IBM FlashSystem Review – Part 3 – Ease of Use

IBM FlashSystem Review – Part 3 – Ease of Use

Chris Evans All-Flash Storage, IBM, Lab Work, Storage Hardware

This is the third of a series of three blog posts looking at the IBM FlashSystem shared storage platform.  The three posts cover hardware, software and the operations and integration of the solution.  IBM has sponsored this work and provided evaluation hardware for the project.

Ease of Use

Storage hardware has become a commodity, and the significant areas of differentiation for vendors are with software, features and the consumption business model.  In the previous post in this series, we looked at SVC (aka Spectrum Virtualise) and how IBM has consolidated the FlashSystem family onto this single storage operating system.  FlashSystem now offers a wide range of mature features, but how easy is the system to operate and manage?

IBM provided Architecting IT with an evaluation FlashSystem 5030, configured as follows:

  • Dual Controllers
  • 16Gb Fibre Channel
  • 10Gb Ethernet
  • Four 2TB 12Gb SAS SSDs
  • Seventeen 2.4TB 10K HDDs

The testing aimed to validate the ease-of-use claims for FlashSystem and SVC.  This process doesn’t include specific performance testing but does look at performance graphs when validating features within the GUI. Over the course of two weeks, we configured and used the FlashSystem with Fibre Channel and iSCSI connectivity against both dedicated servers and virtual server (VMware) environments.

Installation

The initial installation and configuration process itself is straightforward, although slightly more challenging when only remote hands support is available (as under the current COVID-19 regulations).  The FS5030 requires direct connection using a laptop or local computer to perform the initial basic steps of installation.  Direct connectivity is needed, as the array acts as a local DHCP server and assigns a temporary IP address to the connecting device.

From this point onwards, the remainder of the installation proceeds from a web GUI accessible across the network.  Here are some of the key operational benefits of FlashSystem.

Visualisation

One of the most useful features of any storage GUI is a visual representation of the appliance itself.  Figure 1 shows the FS5030 as a schematic, both front and rear.  These views make it easy to identify occupied and vacant drive slots, active Fibre Channel ports and active network ports.  In addition, each item is clickable, displaying further details on each component. 

Figure 1 – F5030 schematic

Although many platforms offer visual representations of storage hardware, the benefits shouldn’t be underestimated.  Visual cues make it easier to determine the right ports to plug in networking or drives and to see whether those components are active or not. 

Annotation on a single component

Command Line Interface

Graphical Interfaces are great, but power users want access to platforms via API or CLI.  A lot of storage administration is repetitive and potentially error-prone, so automating with scripts reduces the chances of error or other typos.  FlashSystem offers a comprehensive GUI with dozens of commands covering all aspects of the platform.  You can find a list here, as part of the FlashSystem documentation. 

The implementation of a CLI is vital to how systems operate in a multi-tenant environment.  FlashSystem GUI commands are essentially CLI commands, enabling one single point of serialisation for all system operations.  This design means that users can be administering through both the GUI and CLI at the same time, without overwriting or undoing each other’s work. 

API

Storage appliances have offered GUIs and CLIs since inception.  Mature enterprise environments have been automating storage for almost 20 years with CLI integration.  As data centres transform to be more automated, the CLI isn’t always the best ongoing solution, as syntax and data formats can change over time.  Many scripting processes rely on “scraping” the results from the CLI, which can introduce errors as software updates are applied. APIs provide a much better interface for automated management, as they are more efficient and secure. 

GUI performance graphs

FlashSystem provides API access with almost sixty separate function calls, which are internally translated into CLI calls by the FlashSystem API server.  IBM offers online examples in Perl and with CURL.  A PowerShell plug-in is also available through IBM Spectrum Connect. 

Spectrum Connect

Spectrum Connect software also provides connectivity into a range of other platforms for automation and virtualisation.  This includes:

  • IBM Storage Enabler for Kubernetes (automation for dynamic storage provisioning)
  • VMware vSphere VASA (storage awareness APIs)
  • VMware vSphere Web Client
  • VMware vRealize Orchestrator
  • VMware vRealize Operations Manager
  • Microsoft PowerShell Plugin

Spectrum Connect functionality is delivered through a separate server platform that offers scalability and centralisation for customers with many FlashSystem installations.

Spectrum Control & Insights

For customers with many FlashSystem appliances, IBM offers Spectrum Control and Spectrum Insights.  Spectrum Control provides an on-premises dashboard that centralises the visualisation of many appliances into a single screen.  These views encompass storage systems and storage networking, as well as application-based information from common hypervisors and operating systems.

Modern storage solutions demand ease-of-use and features to ensure 100% availability (or as close to it as possible).  The “last mile” in achieving high availability comes from the shared knowledge of the thousands of deployed solutions in the field. 

Spectrum Insights is IBM’s analytics-based monitoring solution that runs as a SaaS platform in the cloud.  Insights offers alerts and problem resolution across FlashSystem infrastructure and applications. 

Note: Spectrum Insights requires a separate chargeable licence.

Pricing

Our final aspect of usability is in the pricing of storage solutions.  For years, storage pricing has been shrouded in secrecy, making it difficult to compare one vendor to another or mix and match different configuration options.  The public cloud has made the cost of IT more transparent than ever before.  This transition forces on-premises infrastructure vendors to reassess their selling strategies, including the online publication of prices.

IBM FlashSystem Pricing

IBM now offers customers the ability to configure and build entry-level FlashSystem 5000 series models that include pricing at the component level.  The customer can include software into this model and quickly gain an idea of base pricing before discounts. 

Transparent pricing is available in the US and Europe and only for FlashSystem 5000 models.  It would be great to see IBM extend this facility to other products in the FlashSystem family, so customers can see how the capabilities of each model scales with their associated cost. 

The Architect’s View

Across this series of posts, we’ve looked at FlashSystem hardware, software, features, ease of use and the tools IBM offers to maintain high levels of availability.  Modern storage solutions aren’t composed of just one of these attributes but by the combination of all of these features working together.

IBM continues to deliver solutions for a highly competitive storage market, with features and functionality that matches the leaders in this field.


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