Review: Microsoft's hybrid cloud storage -- overpriced, underwhelming

Microsoft's Azure StorSimple backup and DR solution offers compelling Azure integrations, but the high price and absence of local management hold it back

Microsoft bought its way into the storage hardware appliance market with the purchase of StorSimple almost two years ago. With the release of the StorSimple 8100 and 8600 hybrid cloud storage arrays, Microsoft has fully integrated these physical devices with Azure for seamless cloud connectivity. The integration includes the ability to move data from on premises to the Azure cloud for incremental backups, archiving, and full data protection and disaster recovery.

Microsoft has specific target use cases in mind for StorSimple appliances. The most obvious is as a simple file store with actively used files kept locally and older files moved to Microsoft Azure. This essentially implements primary storage on-site and archival storage off-site, with Microsoft Azure as the target for all long-term storage. Other use cases include remote data replication and disaster recovery. The DR capability is augmented by the new Azure StorSimple Virtual Appliance, which gives you a counterpart to the StorSimple appliance that runs as a virtual machine in the Azure cloud.

One of the side benefits of keeping snapshots of local data in the cloud is the ability to mount the container directly in the cloud and access it remotely. StorSimple uses VHD files as the base storage format, meaning you can directly attach one of these files and treat it as you would a local file system. This opens the door to any number of potential uses, from application debugging to data analysis to retrieving lost data. The Azure StorSimple Virtual Appliance can be used for all of these purposes.

Microsoft notes several specific use cases that aren’t a good fit for StorSimple. You shouldn't use StorSimple as a storage target for backup software or for System Center Data Protection Manager, as a data repository for Microsoft Exchange, or for any high-performance workload. Microsoft also cautions against using StorSimple for large SQL databases, as VM storage for apps with high-performance requirements, or as an archival store for data requiring active cataloging or indexing.

Microsoft StorSimple 8000 series Microsoft

Microsoft's StorSimple 8100 and 8600 series appliances list for $100,000 and $170,000 respectively. They're manufactured by Seagate.

How StorSimple works

StorSimple uses the Windows Server operating system under the covers and implements the data redundancy provided by Storage Spaces for mirrored volumes. StorSimple does not use the data tiering capability of Windows Server 2012 R2, but a proprietary method that incorporates deduplication and compression when moving data between tiers.

When the StorSimple appliance moves data from the top tier (SSD) to the next lower tier (HDD), it computes a hash of the data block, then compares that hash against a list of blocks already stored on the HDD tier. If a match is found, the data block on the SSD tier is released and metadata is updated to point to the existing block on the HDD tier. The same hashing technique is also used as a part of the snapshot process to write only changed blocks into the snapshot file.

For compression, StorSimple uses the deflate algorithm, which was first introduced in PKZIP and later fully defined in RFC 1951. Deflate is categorized as a lossless compression scheme, meaning that no information is lost when the data is uncompressed. Like most compression algorithms, deflate works better on some types of data and not so well on others. StorSimple detects data that isn't compressible and skips unnecessary compression to save time.

The StorSimple appliance uses the Microsoft Azure Blob Services REST API for moving data between the appliance and the cloud. Microsoft Azure provides two different types of blob (binary large object) storage: block and page. Block blobs can vary in size, and they are optimized for streaming large amounts of data. The block blob API provides for parallel uploading, includes an MD5 hash to verify the transfer, and will facilitate a retransmit if necessary.

The StorSimple appliance encrypts all data using AES-256 encryption before sending it to Azure. Thus, you will have to decrypt this data in the Azure cloud should you need to access it there. Using deduped and compressed data reduces the amount of data transmitted between the appliance and Azure, lowering the amount of bandwidth needed to push the data up to the cloud. The same principle applies in reverse when data must be retrieved from Azure.

Microsoft Azure StorSimple dashboard

Like the StorSimple Manager, the StorSimple monitoring dashboards resemble what you'd expect to see in the Azure portal. This monitor shows a number of I/O performance metrics over a 30-minute period. 

New StorSimple appliances

The StorSimple 8100 and 8600 represent significant updates from the previous products. New features include 10GB networking, faster processors, and more memory. With this release, all StorSimple volumes are presented as iSCSI LUNs for consumption by any iSCSI client. The 8100 model comes with 15TB of usable capacity (before dedupe or compression, as well as flash optimization) and can address up to 200TB of cloud storage. The 8600 comes with 40TB of usable capacity (before dedupe or compressions, as well as flash optimization) and can address up to 500TB of cloud storage.

The new Azure StorSimple Virtual Appliance, which is available as a service in Azure, can access any of the data uploaded by an 8000-series array. This capability makes for many interesting scenarios. If you happen to be a developer, you could take a snapshot of a volume containing live data, push it to Microsoft Azure, launch a StorSimple Virtual Appliance in Azure, then test your application using fresh data. If you wanted to do the same with data from a particularly interesting time period, you would simply find a snapshot taken around the time of interest and run the same tests. When you're done, you delete the cloned snapshot and stop the running appliance; everything looks exactly like it did before you started.

Azure-based management

Microsoft Azure is the secret sauce behind the StorSimple solution. In fact, all StorSimple management takes place from an Azure portal. The Azure StorSimple Manager provides all the functionality needed to control the StorSimple appliance. On the downside, that means you must have connectivity to Azure to manage your appliance. Lose your Internet connection, and you lose direct control of the StorSimple.

If you've used any of the Azure management and monitoring pages, you'll be comfortable with the StorSimple Manager. Creating a backup policy consists of filling in a few fields on a form and clicking a check button. Performing other management functions, such as taking new snapshots or managing existing ones, is similarly straightforward. The monitoring dashboards for your StorSimple appliance(s) also bear a striking resemblance to others you'll find on Azure.

List prices for the StorSimple 8100 and 8600 will set you back $100,000 and $170,000, respectively. Microsoft does have packaged offerings available that combine the Microsoft Azure StorSimple appliance with Azure storage capacity. Pricing for these offerings depends on storage capacity and existing Microsoft agreements.

While the latest versions of the StorSimple appliances combine tight coupling with Microsoft Azure and compelling capabilities, the cost is steep. The current inability to manage StorSimple appliances directly is also a significant drawback. While more functionality -- including PowerShell management -- are promised in the future, it might take a new pricing model to make these systems more attractive.

This story, "Review: Microsoft's hybrid cloud storage -- overpriced, underwhelming" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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