New cloud storage services for Microsoft Azure at Ignite 2018

At its Ignite 2018 conference, Microsoft announced Data Box hardware appliances that will allow cloud ingestion to tens or hundreds of TB, the availability of its Avere vFXT cloud NAS and cloud storage based on NVMe flash.

The first of these, Azure Data Box, allows migration of data in volume to the Microsoft cloud through a series of physical appliances. This is the Redmond giant’s response to Amazon Web Services’ (AWS) SnowBall Edge. It allows enterprises to dump large quantities of data into Azure without having to traverse the WAN.

The Data Box offering comprises two appliances deliverable by rapid courier service, dubbed Data Box and Data Box Heavy, with capacities of 80TB and 800TB useable respectively.

The appliances come ready to connect to the enterprise network by multiple Ethernet interfaces that range from 10Gbps to 40Gbps. The first comes in ruggedised server format while the second comes as a mini rack on wheels. The two appliances offer file access as well as via Microsoft’s Rest Azure Blob application programming interface (API).

Once Data Box hardware is connected to the network and configured, it is possible to transfer data in volume, including backups, archiving and unstructured data. When the transfers are completed the appliances are couriered back to Microsoft, which puts the content into Azure Blob or File.

Prices are €210 for the standard Data Box service and €1,686 for the Heavy version, with a credit of 10 and 20 days respectively for data transfer.

Every day on top of those 10 or 20 days used for filling the appliances is billed at €12.65 and €42.17 respectively. To this cost, delivery charges must be added (€95 for Data Box and €1,500 for Heavy).

The Data Box offer also includes two connected appliances – the Data Box Gateway and Edge. As the name suggests, the Gateway allows data transfer to Azure using protocols in use in the enterprise. It supports server message block (SMB) and network file system (NFS) as ingest protocols to Azure Blob Storage.

The Data Box Edge has similar functions to the Gateway device but is conceived of as a local cache for internet of things (IoT) applications. The appliance, which is in the form of a 1U Dell-produced server, has a small amount of local storage capacity to collect, for example, collected telemetry data and process it locally.

In this way, Microsoft aims to support Azure Machine Learning on the local device with specialised field-programmable gate array (FPGA) cards made available for Data Box Edge to support this.

The FPGA card is the outcome of developments in Microsoft’s Project Brainwave, whose mission is to allow real time machine learning functions. This is similar to Google’s tensor Processing Unit, which is also dedicated processing hardware for artificial intelligence (AI).

Microsoft has not explained if the card is the one based on Intel’s Stratix10 FPGA like the prototype it showed a year ago at the HotChips conference.

Avere vFXT available in Azure

At the event, Microsoft also presented a preview of its Avere vFXT service in Azure. Microsoft acquired the NAS acceleration specialist at the beginning of this year.

Avere vFXT allows for deployment of high performance NAS capability on-premise or in the cloud while leaning on Microsoft Azure Blob Storage at the back end.

Until now, the vFXT system has only been available for Google and Amazon’s object storage services. Microsoft has indicated it will continue to support the storage services of its competitors, which could be seen as a way of avoiding the errors made following its purchase of StorSimple’s gateways in 2012.

The Azure  version of vFXT will be generally available from 31 October. Microsoft’s principle selling point will be that – compared to offerings in AWS and Google Cloud Platform – the cost of vFXT nodes in Azure will be be zero, although capacity used will be charged for.

High performance storage options

Microsoft has also added more high performance options in Azure.

The first is Azure Ultra SSD Managed Disks, which is – for now – in pre-release. It is based on NVMe flash storage and allows for up to 160,000 IOPS per disk, with latency at less than a millisecond.

According to Microsoft, the product will be available in capacities that range from 4Tb to 64TB. The offer adds to the existing standard SSD managed disks, which is now generally available.

Microsoft has also announced the launch of Azure Premium Files, which is a file access service compatible with the SMB protocol and is intended to provide a level of performance higher than the existing Azure Files.

The number of NAS systems in Azure have multiplied in recent months. In addition to Azure Files and vFXT, Microsoft has announced the availability of Azure NetApp Files. This is based on NetApp’s OnTap operating system and is currently in public pre-release on a subscription basis.

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