My Thunderbolt Nightmare

It was a dark and stormy night of cables and capacitors when suddenly I heard the door knocking, or was something falling of a shelf? I was in a cramped server room, if you’d call it that, and I was day dreaming, sorry, night terrorizing, of days gone past when I worked in nice big well ventilated server rooms with proper enterprise gear. Oh wait, did I really dream that? Did it really happen? Maybe it was less well ventilated and there were cables strewn about the tall 42U shelves and sometimes we found a Mac hidden underneath spaghetti. Sometimes. I vaguely remember the long shiny metal servers, they talked to me, they sang, a whiny pitch of whale song. Dream on, dream on.

Now. Today. Apple Music on my iPhone plays every single Arcade Fire album in a long playlist, in order. And I follow the white rabbit of Thunderbolt cables. This is my thunderbolt nightmare. Dead drive in a Thunderbolt Promise Pegasus unit, web ticket filed for registered hardware. Legacy. That’s the word they used. Where’s Marshall McLuhan when you need a proper redux of the shit storm you’re in? Thunderbolt 3 uses USB-C and everything is possible. Can’t wait to step into that confusing identity crisis. OK, back to the present day when I stared at the red blinking drive, a replacement drive from not long ago dead again, sitting in the last row of a now legacy Pegasus R6 unit. RAID 5, the most dangerous kind, this is what stood between me and uncertainty. The worst kind of RAID. Well, not as bad RAID 0. Raid nothing. Raid 5 is one bad drive away from a bad day. Backups? Hmm, I got those, I got plenty of those, but I don’t want to be tested today. No, not today. Not this bloody day.

I open the Pegasus utility and the GUI wants an update. Hmm, that’s not in autopkg, I think. Why is out of date? Munki let me down. I start to drift, to side shift into adding newer better recipes to autopkg, to tweaking my Munki repo, to what sessions would be awesome at the next MacDevOps:YVR conference. Gee whiz, I love open source, and everyone in the Mac Admins community…. Snap out of! I slap myself in the face. I was hallucinating. Stay on task. I update the Pegasus utility. I stare at the critical reports from one of the three R6 units attached to this Mac Mini server. Did I say server? But it’s so small, so little. It works. It’s magical, kinda neat. Until you stare too close at the back. The Thunderbolt cables go from the Mac Mini to the first Pegasus unit to the SANlink fibre channel adapter to the LTO 6 tape library to the next Pegasus utility to the second SANlink adapter to a third and final Pegasus RAID unit. What’s is going on? Where does this cable go? Let me just follow it to the next jumping off point. My brain slows, the lack of oxygen in this cold machine room start to affect my thinking. I lose my way.

I download the report for the Pegasus unit. I had to unlock a pretty neat lock icon and click on the save report. I upload it to the web support and add it to the ticket. Tech support gets backs to me in a day and said all is good, and to carry on. I can’t. The drive is dead. What are they not seeing? It’s right in front of me. I download the report again. Again the same response. Fine. It’s time to stop messing around and pop open Terminal. Loading up promiseutil I check out the options and switches and get into an argument with myself about the currently valid optionals of letters and numbers that are required. I check my notes, online knowledge base, and try again. It’s broken. It doesn’t work. Stumbling around the command line typing imprecisely incorrect statements gets nowhere fast. I realize that there’s no way for the cli utility to properly change its focus to the broken unit with the busted drive. Both the GUI and the binary are stuck on the one R6 unit and won’t see what’s in front of my face.

I call tech support. This is humiliating. This was supposed to be easy. Drive dead, drive reported, drive ordered, drive replaced, then no one the wiser. Data saved, not dead. Backups not tested. Not today. No, not today. Tech support treats me like the imaginary newbie IT people sometimes treat everyone with. He repeats his instructions to me. He is polite. Download the report. I can’t. It won’t work. Unplug the unit. Plug it into something else. I can’t. The cables. The Thunderbolt cables are everywhere. It’s magical, and daisy-chained, and stuck. “Can I remote in and see?” he asks, hoping to resolve this quickly. Sorry. That’s impossible. Even if I thought it was a good idea. I remind him that I have a dead drive. That’s why I called. I want to get a replacement drive. “Sorry sir that legacy unit is not under support most likely,” I know that. I realize that now. That I wasted my time. It happens sometimes. The truth is staring at you. You need a mirror to see. “You need to order compatible drive from the compatibility list.” I am a well spring of emotions. I thank him. I am nice. He was polite. But now I know what I need to do. Oh wait, what? Order a drive now! Order two.

