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Building a Hybrid Cloud File System for Radical Simplicity

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Qumulo worked hard to design a file system for on-premises data centers and hybrid cloud environments that has very low internal operating overhead, so that it remains fast and efficient at today’s hyper-scale.

Before we wrote our first line of code, we spoke with many enterprise file system users and studied multiple industry-standard file system products to understand how they lost their way. One thing’s for sure, it’s hard work building a product that’s radically simple.

At the heart of every game-changing product, the visionionaries and creators likely began with a clean-sheet design and aspirations of making something truly revolutionary.

Yet, a revolutionary design is just the beginning. Truly great products hold tight to the ideals set forth in their beginnings. And this is the real challenge, since over time features are added, offerings become more complex, and the essence that made the product amazing to begin with can get lost in the shuffle.

At Qumulo, we pride ourselves on staying true to our guiding principles of building a modern enterprise file storage system for unstructured data that is radically simple, and providing a delightful customer experience in everything we do.

How a Product Journey Starts

The genesis of any great product is rooted in a superior solution to a problem. It stems from a firmly-held premise that the chosen approach is the right approach to solve a problem in the right way. It is the belief that the resulting product will be substantially better than alternatives, both in what it offers at launch and how it will be able to adapt to changing and unforeseen needs over its lifetime.

This is the “foundation bet,” and there are several such bets in any sophisticated product. At a product’s core, the foundational bets are not unlike the concrete foundations of a building. Once cast, they determine many characteristics and limitations of the product built atop them, and also like concrete they are difficult if not impossible to reshape later. These bets should be made through a combination of careful thought, experience, and intuition.

Make Your Bets, Then Make Progress

Once bets are placed, it can be years before the results are truly known. But at this stage, the task at hand is to build the product and not look back. If you make the right choices at this stage, your fledgling product can graduate to the next level.

Navigating Through the Details

Products live and die in the details. It’s the infinite list of feature refinements, changes, additions, and optimizations across various product releases and the way they are implemented that largely determines a product’s fate over the long run. An idealist might suggest you could develop a plan at the outset and build your product to its fullest realization according to that detailed plan. The reality is, if you are lucky enough to have customers depending on your product, you will learn of new use cases and new ways your product could work to serve them better, which you may not have planned on at all! If your foundation bets were the right ones, your product should have the flexibility to adapt.

The Detours Where Products Go Astray

Hindsight often reveals where great products lose their way. The thing is, a wayward product doesn’t happen after a few releases. It compounds over time. The astonishing part is, many companies can see their products straying from the original intent, release-by-release—and despite their customers sounding the alarm—are unable to correct the course. At Qumulo before we wrote our first line of code, we studied examples of enterprise file storage products that had lost their way in an effort to understand why. Here are some of the dead-ends that Qumulo has been careful to avoid on our product journey.

At the Cul-De-Sac

Ideally, the key decisions made when you placed your foundation bets will allow your product to flex to meet future needs down the road. If not, eventually your product gets stuck in a cul-de-sac where there’s little room for growth.

In Qumulo’s case, we knew that scale and portability would be critical for a hybrid cloud file system. In 2012, our founders bet that the architectural principles employed to make enormous databases fast and responsive could handily apply to a distributed cloud file system too, and the cloud would play a critical role in how data was created, shared and used. Along these lines, Qumulo worked hard to design a file system for on-premises data centers and hybrid cloud environments that has very low internal operating overhead so that it remains fast and efficient at today’s hyper-scale. As such, our software foundation was set up for scale far greater than any enterprise file storage system at the time, and this is still true today.

Along the Buck Pass

The Buck Pass is a dangerous road to travel. Building a sophisticated product guarantees your engineers and design teams will encounter some thorny problems. The most difficult are those with no clear answer… and it’s tempting to resort to passing the buck, so to speak. This often shows up in user preference settings… “Let ’s make a preference setting and let the customer decide what to do!” Passing the buck to the end user may seem sensible, but in our opinion, it’s lazy.

At Qumulo, building great enterprise file storage products that are simple to use means we need to take on weighty problems and find logical solutions to them, even where there is no obvious right answer. We approach these challenges from a customer’s point of view by imagining the situation in the real world, under pressure, and eliminate ambiguous or potentially dangerous decision points in our software to solve the problem and deliver powerful features that customers love to use.

At the Fork in the Road

And finally, we’ve seen more than one competitor’s product or platform take a fork in the road. When early bets turn out wrong or technical debt is unmanageable, some companies have no choice but to declare ‘product bankruptcy’ and go in a different direction typically with product extensions.

What’s most common is to implement a feature differently on different platforms, or drop support for some use cases. This may reduce product development time, but results in inconsistent behaviors and arbitrary exceptions that actually end up requiring increased support, multiple sets of documentation, and added complexity for engineering. Worst of all, it results in a broken experience for customers.

Qumulo Core—the technology foundation of our hybrid-cloud file data platform—runs the same code on any infrastructure whether the hardware is in the data center on-premises, or a private cloud or public cloud. All our enterprise file system software features and user interface work identically on all platforms, and a customer’s file data flows freely among any Qumulo instance.

Radical Simplicity: The Hard Work of Staying on Course

What does radically simple mean? For Qumulo, it means a file data platform that is incredibly powerful yet friendly and above all logical.

For example, Qumulo Core 4.0, like all previous releases is built on an adaptable, hybrid-cloud product architecture that is software-first (reducing its dependencies on specific infrastructure), cloud native, inherently scalable, and designed to be iterated on with software releases every two weeks.

Radical simplicity means features that work consistently on every platform. Features that are tested under a wide array of conditions to ensure they work as expected. It means abstracting our customers from worrying about the infrastructure, so they can focus on their data. Administrators control their data visually, with a real-time analytics dashboard that provides instant answers and saves hours or days of work common on other systems.

As you may be gathering by this point, building an experience with this level of simplicity is not simple to do. It is only possible because of the foundational bets we made early on, and the principles and rigor we hold ourselves to every day as we build new features and capabilities into our massively scalable file data platform. We have several tenets that guide us here at Qumulo, but I’ll leave you with this one: “Do the hard, right thing.”

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