Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/11/12/exclusive_maxta_mxsp_review/

Maxta chucks vSAN out of stealth and into El Reg review suite

MxSP promises to be as simple as you are

By Trevor Pott

Posted in Storage, 12th November 2013 16:21 GMT

Exclusive Maxta has officially come out of stealth, and its first stop has been our very own testing lab.

As previously discussed, Maxta Storage Platform (MxSP) is typically spoken of in the same breath as VMware's VSAN, Nutanix or Simplivity. The Register has taken the time to see what makes Maxta think it has the stuff to take on the established players in our exclusive launch review.

For those unfamiliar with the vSAN concept we'll run through a quick primer. vSANs are typically a virtual appliance that grabs all the local storage in a virtual host, connects up with all other vSAN virtual appliances in the same cluster and creates an N+X replicated object store across all nodes. That is to say, you can lose an individual disk – or an entire server – and your data will still be backed up.

This object storage technology is fundamentally not that different from what powers Google's GFS or modern Hadoop clusters. Poke around Nutanix and you'll find people who helped Google design GFS. Poke around Maxta and you'll find Raghu Shastry who worked on the core IO engine for Virsto; bringing an in depth understanding of data tiering to the increasingly "old hat" world of distributed object storage.

Maxta datastore

MxSP datastore, ready to rock on a brand new cluster

The big name players in the vSAN world are Nutanix and Simplivity. These folks sell "converged infrastructure" solutions which consist of a hypervisor, vSAN software, management software and the hardware it lives on. It all comes as a single package; if you want more storage or compute just add more nodes.

The offerings from both companies are excellent. However, the issue with this approach is that the minimum buy-in for both offerings is eye-wateringly expensive. Maxta's approach is to sell the VSAN software, let you handle the hardware, and make their software so automated that no management software is needed.

Making it go

MxSP ships as a windows installer. You'll see a Windows EXE file, a script and a couple of folders. One folder contains a packaged instance of Java and the other contains the real installer; a whole mess of JAR files along with a VMware OVF. Running the EXE triggers the Java-based installer and off you go.

Maxta Installation Prerequisites

Fasten seatbelts before installing

Before you get anywhere interesting in the installer the prerequisites for install are displayed. Each host requires a dedicated network port (for the replication traffic between the MxSP nodes). An IP address on the management network needs to exist for you to be able to access the clustered MxSP Virtual Appliance.

You're going to have to have a vCenter server and have added all your nodes (start with a minimum of three) to a cluster. You also need to make sure that NTP is turned on and actually working on all participating hosts. If you've got that sewn up, it's time to install.

Maxta enable local copies

Small tickbox, important decision; error here

You will be asked to enter administrative credentials for your vCenter server, as well as for the local hosts. In addition, you'll be asked whether you want to "enable local copies". This is a critical question; enabling local copies means less space available for your data store, but it also makes life a lot easier if you need to do disk maintenance.

A couple of clicks later and the installer will validate your configuration. Maxta's devotion to simplicity really shines through in this validation concept. For example: the installer asks that you provide dedicated NICs with its own dedicated subnet at the beginning of the install, but neglects to mention that you should allow the installer to configure the network of the hosts.

If you go forth and set up the network beforehand, the installer (which is designed to set that up for you) will error out. It does, however, not get all the way through a lengthy install and then blow up: it kindly checks to see that all is good, informs you of what is wrong and asks you to rerun validation.

Some things it seems to let pass, such as when it complained I only had 4 CPU cores, (minimum 5 required) but proceeded to install happily anyways. It was only after install that I discovered this meant that it would run that system as a "compute node only" system; it would not use that host's local disks towards the MxSP datastore.

Maxta end of installation screen

Click, click, done

Click next a few times, wait for the OVF file to deploy and you're done. At this point MxSP is deployed on your cluster, the disks are mapped and the NFS store is set up inside all available nodes. You are ready to start deploying VMs to that infrastructure immediately.

