Whamcloud to Put New Sheen on Lustre

The founders of Lustre software technology company Whamcloud openedfor business in June with a lot of potential and years of experienceworking with high-performance computing. What they lacked from theirfirst day was any signed contracts.

Whamcloud Cofounder and CEO Brent Gorda still is waiting to sign thedotted line with his company’s first customer. Given the popularity ofthe open source Lustre project, he is sure that will only take a bitlonger to achieve.

Having a commercial company serving as a front office for Lustretechnology is viewed as a mighty big deal by the Lustre community.Lustre is a parallel file system that runs across clusters of storageservers to provide the high data bandwidth that supercomputersrequire. It was developed through funding from the U.S. Department ofEnergy.

“We have potential customers vying for that first announcement,” Gordatold LinuxInsider.

What It Does

Whamcloud added refinements to the Lustre project software. Since thesupercomputing field is a niche market, little specialized productsupport outside the community itself is available to users. That iswhere Whamcloud steps in.

Its development of Lustre is producing a software productthat runs significantly faster in the cloud and does so in a mannerthat is much closer to the look and feel of an NFS file system,according to Gorda. So you get a file system that can operate atdramatically faster speeds and resiliency in the face of error.

Supercomputing hardware runs 10,000 or 20,000 disk drives all day.So you can image the problem if you keep losing data from the drivesthat fail, he explained.

The software makes sense of all of that and also allows the system the aggregateperformance that those disks can provide to the system. On othercomputing platforms, data is saved to a disk nearby or at a remoteserver. Lustre software spreads that file across 5,000 or 10,000disks, depending on a lot of different factors.

Full Speed Ahead

“When all of those disks operate in parallel, that’s where you getthe speed. You need the resiliency because at any time one or more ofthose disks could be dropping out. So that is a key thing,” Gordanoted about how Whamcloud is improving Lustre.

In the high-performance community there are feature requests toincrease the performance or do it over a wide area. To meet thatfunctionality, Whamcloud is conducting tests over the next few monthsinvolving storing data at 100 GB per second on a network, Gordaexplained.

“That is dramatically faster than any of the standard storage thatpeople can do now,” he said.

Fragmented Market

In the world of supercomputing, one size definitely does not fit all.That may be a condition that Whamcloud is planning to challenge.

The Lustre technology came out of the U.S. National Laboratories. Itis currently one of two competing products to handle the parallel filesystem used in high-performance computing. It is the only open sourceproject. IBM developed a proprietary file system.

This is a fragmented market. Not one of the parallel file systemsfully meets the needs of all users. Cluster systems are growing so fast insize that it’s difficult for any one system to keep pace, SteveConway, research vice president for high performance computing atresearch firm IDC, told LinuxInsider.

“Lustre is a real Cinderella story,” said Gorda. He sees his companyas producing the magic slippers.

One of the things that makes Whamcloud’s version of the Lustresoftware unique is that it is neutral with respect to hardware. So allof the leading hardware will run this software. Whamcloud will helpits eventual customers maintain it.

“We have a hardware-agnostic solution. It is definitely Lustre on theLinux operating system. But the hardware behind it — the RAIDcontrollers and the disks the enclosures and all that — arecompletely agnostic,” he said.

Community Blessing

Jumping into a business with only potential customers in tow is risky, but given the niche high-performancecomputing market, Whamcloud hopes to offer what nobody else isproviding. Plus, the Lustre community is strongly behind the effort.Whamcloud’s founders have a long history with development of Lustretechnology in its formative years.

Peter Braam was a researcher at Carnegie Mellon Universitywho founded the Lustre Project [*Correction – Aug. 24, 2010]. He also founded Cluster File Systems(CFS) to provide commercial support for the parallel file system in2001.

Some five years later, Sun Microsystems bought CFS for its HPC businessand merged it with its own Zettabyte File System (ZFS). Now Oracleowns the project as a result of buying Sun in January. Brent Gordapreviously worked on the development of Luster at the U.S. DoE.

