDs with different performance characteristics. Does the FreeStor cache normalise this? If reading a VMDK for example, the reads could be coming from say three different SANs. What if one of them is running slowly, can FreeStor compensate in any way or is the read speed always the rate at which the slowest back end storage operates?

Is calling yourself software defined enough today? FalconStor was an early provider of storage delivered purely in software running on commodity hardware so was certainly a pioneer. Nowadays to be actually software defined you have to be able to do a whole lot more. Policy based provisioning/management/migrations are the basics in my mind. SDS is a terrible term that any company can define what it means. 2016 will be bringing auto-tiering to FreeStor based on some sort of policy but I wonder how this is available to applications to manage via API or some other policy engine or is it just automatically moving hot and cold blocks in and our of a flash tier. I would like to see policy based provisioning as well as integration with VVols

So…

I certainly found the FalconStor presentation intriguing and FreeStor certainly seems a compelling solution with a lot of effort spent since its rebirth but somehow too good to be true still nags me. I’d love to see more and truly hope to be proved wrong, we just didn’t have enough time to cover everything. I would seriously suggest FalconStor sign up for a Storage Field Day session and let the storage gurus get their deep dive questions in. I’m particularly interested to hear about performance and how the mix of different back-end storage with storage servers with cache + de-dupe servers + storage works.

FalconStor unlike many storage startups has a rich history of providing storage but has suffered in the past. Has it put this all behind itself and come out all singing and dancing with a great new product aligned with an obvious use case, time will tell!

Here are the FalconStor Virtualisation Field Day Videos to find out more.

FalconStor Overview with Farid Yavari

 

FalconStor FreeStor Introduction with Tim Sheets

 

FalconStor FreeStor Demo

 

FalconStor FreeStor Features and Futures

Gestalt IT payed for travel, accommodation and things to eat while attending Virtualisation Field Day but haven’t payed a penny for me to write anything good or bad about anyone.

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