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Stop the data storage presses, flape is here!

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While musing over "flape," an acronym he heard for the first time, expert Jon Toigo explains how what's new in the data storage industry is really what's old.

In a conversation with an industry insider the other day, I was warned to stand by for a lot of noise about flape. It might just be "the next big thing" in storage architecture, I was told.

Not wanting to appear as un-hip as my teenage daughters accuse me of being, I grunted knowingly and mustered an uber-cool and slightly pained scowl. The scowl was real, as this was yet another silly term I would no doubt need to grok if I was going to tweet, blog, YouTube or whatever about it.

I turned to my search engine (I'm trying out Bing because of the confusing ads that pop up at the top of Google search results) and keyed in f-l-a-p-e. The only serious hit was from the Urban Dictionary, which offered three definitions of the word: (1) a combination of a cape and a flag, (2) the act of grabbing and twisting a nose or other body part, or (3) the act of flirting aggressively, including slapping the tuchis or punching the arm.

Offhand, I couldn't see what any of these had to do with storage architecture. Perhaps flape was metaphorical, as in kicking your server in the tuchis to get the hard disk to spin up. I had an AT&T PC 6300 a few thousand years ago that used to require a knock or two to get its 20 MB hard disk going. Still, that didn't sound right.

I mean, if a big three-letter vendor was pursuing some sort of storage technology innovation, you'd think it would entail something more than kick-starting a disk. And to my knowledge, no amount of flap-ing would help a recalcitrant solid-state drive to start working if it stopped.

Feeling like I was at a dead end, a mix of despondency and depression swept over me. Maybe I'd missed some radically new technology innovation, as I worried I might have when I heard about virtual SANs (vSANs) from you know who and server SAN architecture from those other guys. VSAN, which as of this writing is a bit of beta code from VMware, purports to be the next big thing in storage, while Google and maybe Facebook are pursuing server SANs to create yet another scale-out storage architecture for the future. Well, at least, that's what the trade press was saying a month or so back when they "discovered" these so-called architectures.

Heck, it was such a slow news cycle, I was thinking of writing about vSAN and SSSA, which is the handy shorthand expression I created for server SAN scale-out architecture. I might have trademarked the term but for the possibility of infringing on the intellectual property of the Soil Science Society of America, Subway Surface Supervisors Association or Southwestern Social Science Association. I'll synopsize what I would have said about those ideas in two words: retro workarounds.

VSAN is a rejuvenated expression that could've come out of an old Cisco trade show handout from a decade or so ago (maybe something like Cisco Systems Terminology for Dummies?). The "v" stands for virtualization and the "SAN" stands for whatever creative marketing folks were deciding it meant back in the day.

To refresh our collective memory, Cisco Systems had everyone pumped up about virtual LANs (vLANs), which were a lot like other LANs but with Cisco-only switch-routers and a proprietary trunking protocol. VLANs were intended to simplify networks by grouping certain nodes into distinct broadcast domains, regardless of their physical locations or connections, and marking packets intended for members of a specific vLAN with tags. But the whole scheme fell apart if all your network equipment failed to support the proprietary trunking protocol and tagging scheme.

Once Cisco got into the Fibre Channel (FC) SAN business, it tried to apply the same idea to storage fabrics. I remember the moment when Cisco announced vSAN, since they used the seminar I attended to reverse their long-standing position that FC was a physical fabric connection method and NOT a network to declare that FC had suddenly become a "network" protocol because, now that they had FC SAN switches to sell, they said it was. Anyway, vSAN was adopted by the ANSI T-11 Committee as a standard in 2004 and hailed as a mechanism that allows SANs to be resized by port rather than switch by switch, which implements -- though this was more an unintended consequence -- the segregation of data and access for security purposes.

Unlike me, VMware sees no problem with using other people's acronyms, so now they're talking about vSAN like they invented it. I guess, with respect to their interpretation, it's quite different than Cisco's or ANSI's take on the term. VSAN in VMware-speak seeks to sell more vSphere licenses by cabling several servers running their hypervisor to a shared bit of storage (at last check, a minimum of three physical servers needed to be present to do a vSAN VMware-style).

As for the Google/Facebook contraption, server SAN, it looks quite a bit like clustered servers sharing a multi-ported DAS rig, storage architecture circa 1995. I'm not sure why it's important, except that Google says it is. Perhaps they're going for the "atomic unit of storage" that DataCore Software chief technologist Ziya Aral has been doing for quite a while, but with a few SATA drives and his storage virtualization software.

Back to flape. I finally asked a friend of mine what it meant and he sent me a link to a blog post that was more than a year old, where the writer spoke about flape (flash plus tape) and floud (flash plus cloud). The sands shifted on the desert. Flape was something I had heard about before: the idea of capturing data from apps to flash storage, then writing it immediately to a Linear Tape File System tape repository. That way, if data is accessed frequently, those accesses are serviced out of flash. When the access frequency diminishes, you delete the copy of the data from the flash storage and have the permanent, er, archival copy on tape. Get it? Flape.

As for floud … (sound of teeth grinding).

About the author:
Jon William Toigo is a 30-year IT veteran, CEO and managing principal of Toigo Partners International, and chairman of the Data Management Institute.

This was first published in May 2014

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