Plus, Gorda worked for many years on Lustre at National Laboratory.Eric Barton is Whamcloud’s chief technology officer. He worked atLawrence Livermore National Laboratory and later became a principalengineer for Lustre after Sun bought CFS.

You’re Hired!

“We believe in this technology and in high-performance computing,” said Gorda.

The birth of the company resulted from a love affair with the LustreProject community and a sweatheart deal with investors. The communityfelt that support for Lustre and its continued development had to bein the hands of a serious company. So community leaders lobbied Gordaand Eric Barton to step out of their comfortable roles at NationalLabs and Oracle and really put their money where their mouths were,said Gorda.

“We took [US]$10 million, which we believe is a nice amount to keep usliving from hand to mouth. But we also have significant communityinterests. The community of high-performance people come fromgovernment labs around the world as well as large businesses,” Gordasaid.

Whamcloud’s founders found an open-arms reception. That has beenextremely encouraging, he added.

Polishing Lustre’s Shine

Whamcloud’s goal is to push the technology forward to the next levelof performance in high-performance computing. The hardest part: establishing mindshare. Each time Gorda talks to agroup of people about Whamcloud and the Lustre technology, eachlistener hears something different.

For example, Gorda said he had recently spoken to a group of potentialcustomers. Then, a short time later at a technology conference thosesame would-be customers announced that Whamcloud was already in theprocess of being acquired.

“So I’m finding that I have to spend a lot of my time just talking topeople and trying to show them that we are taking our time and tryingto do this in a controlled manner. It takes a lot to explain that wewant to become a strong player in the community,” he lamented.

Beyond Customer One

Whamcloud is focusing in the near term on the use of Lustre technologyas a speedster component for high-performance computing. Thattechnology is capable of controlling tens of thousands of hard drives.

The speed factor could become a hard-to-resist selling point forWhamcloud. The latest lab test results showed file saving and accessspeeds that surpass 240GB per second running on some 20,000 harddrives simultaneously, according to Gorda.

The supercomputing file system is a critical part of the work flow.The data volume has exceeded local storage capability.

“That means you no longer procure hard drives along with your supercomputer because then you have to store your data locally, impedingaccess to it from all users. Instead, data is stored on the network,”said Gorda.

Fast-Paced Market

The speed of Lustre’s performance is not the only thing acceleratedwith Whamcloud. The high-performance computing field itself has grownfast. Around the year 2000, Lustre became more valuable as the marketstarted using more common hardware, according to Conway.

“The market for supercomputing started growing at 20 percent per yearstarting around 2002. That $2 billion market grew into $8.6 billiontoday just for the hardware,” Conway said.

Clusters became the dominant species in high-performance computing.Now hardware fills up huge rooms with multiple systems hooked togetherwith lots of users wanting to share files, he said.

That demand for shared storage will open the door to cloud computingfor HPC users, noted Gorda. The current thinking is that merging cloudtechnology with HPC will create a synergy that will be very beneficialto both the Lustre technology and cloud computing, he explained.

“There is an overlap of technical requirements that is veryinteresting to us,” he said.

Room for One More

Lustre technology is largely a Sun Microsystems phenomenon now. But itis also an open source entity, much like a Linux developer, Conwaysaid.

“There is definitely room for other vendors coming in with commercialversions of Lustre. It does not belong wholly to Oracle. It is afragmented market. Lustre is improving, but it has a long way to go,”he said. “Anybody with the gumption to improve Lustre will be wellpositioned to participate in the anticipated growth of the market.”

That is exactly what Gorda plans to do through Whamcloud. Right now,all that is standing in this startup’s way is signing its first paying customer.

*ECT News Network editor’s note – Aug. 24, 2010: The original publication of this article incorrectly referred to Peter Braam as a Whamcloud cofounder. He is not an actual cofounder of the company.

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