Ease of Use Sets It Apart

By Frank Ohlhorst  |  Posted 2012-01-17

Nimble's CS260 SAN Appliances Are Optimized for Virtualization, Data Backup

The founders of Nimble Storage chose the company's name to reflect their commitment to create flexible but scalable enterprise-class storage products. The company's latest effort, the CS260 storage area network (SAN) appliance, builds on that tradition. A 3U (5.25-inch) SAN, the CS260 offers up to 48TB of converged storage and data backup.

The CS260 is the latest in the series of Nimble Storage's product family, which includes the CS220, CS220G, CS240 and the CS240G. The primary differences between these appliances are raw storage capacity and connectivity speed. The CS220 offers as much as 12TB of raw storage capacity, while the CS240 offers 24TB of capacity. When Nimble adds a "G" to the model number, it changes the number of port count from six Gigabit Ethernet ports to a pair of 10GbE ports and a pair of 1GbE ports.

The CS260 comes in two configurations: CS260 and CS260G. The CS260 offers six, 1GbE network connections per controller. The CS260G offers two 10GbE and two 1GbE network connections per controller. Each configuration provides effective capacity of 48TB.

Each configuration offers high-availability and continuous data access through redundant, hot-swappable controllers, power supplies, fans and drives, as well as comprehensive resiliency capabilities.

However, it is what the units share in common that sets Nimble Storage's products apart from the competition. That commonality can be summed by two advanced technologies: the Nimble Protection Manager and CASL (Cache Accelerated Sequential Layout).

It is these two technologies that transform what would be a typical iSCSI SAN product into something that is much more than the sum of its parts.

In other words, CASL supercharges performance, while The Nimble Protection Manager creates a secure, protected storage paradigm that offers both Tier 1 and Tier 2 storage in a single appliance that incorporates integrated backup, snapshot capabilities and offsite replication. The CS260 incorporates 2.4TB of flash memory to power the CASL architecture, which helps the unit to deliver high performance.

I was able to put a few of Nimble Storage's CS appliances through some hands-on testing and was impressed by the results. My test environment consisted of several CS devices, along with the associated connectivity hardware and several enterprise-level servers. A multitude of operating systems (virtual and physical derivatives) were running in the testing environment on enterprise level server hardware. Connectivity provided included both 10GbE and 1GbE.

First and foremost, I was impressed with the quality of the physical appliances, which are based upon industry-standard hardware from a major server hardware vendor (the components for my test were built by Supermicro). The rack-mountable enclosures were made of quality components, featuring a relatively thick case that resists flexing and a tool-less design using heavy-duty latches and bays.

The units also incorporated fail-over capabilities, such as redundant power supplies, multiple cooling fans and hot swap drive bays. In other words, these units are built to last, and if they were to fail, repair should be quick and easy.

Ease of Use Sets It Apart

Although the hardware proves to be very important, the real story behind Nimble Storage's products comes down to ease of use, provisioning, features, performance, reliability and management-all of which are based upon Nimble Storage's firmware and software, which are incorporated into the appliances.

The CS series proves to be feature-rich and incorporates several capabilities that set it apart from other storage appliances. For example, the devices include:

  • Flash-Accelerated Primary Storage Performance: The Nimble CS-Series uses intelligent flash memory management and application-optimized performance profiles to accelerate I/O and reduce latency. That makes the CS-Series arrays ideal for primary storage applications such as Microsoft Exchange, business-critical databases, and Microsoft SharePoint. 
  • Instant Backups and Restores: The devices incorporate high-density drives, which feature 20X capacity optimization, providing for data retention of as much as 90 days on a single array. Backups and restores are almost instantaneous, and there is no need to move data to or from tape or other backup media.
  • Application-Integrated Data Protection: Nimble Protection Manager (NPM) manages application-consistent backups for all application data residing on Nimble arrays, as well as virtual machine system-consistent backups and replicas for virtualized environments. With NPM, data can be instantly restored from any available backup, accelerating and simplifying application recovery.
  • Fast Offsite Disaster Recovery: Nimble's DR solution is powered by WAN-efficient replication to an offsite Nimble array, making it up to 20 times faster than typical SAN replication.
  • Simplified Management: Nimble's intuitive user interface simplifies managing separate storage, backup, and disaster recovery devices by using predefined application and data protection policies.
  • Enhanced Reliability: Nimble Storage arrays are designed for high availability and meet the demands of today's business-critical applications. Nimble arrays feature fully redundant hardware components, plus high-availability software and support features such as comprehensive checksums, proactive data scrubbing, autosupport (email home) and hardware monitoring.

It is these features and some others that turn Nimble's devices into multitiered storage solutions, which meet Tier 1 and Tier 2 (primary storage and archival storage) definitions. Most other SAN products only meet the Tier 1 definition and need the addition of third-party software and hardware to support Tier 2 requirements.

I found initial installation and configuration of the CS-Series to be quite easy, thanks to the enhanced UI, which features wizards and templates. When it came to provisioning new storage, the process proved incredibly easy, just requiring three steps to make it happen.

One really innovative feature is the ability to "pre-tune" defined storage to maximize performance and resiliency for a particular application. For example, let's say you are creating a data store for an exchange database. You can select from a list of predefined policies that set parameters critical to performance and reliability.

In other words, Nimble Storage has done all of the experimentation for you, offering optimized settings that eliminate the need for an administrator to tune a storage environment. That capability proves to be quite advantageous when working with a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) or other types of virtual machines that use virtual hard drives. Here, virtual hard drives can be created almost instantly and optimized for use with a virtual machine. What's more, the unit's ability to instantly clone volumes and trigger Tier 2 backups further speeds virtual machine operations.

That same ease of configuration applies to most of the other capabilities offered by the devices, including cloning and snapshots. Snapshots are used to create "instantaneous" backups, and the IT administrator can define the snapshots to occur at predetermined intervals or manually.

In one scenario, you can set up a snapshot to occur automatically every five minutes for a busy SQL database, which provides a high level of protection.

What's more, the device is intelligent about how to perform a snapshot that may have file dependencies. Snapshots can contain grouped-together volumes as a single logical unit, which ensures proper quiescence and prevents corruption or improper synchronization of logs, tables and database records.

Many IT pros think taking a snapshot every five minutes would waste countless gigabytes of storage space. For most backup and storage products, that's correct. However, Nimble Storage uses a different methodology to store snapshots, which significantly reduces storage space.

A combination of compression, variable block length and storage algorithms reduce the amount of space needed by a snapshot significantly. This combination allows administrators to store as much as 90 days' worth of snapshots on the device.

Also, the architecture allows for the instantaneous creation of manual snapshots.

Volume cloning is another valuable feature.

Nimble Storage calls the process a "zero-copy clone" since the cloning process works hand-in-hand with snapshots. It also uses the snapshot data to create a new, cloned volume, which eliminates the lengthy process of copying all of the data off an active volume to build a clone.

Volume cloning could potentially save hours for those deploying virtual servers or other virtualization technologies, allowing a volume for each new instance to be created without delay, on demand.

I also took a look at the CS-Series fail-over and continuity capabilities, and I was most impressed with the site-to-site fail-over capabilities.

Here, I created a SQL database, which was replicated on a second unit separated by a virtual LAN (VLAN) used to mimic a remote site. After disabling the "on-site" unit, I was able to, in a matter of minutes, mount and run the replicated volume on the remote site. Under this scenario, the interruption to the regular workflow was minimized and a few simple commands later, I was able to turn back from the disaster test to a regular business operation.

Rocket Fuel