What is Microsoft StorSimple?

It’s hard to attend a Microsoft event on hybrid cloud computing and not hear a little about StorSimple. You might have some basic questions like “What is Microsoft StorSimple?” Maybe those questions were answered. And hopefully, you weren’t given some incorrect information! This article will explain what StorSimple is and how you might use it to solve your storage capacity issues.

What Does StorSimple Do?

StorSimple is a tiered storage solution. This is not your traditional tiered storage solution like you get with a SAN or with Windows Server 2012 R2 (WS2012 R2) Storage Spaces. StorSimple provides you with hybrid cloud tiered storage.
The StorSimple 8000 series appliances

The StorSimple 8000 series appliances. (Image: Aidan Finn)

When data is written to the appliance, it is initially store in the first tier called SSD Linear. Here raw data is stored in the fastest of the 4 tiers. When the tier is 80% full, the oldest blocks are moved down to SSD Dedupe. This is a capacity optimized SSD tier. Once this tier is 80% full, the oldest data is pushed down to the SAS tier. And when the SAS HDD tier is 80% full, data is pushed to blob storage in Microsoft Azure. And yes, the data is encrypted using AES-256 while at rest in Azure. The process is actually more complicated than what I’ve described to offer performance and metadata availability, but you should get the idea.
Note that when data is read from any tier, it is moved back to the top level local SSD Liner tier. Those blocks will start the whole lifecycle all over again. For example, an architect that opens up a 5 year old CAD drawing for just a few minutes might pull it down from Azure to the SSD Linear tier, and the blocks that make that file will start the journey down. Meanwhile, some other blocks that are probably warmer have been pushed down.

Microsoft StorSimple with Azure blob storage Microsoft StorSimple with Azure blob storage. (Image: Aidan Finn)

This solution gives organizations with massive storage challenges a way to make the most of local storage, and solve the ever-present challenge of always needing more capacity. Storage is not cheap. However, cloud storage is much more affordable than on-premises storage and much easier to manage too!

A SAN or not a SAN?

The StorSimple appliance features iSCSI connections, not SMB 3.0 as you might expect. That is understandable – SMB 3.0 is still limited to Microsoft workloads and these tend to feature hot data. There are 2 x 10 GbE and 4 x 1 GbE connections per controller. The on-premises traditional iSCSI block storage is build on mirrored hot-swappable SSD and HDD disks, while the Azure storage is provisioned using blobs in Microsoft Azure.
This all sounds like a SAN, and in a way, it is. However, StorSimple is not intended to be a SAN replacement, as I heard one misguided Microsoft trainer push it. Instead, Microsoft sells StorSimple as a storage supplement.
When asked about StorSimple, I explain it as a great way to store “working set data”. What do I mean by that phrase? Imagine a file server (or cluster) that has many terabytes of data. Like with most companies, data builds up and up, and is not managed. No one wants to stick their head over the trench to attempt to manage the data and IT is forced to find budget for expensive SAN capacity. A small amount of that data is hot, some of it is warm, but most of the data is never touched, but may the gods help anyone who dares to delete those unused files!

No on-premises storage can hope to be as affordable as Azure blob storage so it makes sense to store data in Azure. However, you need low latency and great throughput for warm and hot data. Therefore a tiered storage solution like StorSimple is superb for this kind of data.
Do not think that StorSimple is a replacement for a SAN for storing Hyper-V or vSphere (yes, the appliance is certified as VMware ready, even with VAAI functionality) virtual machines. Remember, “cold” data moves to Azure. To be read, that data must be downloaded to the SSD Linear tier, and meanwhile, data is pushed down the stack and eventually some cold data is pushed up to Azure. This would degrade performance of a normal production virtualization system. However, in a large test and dev environment, there are always lots of powered down virtual machines that consume expensive storage. Maybe that is a scenario where the Azure tier would be ideal for unused VM “placement”.

StorSimple Appliance Specifications

There are currently six physical appliances (made by a Mexican Seagate subsidiary called Xyratex) that you can purchase, split into three series.

  • The 5000 series offers 2 TB or 10 TB of local HDD storage with between 400 GB and 1.2 TB of SSD capacity. With the compression offered by StorSimple, you get up to 4 TB or 50 TB of on-permise capacity, depending on the nature of the data.
  • The 7000 series offers 4 TB or 20 TB of local HDD storage with between 600 GB and 2 TB of SSD capacity. With the compression offered by StorSimple, you get up to 8 TB or 100 TB of on-permise capacity, depending on the nature of the data.
  • The recently release 8000 series offers 15 TB or 40 TB of local HDD storage with between 800 GB and 2 TB of SSD capacity. With the compression offered by StorSimple, you get up to 15 TB or 200 TB of on-permise capacity, depending on the nature of the data. The 8000 series also offers deeper integration with Microsoft Azure. A Microsoft Azure StoreSimple Manager provides a new management experience and a Microsoft Azure Virtual Appliance provides you with a way to use Azure IaaS as a DR solution for your on-premises StorSimple appliance.

StorSimple Backup and Disaster Recovery

StorSimple provides its own backup functionality that is implemented using snapshots in Microsoft Azure. This automated snapshot to the cloud serves two purposes. Firstly, you can recover individual files from a backup. Secondly, the backup, in combination with how StorSimple uses metadata provides a simple DR feature.
You can duplicate the configuration of a StorSimple appliance to another unit in a secondary device. Should you lose the primary site, the secondary site device can be activated. All of the meta data will be available meaning that users can browse files and services can find data. Any read data is pulled down from Azure and the tiering lifecycle kicks off. Microsoft added the Azure StoreSimple virtual appliance (VA) as a DR option with the 8000 series; One or more smaller capacity VAs can be used as a DR solution for your on-premises Storage Simple in Microsoft’s public cloud.

StorSimple: The Bottom Line

I have never seen a StorSimple appliance in person and I certainly have never used one so I cannot tell you if this is a quality solution or not. The appliance is quite expensive, judging by the pricing shared by Symantec. However, I doubt that few Microsoft enterprise customers will ever pay that list price! I have heard from a few that the appliance is even being given away for free (plus shipping and import costs) if you sign an Enterprise Agreement with very large commitment to Microsoft Azure. Even with the price, if you have sufficient data of the right type to consider this appliance, there is a good chance that it would be more affordable than committing to the hundreds of additional terabytes for your SAN. And if you already have spent that money on your SAN, maybe StorSimple with Azure storage will free up that space for other more correct workloads.