Best of open source in storage

Top picks among file systems, file servers, storage networking software, and benchmarking tools

Combining "open source" and "storage" in the same sentence used to trigger a sardonic grin, but no longer. The availability of free and open software is as true today for storage as it is for operating systems and applications.

The future of open source storage software looks even brighter, considering recent developments such as Sun's donation of OpenSolaris, along with a wealth of storage technologies, and the Aperi project, a heavyweight-backed effort to create an open source suite of storage management applications. Spearheaded by IBM, Aperi also has the support of other key storage vendors including Brocade, Cisco, Computer Associates, Emulex, Fujitsu, LSI Logic, NetApp, Novell, and YottaYotta.

Why would these vendors share their expensive software development efforts with an open source community? Sure, there's no question they want something in return -- more users, more control over technology developments, more control over standards. Nevertheless, gifts of open source are a welcome development in a fragmented market such as storage where standards work well for hardware but don't seem to apply to software at all. Storage needs fewer technology schools and more real standards. Open source and community development have the potential to bring that about.

Open source also has the potential to turn the storage marketplace upside down. Despite the plethora of vendors and storage solutions on the market today, you'll find little differentiation in hardware. In fact, many vendors share the same basic hardware and toss their management software on top of it. Some vendors don't offer hardware at all, opting to use commodity servers as their physical platform. After all, an Ultra 320 SCSI drive isn't exactly rare. If we're at a point where the hardware is nearly immaterial to a solid storage platform, then what's to stop an open source storage solution from making a dent in this market? Nothing.

That said, let's get on with our awards. Our first storage Bossie goes to ZFS, or Zettabyte File System, introduced with Solaris 10 and made available to the open source community in OpenSolaris. NFS is not quite dead or obsolete yet (in fact it's still improving with Version 4 in the make), but eventually NFS has to give way to ZFS.

ZFS has so many innovative features that it may take some time before storage admins can wrap their arms around it. Imagine never having to check your systems for data integrity because it's guaranteed by the file system. Add built-in logical volume management and RAID management, then stretch capacity to a galactic dimension, a one followed by 21 zeroes. In short, ZFS hides many dirty details of storage administration, and it can scale as far as it is physically possible to go. As we noted in our review, ZFS is the best file system we've ever seen, and it belongs to the open source community. Just don't expect to find it in your favorite Linux distro quite yet.

FreeNAS takes our Bossie for best open source NAS server. FreeNAS is far and away the most mature open source NAS platform, built on a FreeBSD base and backed by an active community. Providing CIFS, NFS, FTP, iSCSI, RSYNC, and AFP (Apple File Protocol) support, not to mention software RAID 0, 1, and 5, FreeNAS covers just about all the bases for storage, and wraps them in an attractive Web management interface. To get in this game, all you need is a server and some disk. Even better, FreeNAS can be easily installed on a Compact Flash drive or a USB key, so none of the core OS actually lives on the storage drives, thus making it far less vulnerable to hardware failure. Its performance is dependent on the hardware used, and it's not likely to beat an EqualLogic iSCSI SAN in a head-to-head, but for free it can't be beat.

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