2021: Thunderbolt Shared Storage Report

It’s 2021 and what is the state of Thunderbolt Shared Storage?

Thunderbolt Shared Storage is a RAID which you connect to with Thunderbolt (and Ethernet) which can be shared with other workstations. It’s a Thunderbolt SAN. Shared by Thunderbolt.

I’ve long been a fan of Apple’s Xsan and other SAN products that use Fibre Channel (or iSCSI) to connect clients to super fast block storage. It acts like a fast direct attached RAID but you can share it with others. The sharing part is crucial to collaborative workflows. We used XSAN when I was in VFX and I now use XSAN for post production workflows. Editors like to edit, have large video files, and often work in teams. All those camera files aren’t getting any smaller. So you need a lot of storage that can be shared by a team of editors, colourists, motion graphic artists, producers, etc

What you don’t often want is a complicated network infrastructure or a server room with fibre channel switches and fibre channel RAIDs and assorted other equipment. You don’t want that. You’d have to call me and pay me to set up your storage, backup and archive workflow. While it is always recommended to work with a trusted contractor it can be expensive. For small teams a shared Thunderbolt storage SAN can be quick to set up, doesn’t take much room and can easily connect 4-8 editors. Thunderbolt 3 passive copper cables extend up to 2m but optical Thunderbolt cables are available up to 60m.

I want to review one such example of shared Thunderbolt storage that stands out, the Symply Workspace. It’s a RAID, but it’s a SAN too. It is storage you plug into with Thunderbolt, but with an extra ethernet cable you make it a SAN. Inside the storage it has Quantum StorNext which runs most of the world’s expensive enterprise SANs, but it’s in the Symply Workspace and it works with Apple’s Xsan client software (included free with macOS since macOS Lion 10.7 !!). So basically, it is enterprise storage in a Thunderbolt box. One more thing, add a 5 seat license to a simple but powerful media asset management (MAM) tool axle.ai to organize your assets, add keywords and access from anywhere. Almost too good to be true, so I had to test it and see.

I received a Symply Workspace to test with. I like testing storage. My clients always need more storage. I keep telling them to not fill it up, but they do. That’s why we have LTO, nearline and cloud archive with Archiware P5 but that’s another story. For now, let’s test this storage: how easy is it to setup, how awesome is it to edit with, and what is a MAM good for anyway? Let’s find out.

It starts with a box. You open the box. You take the drives out of the box. Two trays of drives. Then there’s the RAID itself. Put the drives in the RAID. No screwdriver or tools necessary, just slide and click. Next step read all documentation online, ha ha, just kidding, don’t read anything keep going. Ok, kidding a bit. There’s an info card in the box with a website link to help explain the setup. But I didn’t read it all, uh, I know Xsan, I can do this, ok, what’s the link? now back to building.

The tricky part is plugging in a few cables, which will be improved in the shipping production version with stenciled labels of where to plug in what. There’s three cables after the power cable. One Thunderbolt to a Mac, that’s easy. One ethernet to your local network, no problem. And lastly one more ethernet to your new SAN production network (aka metadata). Ok, what’s that? Add a 5-port switch and plug in all clients and the storage to this network for SAN private metadata. It really is a SAN. Like Apple’s Xsan or Quantum StorNext, you need a data pipe (40GbE Thunderbolt 3 in this case) to transfer the data, and a metadata network, to talk about the data (1GbE ethernet to our extra switch). The public network will be used to talk to Axle MAM or for re-sharing out the volume to non-Thunderbolt connected Macs.

Once the Symply Workspace is wired up and powered on you’ll be able to reach the unit via a local bonjour name in your web browser (http://symplyworkspace.local:8088) and from there a simple web interface allows you to monitor the status of the unit, download drivers to configure a Mac or Windows client, restart or shutdown, contact support or start troubleshooting if needed. It’s a great tool to do the few things you need to.

