Best of open source in storage

Top picks among file systems, file servers, storage networking software, and benchmarking tools

Combining “open source” and "storage” in the same sentence used to trigger a sardonic grin, but no longer. The availability of free and open software is as true today for storage as it is for operating systems and applications.

[See Bossie winner slideshows: Applications | Networking | Platforms and Middleware | Security | Software development | Storage ]

The future of open source storage software looks even brighter, considering recent developments such as Sun's donation of OpenSolaris, along with a wealth of storage technologies, and the Aperi project, a heavyweight-backed effort to create an open source suite of storage management applications. Spearheaded by IBM, Aperi also has the support of other key storage vendors including Brocade, Cisco, Computer Associates, Emulex, Fujitsu, LSI Logic, NetApp, Novell, and YottaYotta.

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The future of open source storage software looks even brighter, considering recent developments such as Sun's donation of OpenSolaris , along with a wealth of storage technologies, and the Aperi project, a heavyweight-backed effort to create an open source suite of storage management applications. Spearheaded by IBM, Aperi also has the support of other key storage vendors including Brocade, Cisco, Computer Associates, Emulex, Fujitsu, LSI Logic, NetApp, Novell, and YottaYotta.

Why would these vendors share their expensive software development efforts with an open source community? Sure, there's no question they want something in return -- more users, more control over technology developments, more control over standards. Nevertheless, gifts of open source are a welcome development in a fragmented market such as storage where standards work well for hardware but don't seem to apply to software at all. Storage needs fewer technology schools and more real standards. Open source and community development have the potential to bring that about.

Open source also has the potential to turn the storage marketplace upside down. Despite the plethora of vendors and storage solutions on the market today, you'll find little differentiation in hardware. In fact, many vendors share the same basic hardware and toss their management software on top of it. Some vendors don't offer hardware at all, opting to use commodity servers as their physical platform. After all, an Ultra 320 SCSI drive isn't exactly rare. If we're at a point where the hardware is nearly immaterial to a solid storage platform, then what's to stop an open source storage solution from making a dent in this market? Nothing. 

That said, let's get on with our awards. Our first storage Bossie goes to ZFS, or Zettabyte File System, introduced with Solaris 10 and made available to the open source community in OpenSolaris. NFS is not quite dead or obsolete yet (in fact it’s still improving with Version 4 in the make), but eventually NFS has to give way to ZFS.

ZFS has so many innovative features that it may take some time before storage admins can wrap their arms around it. Imagine never having to check your systems for data integrity because it’s guaranteed by the file system. Add built-in logical volume management and RAID management, then stretch capacity to a galactic dimension, a one followed by 21 zeroes. In short, ZFS hides many dirty details of storage administration, and it can scale as far as it is physically possible to go. As we noted in our review, ZFS is the best file system we've ever seen, and it belongs to the open source community. Just don’t expect to find it in your favorite Linux distro quite yet.

FreeNAS takes our Bossie for best open source NAS server. FreeNAS is far and away the most mature open source NAS platform, built on a FreeBSD base and backed by an active community. Providing CIFS, NFS, FTP, iSCSI, RSYNC, and AFP (Apple File Protocol) support, not to mention software RAID 0, 1, and 5, FreeNAS covers just about all the bases for storage, and wraps them in an attractive Web management interface. To get in this game, all you need is a server and some disk. Even better, FreeNAS can be easily installed on a Compact Flash drive or a USB key, so none of the core OS actually lives on the storage drives, thus making it far less vulnerable to hardware failure. Its performance is dependent on the hardware used, and it's not likely to beat an EqualLogic iSCSI SAN in a head-to-head, but for free it can't be beat.

We also have a Bossie for open source storage networking software AoE Tools. The steady rise in iSCSI deployments will stoke the fires of debate with rival Fibre Channel for years to come. While that discussion heats up, AoE (ATA over Ethernet) is quietly making progress. AoE brings the simplicity of non-routed Ethernet to a storage network, moving data between a host and a target device with little overhead and guaranteed delivery. The AoE protocol also has a mechanism to prevent conflicts among multiple initiators accessing the same data at the same time. AoE Tools, a package of AoE client applications included in most Linux distros, makes AoE free and easy to deploy. Well, you will need some hardware, available from vendors such as Coraid.

Our remaining storage Bossies go to benchmarking hall-of-famers Iometer and IOzone, which win for best block I/O tool and best file I/O tool, respectively. Countless thousands of admins -- or even many more according to the download statistics of SourceForge -- have used one tool or the other to put vendors' performance claims to the test, or to simulate the impact of a new application load on the storage system. Easy to use and available on multiple platforms, both applications are as indispensable to an IT shop as a measuring tape to a tailor.

Finally, there are a few areas we're keeping our eyes on but aren't yet prepared to pick any winners. One of these is backup and recovery, where Amanda is well-known and there are too many up-and-comers to mention. Also on the watch list is NTFS Mount (Solaris), UFS Reader (WinXP), a project that is still in beta but promises to break down the wall between Solaris and Windows, allowing either operating system to directly access the file system assets of the other. Now that's what community is all about.

List of Bossie categories | Best of open source in applications

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