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    Life of a Storage Packet (Walk): Q&A

    Posted by J Metz

    We got a lot of great questions at our recent Ethernet Storage Forum webcast “The Life of a Storage Packet (Walk).” As promised, we’ve compiled all the questions with fairly detailed answers. We hope this blog helps to clear up any confusion or uncertainties. If you think of additional questions, please comment below and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can. Thanks to everyone who watched the live webcast. If you missed it, it’s now available on-demand.

    Q. Does size of a block depend on OS?

    A. Yes, some OS’ only support 512 byte blocks. Some OS’ provide a method to support both 512 byte blocks and 4096 (aka 4K) byte blocks; for example, via a qualifier in their format command. Some devices are built using 4K block sizes, but then emulate 512 byte blocks to the host (aka 512E devices). Many modern versions of OS’ automatically detect the block size of each device they discover and do the right thing based on what they discover. You have to check the documentation for your OS to know its capabilities.

    Q. CIFS is not a file system.

    A. Not in the same way that ext, ntfs, FAT, HFS, UFS, etc. are, no. However, in terms of certain functionalities that we discussed on the presentation – that is, the ability to manipulate files with operations such as read, write, create, delete, and rename – are all file system functionalities. The difference being, of course, that the files are not on the local computer and are actually on a remote computer.

    For what it’s worth, the term ‘CIFS’ has been deprecated from usage, and SMB is the preferred term for precisely the reasons that it should not be confused with local OS systems like the ones mentioned above.

    Q. Is it safe to say that a “block” at the file system level is equal to an IO?

    A. Not specifically. The difference in the use of those terms, is that a “block” is a place that data is stored – it has an address and it contains data (512 byte of data or 4K bytes of data). An IO is an operation that requests access to a block. An IO may perform a read operation on a block, or it may perform a write operation on a block.

    Remember, the term IOPS is I/O operations per second – so it is not about blocks or bytes or bits – it is operations. If the operations are performed on a 512 byte block, they produce a different number of MB/sec than if they operate on a 4K byte block.

    So, let’s take an example. A 1MB/second bandwidth on a 4K block size device is the same speed as 1MB/second bandwidth on a 512 byte block size device (observe, however, that the 4K block size device will have only 1/8 the IOPS that the 512 byte device has – because it will take only 1/8 the operations to transfer the same number of Mega-bytes). However, 1M IOPS on a 4K block size device is much better than 1M IOPS on a 512 byte block size device (because the 4K block size device is moving 8X the amount of data than the 512 byte block size device in each operation.

    There is an excellent explanation and walk-through of IOPS in our Storage Performance Benchmarking webinar.

    Q. Don’t all those Inodes also live on the disk and so don’t the IOs to read those blocks also have to go to the SCSI controller?

    A. Well-spotted!

    The communication back and forth between the file system and the Inodes traverses the controller for all access to blocks on disk. This is one of the reasons why needing to access disk is considered “expensive.” When you add in a network to the mix, these kinds of situations need particular careful consideration.

    Q. Shall we allocate blocks and inodes or is it an automatic process?

    A. It’s an automated process, and there is no user intervention at all.

    Q. Are Inodes created during OS installation?

    A. Inodes are a particular block type, among some other block types (e.g., data blocks, boot blocks, superblocks, group descriptor blocks). These block types are combined into functional groups. These groups are OS-dependent. The block layout therefore, including Inodes, is created during OS installation. If the filesystem needs more Inodes after the OS installation, the OS dynamically adds them to the Inode pool.

    Q. Which physical hardware does volume manager reside?

    A. Volume managers are not hardware. They are software layers that create pseudo devices that are presented to layers of the OS above them (typically to the file system layer). The volume manager software fits into the OS to accept requests from the file system and pass those requests down to the device driver. In some systems they might be called “filter drivers”.

    Q. In flash media, is there also an iSCSI controller that converts PCIe into iSCSI to interact with the flash?

    A. I want to make sure that the answer to the question is clear.

    On the host, we need to convert PCIe commands to SCSI, so we send them to an iSCSI controller/adapter to be sent across the Ethernet wire. . That adapter can be either software or hardware.