Operates as advertised

I've thrown dozens of workloads at the MxSP cluster for the better part of a day. Installed the software, uninstalled the software and installed again. (All of which, shockingly, doesn't require me to reboot the host.) You have to be not paying attention or actively trying to kill the thing in order to screw up the initial install.

None of what I've used for testing was all that fancy. The Supermicro FatTwin was otherwise engaged, so I relied on a pair of positively ancient AMD Shanghai-generation dual-CPU Opterons and an Intel Ivy Bridge desktop board.

I tried various hard drive configurations and speeds and tested both Intel 520 480GB SATA SSDs and a Micron P420m 1.4TB PCI-E SSD.

The whole cluster moves at the speed of the slowest disk. If you have 15K RPM drives everywhere with SSDs for caching, MxSP delivers screaming performance. Toss in a single 5400 RPM SATA disk and as soon as your SSD cache is full everything turns to glue.

SSDs accelerate the local host. The system with the Micron SSD is fast enough to give me nerd envy, and it's my card! Run the same system with an Intel 520 and it's nowhere near as fast, but it sure beats the pants off that same system again running without any SSD at all.

Maxta Interface

I spy with my little eye, your SSD

All of which is a rather lengthy way of saying "MxSP isn't a silver bullet: you still have to actually buy good disks and put SSDs into your servers."

One place where MxSP shines is snapshot creation. MxSP has its own built-in snapshot software that creates VM level snapshots. Maxta claims subsecond to create, subsecond to delete and I couldn't disprove it, despite spending at least two hours of my life trying.

The catch

MxSP's primary selling feature – simplicity – is also its flaw. Maxta CEO Yoram Novick says "we believe that converged infrastructure is integration from the user interface all the way to the data. We do physical and logical everything, and we do this with a software only solution. Nobody I know tells you what the speed of the memory is in the server or the cache they are using at the CPU level. Storage needs to be as simple as that."

I can't say I disagree, in principle. However, in practice I quickly found myself casting about looking for features. I was unable to find critical knobs for making the thing dynamically scalable.

"How do I add new disks to an existing MxSP host" and "how do I add new hosts" were questions that I couldn't get answered without hacking about in the depths of VMware, the Maxta virtual appliance and the Maxta installer. I'm not talking about a hidden menu here, I'm talking about decompiling JAVA classes, resetting the admin password on the appliance and playing with files in VMware that say things like scsi1:0.fileName = "/vmfs/volumes/52816900-e30c3247-6d93-00248c0c3771/maxtadisks/MAXTA-DISK_1001_0.vmdk" scsi1:0.mode = "independent-persistent".

Conclusion

MxSP is a just barely out-of-stealth product at GA launch and the features advertised actually work. Maxta have real-world clients who have deployed this already and my lab tests show conclusively that with modest hardware MxSP is a performance demon.

Maxta is offering a charge per terabyte of data store model where you get a full suite of enterprise level data services (snapshots, deduplication, thin provisioning, etc) built into the cost. Maxta is only charging per capacity. If you want to put more flash, you can put more flash. If you want to add more disks and up the number of copies kept then you can do so. All that matters is the size of the datastore as presented to vCenter; that's what you get charged on.

Maxta VM Interface

VM-centric thinking

If the only real gripe I have about the offering is "there aren't enough knobs to turn". That's pretty small potatoes. It took Microsoft 24 years to make a Windows installer as simple as Maxta has made for MxSP. Features can always be added. A corporate focus on usability and simplicity is a lot harder to add after the fact.

VMware VSAN's selling point is the VMware name. Nutnaix's angle is vertical integration, a choice of hypervisors and their rapidly growing ecosystem. Simplivity are masters of storage; they put their time and effort into replication, backups and other elements of data management.

Maxta's play is pure simplicity, and if a day's worth of hammering on it in the lab is any indication, it Just Works. ®