It's pop quiz time. Is Panasas a Greek island; a storage vendor; or an Australian airline?
If you answered "a storage vendor," then you are correct. (Note to my editor: If you answered differently, consider pouring yourself another cup of coffee). Panasas is a great example of a new market entrant delivering innovation. Just out of stealth mode, its clustered OSD (Object Storage Device) for Linux is wholly unique.
Confused by OSD? No problem. I have a cheat sheet, but first let’s define the problem that the ActiveScale Storage Cluster from Panasas aims to solve.
Have you ever needed to access a file saved on computer A while sitting at computer B? Of course you have. To get that file, you either jumped back to the first machine or activated file sharing on that computer. This was a waste of time and was solved with the introduction of file servers and NAS appliances. Unfortunately, there is a price to pay for that flexibility. Although NAS devices support various file sharing protocols, these are not interchangeable, which means that a file saved using, say UNIX, cannot be retrieved via different standards.
Performance is also a concern, because those file-sharing protocols add significant delays to file operations. To make things even worse, all file access requests often flow through a single NAS device, which introduces additional delays, which is especially damaging when clients are clustered devices.
Enter object storage, which aims to replace the old file-sharing conventions with a new architecture where networking is a basic element of storage rather than an afterthought. Moreover, in the object storage world, storage devices are intelligent entities that can independently allocate or redistribute objects (such as files or groups of related files) according to policies that drive criteria such as performance, resilience, or capacity.
The object storage architecture is still a work in progress in the standards committees but it’s expected to dramatically change the way OSes access storage, unifying file- and block-storage access under the same umbrella with unprecedented performance, manageability, and scalability.
Now back to Panasas. ActiveScale is essentially a clustered storage appliance, made up of eleven blade computers that interoperate for reliability and performance. In fact, each storage blade is equipped with two Serial ATA drives and cache memory. Additionally, customers can choose the CPU speed, amount of cache memory, and drive capacity according to requirements. At full configuration, each ActiveScale shelf can store up to 5TB, but combining multiple units scales performance and capacity even further.
The ActiveScale hardware architecture is remarkable, but its object-based file system, ActiveScale File System, is the most striking characteristic of the device. It makes possible quasi-unrestricted flows of data between clusters of Linux servers and the ActiveScale storage devices.
In fact, according to company benchmarks, the gain in performance and the additional scalability over traditional NAS devices from NetApp and EMC are staggering. Equally important, ActiveScale devices are built from off-the-shelf components that make for inexpensive configurations — around $25,000 for 1.6TB of capacity.
For its debut, Panasas is targeting the performance-hungry sector of scientific applications — organizations that are heavy users of clustered computing and large data files. However, I expect the exceptional scalability and performance of ActiveScale will attract others in addition to those running gigantic Linux clusters. So pour yourself a cup of joe and check them out.