McLuhan never had a chance to evaluate Thunderbolt storage technology but the insane genius and simplicity of Thunderbolt reduced expensive enterprise fibre channel storage to the dust bin. Magical SAN for video editing with a Mac Mini and Thunderbolt RAIDs. Cheap enough to buy with a departmental credit card, fewer meetings to attend, more films to shoot and edit. Backup, archive, repeat. McLuhan would have no doubt reminded me that the tetrad of technology would have flipped Thunderbolt on its head, Fibre channel never went into a dust bin, but was firmly relegated to well cooled storage room, and long ago legacy drives in the enterprise units are humming a long while the cursing wind and emotions swell over the Thunderbolt mountain. Fibre channel just became cool again. Retro smart.

Thunderbolt SAN talk at Mac Admin meet up

Big thanks to Ross at Ping Identity for organizing and Jamf for sponsoring the Mac Admin meetup on September 9, 2015.

We filled the tiny meeting room and we will have to expand to the larger conference room (or theatre) next time. It was a well attended meetup with much discussion of the earlier day’s Apple announcements, new OS X “El Capitan” and iOS 9 changes and how this affects management products like Casper which have had to move the binary because of the new SIP implementation in OS X.

I opened up the meet up with a presentation on Storage, SANs and the new Accusys Thunderbolt SAN A16T2-Share product.

The goal of my presentation was to give a quick overview of SAN technology as I’ve seen it change over the last 10 years: from Fibre Channel, to iSCSI to PCIe and Thunderbolt based. The last change to Thunderbolt based SANs is the most interesting for small video production workgroups or anyone that likes working on small scale shared projects but needs a decent bandwidth at an affordable price. Block level storage (SANs) is straight forward storage tech for users and applications to interact with without having to negotiate network protocols (AFP, SMB, or NFS). It’s never been quite that affordable until now.

Having built a lot of Fibre Channel based SANs for media and entertainment companies and post-production editors in corporate environments I know how awesome and fast and solid these SANs are. Lots of editors and clients can hit a large SAN and it won’t blink. Thirty or Sixty users is not unusual. But not everyone believes in fibre channel or the idea of pulling fibre cables. It is surprisingly a large stumbling block to building large SANs, “no, we don’t want fiber cables”. True, sometimes clients have objected to gigabit Ethernet too, but that’s another story.

I found that iSCSI, especially with the DDP units I’ve set up, has been a great alternative to fibre channel. Not fiber cables to pull. Just use the CAT6 cables already in place. Great Ethernet based SANs using 1 x or 2 x CAT6 cables per client, or even 10G. Works well. Very well indeed. It’s been great for smaller (and larger) clients who want a great Ethernet iSCSI SAN solution without needing fibre channel cables, switches, HBAs, Thunderbolt adapters, etc.

That’s why when I stumbled across the Accusys Thunderbolt storage I was kinda really excited. No fibre channel to Thunderbolt adapters. Just use Thunderbolt cables. Brilliant! Finally a solution for small workgroups. And there’s so many video groups sprouting out of every corporate office, or boutique VFX or post-production shops that have been struggling with small NAS solutions that were not meant for video production. Now you can get that SAN that you’ve wanted, you can really get that block-level storage at an affordable price. Instead of working locally and copying raw footage and finished products  back and forth across slow network links they can work in a small video group with high speed storage. Sa-weet. (Can you tell I’m excited?).

I’ll include the presentation PDF here as a link if anyone is interested. I’ve added a link at the end from Accusys on how to build an Xsan with the A16T2-Share. Yes, Xsan from Apple still exists and is bundled with the OS for free. Building a SAN is pretty easy and everyone can do it. Don’t forget your backups though.

Lastly, anyone interested in attending any meetings for the upcoming MacDevOps:YVR (June 16-17, 2016) drop me a note. I added the email in the presentation document.

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