    Flash drives are basic media, just like spinning disk drives. Flash will have its own controller, which can be SCSI. If you wish to access the drive over Ethernet using the iSCSI protocol, you will have an adapter on the flash drive (which can be either software or hardware) that will do the SCSI translation between the Flash media and the SCSI commands. This is often called the FTL – or the flash translation layer. Again, the SCSI commands are translated into an Ethernet-friendly packet to be sent along the wire.

    There are other types of communication forms for working with Flash, too. The most recent is NVMe. You can see the SNIA webinar on The Performance Impact of NVMe and NVMe over Fabrics for more information.

    Q. Why is there a SCSI language in between Storage and the hosts?

    A. Before storage standards (like SCSI and ATA), you would purchase storage from Vendor X, and you would also buy a storage controller for that vendor X storage.  If you wanted Vendor Y storage, you could not use the vendor X controller, you had to purchase a new controller from vendor Y. Every vendor had their own language, and you had to purchase matching components.  Once you got locked into one vendor, you were stuck – at the hardware level.

    Today with standards (such as SCSI), you can buy a SCSI device from any vendor and connect it to any storage controller that you buy from any vendor – and it just works.  That is the point of the SCSI standard. When the storage standardization efforts began, there were many competing ideas. It just so happened that SCSI won out, and so now it’s everywhere.

    Q. If the storage side is flash, do we still need a SCSI controller between host and flash storage or is the controller different for a flash storage?

    Yes… and no.

    Yes, to use the SCSI part of the OS, the flash device must continue to speak the SCSI protocol and so a SCSI controller is needed. This method of communicating with flash devices enables all the existing S/W on the host OS to just continue working without even knowing it is flash.

    No, flash memory chips can be connected to the system using non-SCSI methods. Most of those methods are generally special purpose applications and so the existing OS S/W simply cannot use that device (only the special purpose S/W designed for that device can use it). However, NVMe is a new protocol that is enabling more general use of the flash memory technology with the hopes to provide new capabilities that are beyond what SCSI provides. This is also discussed in our webcast on The Performance Impact of NVMe and NVMe over Fabrics.

    Q. What’s the difference between partition, logical disk, volume, LUN, etc?

    Excellent question!

    Let’s work this one backwards – LUN – that is a SCSI term (actually an acronym) that refers to the Logical Unit Number – it is part of the address used to access a logical unit. Small SCSI devices (such as a single spindle disk drive) have only a single logical unit. Large storage arrays may contain 100s of logical units. Each of those logical units appears to the host OS as if it were a single spindle disk. So, the logical unit is the SCSI object that contains the blocks where the data is stored (where that object may be an individual piece of hardware, or a logical entity within a larger SCSI device). To access a SCSI logical unit, the OS must specify the address of the SCSI device, and then the LUN (logical unit number) for the logical unit within that SCSI device.

    The other terms (partition, logical disk, and volume) are OS terms that have to do with virtualization and how the storage blocks are managed. When a SCSI (or other storage device) is formatted by the OS, it may be broken into multiple partitions. Each partition is then treated by the OS as if it were a unique device (a virtual device, or a logical disk). Each of those partitions may then be used independently.

    For example, on a Unix system, the “a” partition may contain a file system that has all the files that are necessary to boot. The “b” partition may be setup without a file system and used as the swap or paging storage for use by the virtual memory subsystem. The “d” partition may then contain a file system that contains all the user’s data files. Each partition is unique storage space and may even use a different file system to organize the data located there.

    Notice, that I skipped the “c” partition. That partition is often setup to access all the blocks of the physical device. So, on a 500GB disk, maybe “a” contains 10GB, “b” contains 90GB, and “d” contains 400GB; while “c” contains all 500GB. Partitions “a” and “d” may be backed up or restored independently, and partition “c” may be used to perform an image copy of the entire device.

    Now, to the other terms:

    Logical disk and volume are terms often related to volume managers.

    • Logical disk may be a term used to refer to a partition, but usually that is not the case. Logical disks are typically the devices created by the volume management layer when they combine individual devices into a single larger device (a.k.a. a logical disk).
    • Volume managers also may be used to divide up a large device into small chunks (just like partitions), and those smaller chunks are referred to as logical disks.
    • Volume is a more vague term that typically is used as another term for a logical disk. In some circles, the term Volume is used to refer to a RAID set in a SCSI storage controller (but this is a much less often used definition for Volume).

    Q. Will the “complete” presentation somewhere we can go review?

    Yes. Click here to access the on-demand webcast as well as a PDF of the webcast slides

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