Now that I’ve spent some time with Isilon SD; how does it compare to my experience with its physical big brother? Where does the software defined version fit?

This post is part of a series covering the EMC Free and Frictionless software products.
Go to the first post for a table of contents.

Overview (TL;DR version)

I’m excited by the entrance of this product into the virtualization space. Isilon is a robust product that can be tuned for multiple use cases and workloads. Even though Isilon has years of product development behind it and currently on it’s eight major software version; the virtual product is technically V1. With any first version, there are some areas to work on; from my limited time with IsilonSD, I believe this is everything it’s physical big brother is in a smaller, virtual package. However, it’s also bringing some of the limitations of its physical past. Limitations to be aware of, but also, limitations I believe EMC will be working to remove in vNext of IsilonSD.

If you ran across this blog because of interest in IsilonSD, I hope you can test the product, either with physical nodes or with the test platform I’ve put together; only with customer testing and feedback can the product mature into what it’s capable of becoming.

Deep Dive (long version)

From running Isilon’s in multiple use-cases and companies, I always wanted the ability to get smaller Isilon models for my branch offices. I’ve worked in environments where we had hundreds of physical locations of varying sizes. Many of these we wanted file solutions in these spokes replicating back to a hub. We wanted a universal solution that applied to the varying size locations; allowing all the spokes to replicate back to the hub. The startup cost for a new Isilon cluster was prohibitive for a smaller site. Leading us to leverage Windows File Servers (an excellent file server solution but that’s a different post) for those situations, bifurcating our file services stack which increased complexity in management, not just of the file storage itself, but ancillary needs like monitoring and backups.

Given I’ve been running a virtualized Isilon simulator for as long as I’ve been purchasing and implementing the Isilon solution; leveraging a virtualized Isilon for these branch office scenarios was always on my wish list. When I heard the rumors an actual virtual product was in the works (vIMSOCOOL) I expected the solution to target this desire. When IsilonSD Edge was released, as I read the documentation, I continued with this expectation. I watched YouTube videos that said this was the exact use-case.

It’s taken actually setting up the product in a lab to understand that IsilonSD Edge is not the product I expected it to be. Personally, though the solution by it’s nature is ‘software defined’ as it includes no hardware; it doesn’t quite fit the definition I’ve come to believe SD stands for. This is less a virtual Isilon, or software defined Isilon, as it is “bring your own hardware”, IsilonBYOH if you will.

IsilonBYOH is, on its merit, an exciting product and highlights what makes Isilon successful; a great piece of software sitting on commodity servers. This approach is what’s allowed Isilon to become the product is it, supporting a plethora of node types as well as hard drive technologies. You can configure a super fast flash based NFS NAS solution to be an ultra high reliable storage solution behind web servers, where you can store the data once and have all nodes have shared access. You can leverage the multi-tenancy options to provide mixed storage in a heterogeneous environment, NFS to service servers and CIFS to end users, talking to both LDAP and Active Directory, tiering between node types to maximum performance for newer files and cost for older. You can create a NAS for high-capacity video editing needs; where the current data is on SSD for screaming fast performance, then moving to HDD when the project is complete. You can even create archive class storage array with cloud competitive pricing to store aged data, knowing you can easily scale, support multiple host types and if ever needed, incorporate faster nodes to increase performance.

With this new product, you can now start even smaller, purchasing your own hardware, running on your own network, and still leverage the same management and monitoring tools, even the same remote support. Plus you can replicate it just the same, including to traditional Isilon appliances.

However, to me, leveraging IsilonSD Edge does call for purchasing hardware, not simply adding this to your existing vSphere cluster and capturing unused storage. IsilonSD Edge, while running on vSphere, requires, locally attached, independent hard drives. This excludes leveraging VSAN, which means no VxRail (and all the competitive HCIA), it also means no ROBO hardware such as Dell VRTX (and all the similar competitive offerings), in fact just having RAID excludes you from using IsilonSD. These hardware requirements, specifically the dedicated disks; turns into limitations. Unless you’re in the position to dedicate three servers, which you’ll likely need to buy new to meet the requirements; you’re probably not putting this out in your remote/branch offices; even though that’s the goal of the ‘Edge’ part of the name.

When you buy those new nodes; you’d probably go ahead and leverage solid state drives; the cost for locally attached SSD SATA is quickly cutting even with traditional hard drives. But understand, IsilonSD Edge will not take advantage of those faster drives like it’s physical incarnation… no metadata caching with the SD version. Nor can the SD version provide any tiering through SmartPools (you can still control the data protection scheme with SmartPools, and obviously you’ll get a speed boost with SSD).

Given all this, the use-cases for IsilonSD Edge get very narrow. With the inability to put IsilonSD Edge on top of ROBO designs, the likelihood of needing to buy new hardware, coupled with the 36TB overall limit of the software defined version of Isilon; I struggle to identify a production scenario that is a good fit. The best case scenario in my mind is purchasing hardware with enough drives to run both IsilonSD and VSAN, side-by-side, on separate drives.; this would require at least nine drives server (more really), so you’re talking some larger machines, and again, a narrow fit.

To me, this product is less about today and more about tomorrow; release one setting the foundation for the future opportunity of virtual Isilon.

What is that opportunity?

For starters, running Isilon SD Edge on VxRail; even deploying it directly through the VxRail marketplace, and by this, I mean running the IsilonSD Edge VMDK files on the VSAN data store.