So with everyone working remotely how do we connect to our shared storage? I’m glad you asked. There are a lot of good options. My favourite is Tailscale a mesh VPN (based on the open source Wireguard project) which you would install on a locally connected Mac then you can remote in and share a screen or the storage. There’s also the Axle 5-seat license included with the Symply Workspace which can scan your storage, make proxies and serve it all via a website which can also be accessed from anywhere.

To be continued…

Update: Added a clarification that there is an included 5 seat license to Axle media asset management in the Symply Workspace

Thunderbolt Xsan: Set up a T-SAN

Setting up your very own Xsan at home… What could be more exciting? Nothing like SAN storage to cure those stacks of hard drive blues. Don’t have a spare fibre channel switch or fibre channel storage at home? No problem Grab some thunderbolt storage from Accusys and join the fun.

I am testing the A12T3-Share 12-drive desktop Thunderbolt RAID solution to build my Xsan. Accusys also have a 16 drive rack mounted raid storage box if you want to install a nice pro set up in the server room you have tucked neatly in your home office. Ha ha. Seriously, the 12 drive unit is whisper quiet and would be a great addition to any home lab or production storage setup. I mean, aren’t we all doing video production at home these days? And even if we are doing a proxy workflow in the clouds, we still need to store the original footage somewhere before it goes to LTO tape, or backed up in the clouds (hopefully another cloud). A few years ago I tested the Accusys 16 drive Thunderbolt 2 unit and it worked perfectly with my fibre channel storage but this time I am testing the newest Thunderbolt 3 unit. Home office test lab is GO!

It is a pretty straight forward setup but I ran into some minor issues that anyone could run into and so I want to mention them and save you all the frustration by learning from my mistakes. Always be learning. That’s my motto. Or “break things at home not in production”, but if your home is production now, then break things fast and learn very quickly.

First step is to download the software for the RAID and you’ll find it on the Accusys website.

(I found the support downloads well organized but still a bit confusing as to what i needed)

The installer is not signed which in our security conscious age is a little concerning, but examining the package with Suspicious package should allay any concerns.

The installer installs the RAIDGuard X app which you will need to configure the RAID.

Of course, RAIDGuard X needs a Java Runtime Environment to run. Why is this still a thing? Hmm…

RAIDGuardX will allow you to configure your connected Thunderbolt hardware.

Configure the array as you like. I only had four drives to test with. Just enough for RAID5.

Choose your favourite RAID level. I picked RAID5 for my 4 drives.

The first gotcha that got me was this surprisingly simple and easy to overlook section. “Assign LUN automatically” asks you to choose which port that LUN (the configured RAID) will be assigned to. If you don’t check anything like I didn’t in my first run through then you configure a RAID5 array that you’ll never see on your connected Mac. Fun, right? Ha ha.

Xsan requires a sacrifice…. I mean, a LUN (available RAID array). Check your Fibre Channel in System Information. Yes, this is from the thunderbolt storage. Hard to believe, but it’s true!

Setting up enterprise grade SAN storage requires a trip to the Mac App Store. Server.app

Open Server.app, enable Xsan, create a new volume and add your LUN from the Accusys Thunderbolt array. Set the usage to “any” (metadata and data) since this is a one LUN test setup.

Pro tip: connect your Xsan controller to your Open Directory server. Ok, just kidding. You don’t have an OD server in your home office? Hmm… Create an entry in /etc/hosts instead.

If you’ve set up your SAN volume then you will see it listed in the Finder.

Easy shareable SAN storage is possible with thunderbolt RAID arrays from Accusys. No more Fibre channel switches needed. Small SAN setups are possible for creative teams without a server room. This setup was a quiet 12 drive RAID and a Mac mini. Add some Thunderbolt cables. There are four thunderbolt 3 connections and you can add more with an additional RAID. Up to 8 connections with one of them for the Mac Mini running the SAN. Not bad at all. And Xsan is free. Add a Server app from the App Store, but the Xsan client is free and built-in (Xsan has been included with macOS since 10.7 so many years ago). Fibre channel protocol (even through Thunderbolt) is faster than network protocols and great for video production. Fast and shareable storage at home. Or in your office. Thunderbolt Xsan. T-SAN.

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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