The Jurassic Park Effect: Part 2

The Jurassic Park Effect: Part 2

September 18

In part 1, we covered why NAS OSes are a half-baked idea.

Let’s dig a little deeper into how this is like a dinosaur theme park gone awry.

The Fallacy

The logic often applied to looking at a NAS OS is that they are “easy to set up.” This may or may not be true; after all, easy is a relative term in this case. The NAS OS has to be simpler or more functional in comparison to the standard version of the same operating system for it to be truly easier.

In the case of FreeNAS, we would be comparing it to FreeBSD. FreeNAS would need to be appreciably easier to set up than FreeBSD for the same dedicated functions. And this is easily true, as the initial setup of a NAS OS is generally very simple. But this ease is not universal, and IT professionals need to be alert.

Making something easy to set up is not a priority in IT – making something that is easy to operate and repair when problems surface is what’s important. Easy to set up is nice, but if it comes at a cost of not understanding how the system is configured and makes operational repairs more difficult, it becomes a very, very bad thing.

NAS OS products routinely make it dangerously easy to get a product into production for a storage role, which is almost always the most critical or nearly the most critical role of any server in an environment, that IT has no experience or likely skill to maintain, operate or, most importantly, fix when something goes wrong.

We need exactly the opposite: a system that is easy to operate and fix. That is what matters. So we have a second case of “standing on the shoulders of giants” and building a system that we knew we could, but did not know if we should.

Easier Isn’t Always Better

What exacerbates this problem is that the very people who feel the need to turn to a NAS OS to “make storage easy” are, by the very nature of the NAS OS, the exact people for whom operational support and the repair of the system is most difficult.

System administrators who are comfortable with the underlying OS would naturally not see a NAS OS as a benefit and avoid it, for the most part. It is uniquely the people for whom it is most dangerous to run a not fully understood storage platform that are likely to attempt it.

Furthermore, most NAS OS vendors earn their money on post-installation support calls for customers who deployed and got stuck once they were in production so that they are at the mercy of the vendors for exorbitant support pricing. It is in the interest of the vendors to make it easy to install and hard to fix.

Everything here is working against the user.

A Real-World Example

If we take a common example and look at FreeNAS, we can see how this is a poor alignment of “difficulties.”

FreeNAS is FreeBSD with an additional interface on top. Anything that FreeNAS can do, FreeBSD can do. There is no loss of functionality by going to FreeBSD. When something fails, in either case, the system administrator must have a good working knowledge of FreeBSD in order to exact repairs. There is no escaping this.

FreeBSD knowledge is common in the industry and getting outside help is relatively easy. Using FreeNAS adds several complications, the biggest being that any and all customizations made by the FreeNAS GUI are special knowledge needed for troubleshooting on top of the knowledge already needed to operate FreeBSD. So this is a large knowledge set as well as more things to fail. It is also a relatively uncommon knowledge set as FreeNAS is a niche storage product from a small vendor and FreeBSD is a major enterprise IT platform (plus all use of FreeNAS is FreeBSD use but only a tiny percentage of FreeBSD use is FreeNAS).

In the end, using a NAS OS just adds risk over and over again.

Community Matters

This same issue carries over into the communities that grow up around these products.

If you look to communities around FreeBSD, Linux or Windows for guidance and assistance, you’ll deal with large numbers of IT professionals, skilled system admins and those with business and enterprise experience. Of course, hobbyists, the uninformed and others participate too, but these are the enterprise IT platforms and all the knowledge of the industry is available to you when implementing these products.

Compare this to the community of a NAS OS. By its very nature, only people struggling with the administration of a standard operating system and/or storage basics would look at a NAS OS package and so this naturally filters the membership in their communities to include only the people from whom we would be best to avoid getting advice. This creates an isolated culture of misinformation and misunderstanding around storage and storage products. Myths abound, guidance often becomes reckless and dangerous, and industry best practices are ignored as if decades of accumulated experience had never happened.

It’s also very common for a NAS OS to have delays in patching and updates. A NAS OS will almost always and almost necessarily trail its parent OS on security and stability updates and will very often follow months or years behind on major features.

In one very well-known scenario, OpenFiler was built on an upstream non-enterprise base (RPath Linux) which lacked community and vendor support. RPath eventually failed and was abandoned, leaving downstream users (including everyone on OpenFiler) without an ecosystem to support them.

Using a NAS OS means trusting not just the large, enterprise, and well-known primary OS vendor that makes the base OS, but trusting the NAS OS vendor as well. And the NAS OS vendor is orders of magnitude more likely to fail if they are basing their products on enterprise class base OSes.

Don’t Forget the Storage

Storage is a critical function and should not be treated lightly or ignored.

NAS OSes tempt us to install quickly and forget, hoping that nothing ever goes wrong or that we can move on to other roles or companies completely before bad things happen. It sets us up for failure where failure is most impactful.

When a typical application server fails, we can always copy the files off of its storage and start fresh.

When storage fails, data is lost and systems go down.

jurassic park pirates of the carribbean

Lessons Learned

When storage fails, businesses fail.

Taking the easy route to setting up storage and ignoring the long term support needs and seeking advice from communities that have filtered out the experienced storage and systems engineers increases risk dramatically.

Sadly, the very reason that people usually turn to a NAS OS (lack of deep technical knowledge to build the systems) is the very reason they must avoid it (even greater need for support). The people for whom NAS OSes are effectively safe to use – those with very deep and broad storage and systems knowledge – would rarely consider these products because they offer no additional benefits beyond the core OS they are based on.

At the end of the day, while the concept of a NAS OS sounds wonderful, it is not the easy solution that many users are looking for; the value of a NAS does not carry over from the physical appliance world to the installed OS world. The value of standard OSes is far too great for NAS OSes to effectively add any real value.

Dr. Alan Grant: “Hammond, after some consideration, I’ve decided not to endorse your park.
John Hammond: “So have I.”

Photo by Scott Kinmartin