VMware’s slow and steady attack on storage

VMware has transformed the enterprise computing model more than any other company in the past decade. By allowing companies to add multiple virtual servers onto a single physical server, the company kicked off the first building block behind the adoption of private and public cloud architectures — the abstraction of applications and operating systems from specific dedicated hardware. Now VMware is turning its disruption model toward storage.

With the release of vSphere 5 last month and a number of new storage-specific products, VMware is encroaching on storage. Many of these features are outlined in detail on the vSphere blog, currently up to an 11-part series on vSphere 5.0 storage features! While there are a few capabilities here, like the Virtual Storage Appliance (VSA), that make it easy to see the future, it is the breadth of the feature set and the reach of VMware’s tentacles into storage that add up to potentially significant moves. Let’s take a look at a few of the offerings.

The Virtual Storage Appliance is a new software product from VMware that allows customers to create storage area networks right on their existing servers. Before VSA, customers interested in taking full advantage of VMware’s capabilities like vMotion had to pony up for an expensive external storage area network from the likes of EMC (s emc) or NetApp (s ntap) at the high end or Compellent and EqualLogic (s dell) in the mid-market. But even the lower prices of Dell’s newly acquired storage products can be too much for a small company to swallow. And the skill set to manage external storage is not always at hand. Enter the Virtual Storage Appliance, which essentially carves out local storage on multiple servers and presents it as a shared resource to all the virtual machines.

It is somewhat ironic that the virtual storage appliance offers customers an option to avoid buying an external storage array, given that VMware is still majority-owned by EMC. And perhaps that is the reason why VMware has focused this offering at small to medium businesses, minimizing overlap with larger customers that tend to need EMC’s standard external storage wares. VMware states on its website that it intends to eliminate the “specialized knowledge in shared storage hardware” that was previously required for virtualization. But if history is to repeat itself in the data center, as it often does, then we can expect the virtual storage appliance to get better and better over time. We can also expect it to offer a wider customer base the option to just buy servers plus VMware licenses and be finished.

VMware also introduced new vSphere Storage APIs for Array Integration (VAAI). Essentially, these APIs allow more storage features to be operated and initiated directly from VMware management tools, somewhat obviating the need to spend more time managing your underlying storage arrays. New Profile Driven Storage allows administrators to assign specific storage requirements to virtual machines that will automatically be matched with the appropriate underlying storage resource. Along the same lines, Storage DRS enables the intelligent placement of virtual machines across data stores within a cluster. Here VMware is assuming the task of assessing which data stores in a group have the best performance and latency characteristics and automatically moving virtual machines between them.

Remember how adeptly VMware wedged its way in between the CPUs and operating systems? IT architects now pick a hypervisor first before almost anything else. And that choice is often VMware. Watch the wedge in the storage market now. Each feature may only be one step toward a greater storage portfolio, but together they represent a clear path. VMware is no longer satisfied to sit back and let storage vendors decide how best to optimize for virtual machines. It is taking its destiny into its own hands and reaching far and wide to grab more of the data center storage stack . . . slowly and steadily.

Be sure to catch the very latest VMware announcements at VMworld next week, August 29 to September 1, in Las Vegas.

Gary Orenstein is the host of The Cloud Computing Show.