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It's Not The Same Old Block Storage

As recently as the turn of the century, block storage was pretty simple. A controller joined a group of disk drives into a RAID set and then offered fixed slices of that RAID set up as logical volume or LUN. All the controller had to do to map a block in the volume to a physical location was calculate offset from the beginning of the RAIDset to the beginning of the volume and the RAID stripe. With features like thin provisioning, automatic tiering and data reduction via deduplication and compression, things aren't that simple.

When you hear the block storage vendors use lines like "Unified storage systems have all that file system overhead because they store iSCSI or Fibre Channel LUNs as files" they're underestimating the file system metadata that today's block storage arrays have to track.  

To run any of the new RAID+ features, an array controller needs a metadata base that looks a lot like a file system to me. Let's take the case of data deduplication. The array has to break data into chunks of 4K-1MB, figure out which of those chunks store the same data and then build a pointer list mapping LUN logical block addresses to the stored chunks.

Automated tiering requires even more metadata as the system has to track the logical block addresses to chunks that are on different RAID sets on different types of storage. In addition to figuring out what is the hot data that should be promoted to a faster tier of storage and what are the cool chunks that can be demoted, the system has to collect access frequency metadata.

What does this mean for a poor storage admin? Well, first of all, it explains why disk arrays need bigger processors to deliver good performance. Your vendor may not be blowing smoke when he says you can't run tiering or compression on your old system because it doesn't have the horsepower.