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vSphere storage changes bring opportunities for VARs

Find out the changes to vSphere storage that VMware introduced in Version 5 of the server virtualization platform, as well as what they mean for your SMB and enterprise customers’ storage systems.

VMware released vSphere 5 in late August, bringing forth a number of new features, upgrades and changes in licensing to the server virtualization platform. Much of this release centered around storage and storage management. This tip will briefly describe these vSphere storage-related enhancements and discuss what they mean for end users and VARs.

Storage Distributed Resource Scheduler

Analogous to the existing Distributed Resource Scheduler, Storage DRS places new VMs on the appropriate storage tiers, according to policies set for each VM and according to the definitions established for each tier. Then, it load-balances the system using Storage vMotion according to those polices.

It’s no secret that storage is the biggest problem that users have when deploying the VMware platform. Provisioning capacity and performance (especially IOPS) are challenges for VMware environments of all sizes and have spawned a number of products and companies. VMware sees this as a roadblock to further penetration in existing accounts so the company is doing something about it.

Storage DRS is an automated tiering, load balancing feature that’s designed to put the right VMs onto the right storage resources at the right time. To some extent it will compete with automated tiering functionality that many storage arrays now offer and with some other automated resource management tools as well.

VMware seems to indicate this is kind of a set-and-forget feature, saying in its press documents: “By automating the ongoing resource allocations, Storage DRS will eliminate the need for IT to monitor or intervene, while ensuring the VM maintains the service level defined by its policy.” Call me skeptical, but I suspect users will still want to check back from time to time to see how things are going. Seriously, what this does mean is that VMware has acknowledged the problems that storage can present for its customers, and VARs need to do the same.

Profile-Driven Storage

The Profile-Driven Storage mechanism allows users to define the storage tiers to be used by Storage DRS and Storage vMotion. Users can group storage resources and label them, typically to match required service levels or cost.

vStorage APIs for Storage Awareness  

The vStorage APIs for Storage Awareness (VASA) are a companion to vStorage APIs for Array Integration (VAAI), which help vCenter understand the configuration and status of storage resources, including the RAID levels established and the presence of services such as thin provisioning and replication. The Storage DRS and Profile-Driven Storage functions use the intelligence captured by VASA in their processes as well.

vSphere Storage Appliance

The vSphere Storage Appliance (VSA) is VMware’s entry into the storage market, sort of. It’s a software-based NAS system that runs as a virtual machine (VM) and creates shared storage from the direct-attached storage (DAS) that's connected to the ESX/i server. It can be deployed in clusters of two or three VSA appliances, one per host, enabling vMotion and vSphere High Availability (HA) without dedicated external storage.


vSphere 5 allows users to run VMs that are four times as powerful as in vSphere 4, with up to 1 TB of RAM and 32 virtual CPUs. A new feature called Auto Deploy will help large environments roll out new VMs faster and easier. The new licensing, focused on “virtual pooled memory” instead of physical CPU cores, is clearly aimed at larger, shared VMware environments, like those supporting cloud computing. According to VMware, these changes represent “an evolution” of the product’s licensing model, giving customers a more “cloud-like, pay-for-consumption experience.”

VAR opportunity: SMBs

VMware has pushed some features into the Enterprise and Enterprise Plus pricing levels, which may frustrate small-business customers. But the real news for small-business users is the vSphere Storage Appliance, which makes it easier for small-business customers to have shared storage. Since shared storage is required to access much of what vSphere now includes, this may enable smaller users who don’t have a SAN or NAS to take advantage of vMotion, HA and other functions that are available.

VARs with clients in this space can help them understand how to best use this new vSphere storage resource and certainly be there when they’re ready to move up to a more traditional shared storage infrastructure. After all, VSA is limited to the amount of capacity that can be put into a single host and what it can support on a direct-attached basis.

VAR opportunity: Enterprises

vSphere 5 has put a focus on storage provisioning and management. While these new features could help address resource allocation issues and improve efficiency, they won’t solve all the storage performance problems that companies have. In larger environments, the opportunity for VARs will be to pick up on this emphasis and provide options that help address storage performance issues.  

Historically, one problem has been that storage management includes providing storage services such as snapshots, clones and thin provisioning. When run on the hypervisor, these functions can generate a significant amount of overhead, something that can adversely affect performance. There are solutions available for VARs to sell that can address this issue by taking some of this storage overhead off the host server and maintaining performance, even while using existing storage assets. 

While VMware continues to improve its ability to manage storage, in general, VARs should recognize that VMware won't completely solve their customers’ storage performance and provisioning challenges. In virtualization, like so many other areas (shared storage, backup, etc.), the most effective solutions typically require the integration of best-of-breed components from different vendors, something that VARs are uniquely qualified to do. 

Eric Slack is a senior analyst with Storage Switzerland.

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