Before you say the Isilon protection scheme would double-down storage needs on the VSAN model; keep in mind you can configure per VM policies in VSAN. Setting Failure To Tolerate (FTT) of 0 is not recommended, but this is why it exists. Let Isilon provide data protection while playing in the VSAN sandbox. Leverage DRS groups and rules to configure anti-affinity of the Isilon virtual nodes; keeping them on separate hosts. Would VSAN introduce latency as compared to physical disk; quite probably… though in the typical ROBO scenario that’s not the largest concern. I was able to push 120Mbps onto my IsilonSD Edge cluster, and that was with nested ESXi all running on one host.

All of this doesn’t just apply to VxRail, but it’s competitors in the hyper-converged appliance space, as well a wide range of products targeted at small installations. To expand on the small installation scenario, if IsilonSD had lower data protection options like VSAN does to remove the need for six disks per node, or even three nodes; it could fit in smaller situations. Why not trust the RAID protection beneath the VM and still leverage Isilon for the robust NAS features it provides. Meaning run a single-node Isilon, after all, those remote offices are likely providing file services with Windows or Linux VMs, relying on the vSphere HA/DRS for availability, and server RAID (or VSAN) for data loss prevention. The Isilon has a rich feature set outside of just data protection across nodes. Even a single node Isilon with SmartSync back to a mothership has compelling use cases.

On the other side of the spectrum, putting IsilonSD in a public cloud provider, where you don’t control the hardware and storage, has quite a few use-cases. Yes, Isilon has CloudPool technology, this extends an Isilon into public cloud models that provide object storage. But a virtual Isilon running in, say, vCloud Air or VirtuStream, with SynqIQ with your on-premise Isilon opens quite a few doors, such as for those looking at public cloud disaster-recovery-as-a-service solutions. Or moving to the cloud while still having a bunker on-premise for securing your data.

Outside of the need for independent drives, this is, an Isilon, running on vSphere. That’s… awesome! As I mentioned before, this opens some big opportunities should EMC continue down this path. Plus, it’s Free and Frictionless, meaning you can do this exact same testing as I’ve done. If you are an Isilon customer today, GO GET THIS. It’s a great way to test out changes, upgrades, command line scripts, etc.

If you are running the Free and Frictionless version, outside of the 36TB and six node limit, you also do NOT get licenses for SynqIQ, SmartLock or CloudPools.

I’ll say, given I went down this road from my excitement about Free and Frictionless; these missing licenses are a little disappointing. I’ve run SyncIQ and SmartLock, two great features and was looking forward to testing them, and having them handy to help answer questions I get when talking about Isilon.

CloudPools, while I have not run, is something that I’ve been incredibly excited about for years leading up to its release, so I’ll admit I wish it were in the Free and Frictionless version, if only a small amount of storage to play with.

Wrapping up, there are countless IT organizations out there; I’ve never met one that wasn’t unique, even with some areas I’d like to see improved with this product, undoubtedly IsilonSD Edge will apply to quite a few shops. In fact, I’ve heard some customers were asking for a BYOH Isilon approach; so maybe this is really for them (which if so, the 36TB seems limiting). If you’re looking at IsilonSD Edge, I’d love to hear why; maybe I missed something (certainly I have). Reach out, or use the comments.

If you are looking into IsilonSD Edge, outside of the drive/node requirements; some things to be aware of that caught my eye.

While the FAQs state you can run other virtual machines on the same hosts; I would advise against it. If you had enough physical drives to split them between IsilonSD and VSAN, it could be done. You could also use NFS, ISCSI or Fibre Channel for data stores; but this is overly complex and in all likelihood, more expensive than simply having dedicated hardware for IsilonSD Edge (or really, just buying the physical Isilon product). But given the data stores used by the IsilonSD Edge nodes are unprotected, putting a VM on them means you are just asking for the drive to fail, and to lose that VM.

Because you are dedicating physical drives to a virtual machine, you cannot vMotion the IsilonSD virtual nodes. This means you cannot leverage DRS (Dynamic Resource Scheduler), which in turn means you cannot leverage vSphere Update Manager to automatically patch the hosts (as it relies on moving workloads around during maintenance).

The IsilonSD virtual nodes do NOT have VMware tools. Meaning you cannot shut down the virtual machines from inside vSphere (for patching or otherwise), rather you’ll need to enter the OneFS administrator CLI, shut down the Isilon node; then go and perform ESX host maintenance. If you have reporting in place to ensure your virtual machines have VMtools installed, running and at the supported version (something I highly recommend) you’ll need to adjust this. Other systems that leverage VMtools; such as Infrastructure Navigator, will not work either.

I might be overlooking something (I hope so) but I cannot find a way to expand the storage on an existing node. In my testing scenario, I built the minimal configuration of six data drives of a measly 64GB each. I could not figure out how to increase this space, which is something we’re all accustomed to on vSphere (in fact quickly growing VMs resources is a cornerstone of virtualization). I can increase the overall capacity by increasing nodes, but this requires additional ESX hosts. If this is true, again the idea of using ‘unclaimed capacity’ for IsilonSD Edge is marginalized.

IsilonSD wants nodes in a pool to be configured the same, specifically with the same size and amount of drives. This is understandable as it spreads data across all the drives in the pool equally. However, this lessens the value of ‘capturing unused capacity’. Aside from the unprotected storage point; if you were to have free storage on drives, your ability to deploy IsilonSD will be constrained to the lowest free space volume, as all the VMDK files (virtual drives) have to be the same. Even if you had twenty-one independent disks across three nodes, if just one of them was smaller than the rest, that free space dictates the size unit you can configure.

Even though I’m not quite sure where this new product fits or what problem it solves; that’s true of many products when they first release. It’s quite possible this will open new doors no one knew were closed and if nothing else; I’m ecstatic EMC is pursuing making a virtual version of the product; after all this is just version 1… what would you want in version 2? Respond in the comments!