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VMware’s slow and steady attack on storage

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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.

16 Responses to “VMware’s slow and steady attack on storage”

  1. While interesting, it looks like this is only for primary storage. The real growth of storage that is wreaking havoc across the industry is in data that has gone stale; rarely accessed and/or retrieved. More companies keep more data for longer periods of time and the SAN/file system isn’t the best place for that. Would be even more interesting to see them extend an API from this SAN to cloud storage/content repository/archive seamlessly. Leveraging object storage technology using simple HTTP/RESTful interface would eliminate a lot of the headache as the capacity demand increases. Simple tiering model and/or direct use of object storage with no LUN provisioning and minimal admin requirements.

  2. Brian Alls

    There is no mention of performance in this article. I don’t see how this can scale very well. I think VSA might actually help storage vendors, because it will get more businesses to use VMotion and HA at a lower entry cost. Once they see how well those features work, they might be more willing to purchase a real SAN when this solution runs out of gas. Also if you are running your storage on the same boxes as your VMs, you will probably need to scale out to more ESX(i) hosts much sooner than if you run storage on a dedicated SAN.

      • David Schwartzstein

        You have to look at total cost of ownership, though. While VMWare VSA may appear to be cheaper due to a lower upfront cost, it could be potentially much costlier in the end. Granted, a very small business could be held over with this solution for a while, but the performance limitation of the filing protocol and the limitation of expansion to 3 nodes puts a buyer in the position of having to do a “forklift upgrade” anyway if their business expands beyond the capacity and performance capabilities (and I don’t know of any small business that wants to and intends to stay small, they all want to grow). At the “forklift” point, you’ll end up having to migrate to something like HP’s VSA or to a physical SAN – so the VMWare VSA is wasted cost, potentially the drives you bought for your servers to implement VMWare VSA are wasted cost (though HP’s VSA could mitigate this one), and costs associated with data migration to a new platform as well as any costs incurred by any potential downtime during the migration transition. It’s also worth noting that, for larger customers that would use VSA to support smaller branch sites in lieu of a hardware SAN, HP currently gives away multiple (up to 10) VSA licenses for free with selected P4000 models to support such a purpose when the enterprise buys hardware SANs for their larger site(s).

  3. thetrom

    Seems like a VMware paid article to me. This is all a bunch of nonsense. Storage and the applications need to work better together. Giving IT more control of the storage they consume is a good thing. Given storage admins the ability to engineer better storage solutions is a good thing. Storage is an enabler. Virtualization is an enabler. Automation is an enabler. Articles like this and hypervisor/OS zealots are the problem.

  4. steevojb

    lets not forget one of the reasons why SAN technology became an integral part of the data center. Do we really want to go back to hundreds of servers with their own internal disk and associated cost of ownership per server ? what are the license implications for VAAI ?

    • VSA is nothing more than a virtual SAN. It handles replication, and Storage DRS handles load balancing across the different pools for you. Total cost of ownership isn’t really that bad,and the VSA is really aimed at SMB anyways so TCO isn’t as big a deal here.

  5. David Schwartzstein

    I find it interesting how both Dell’s arrays got mentioned (Equalogic and Compellent), but not a single mention of HP – considering that HP’s P4000 is one of the best VAAI-integrated arrays on the market and practically idiot-proof for SMB, and in fact HP has a product for years called Virtual Storage Appliance (which they also abbreviate VSAVSA) that integrates with the P4000 or can be used as a standalone, but essentially does what VMWare’s VSA can and does it in a much less restrictive fashion (HP block storage vs. VMWare NFS storage, HP 16 node clusters vs. VMWare’s 3 nodes, and full integration into the P4000 stack for higher end features such as replication, snapshots, and clones)

  6. NOPE, cloud computing is total big brother, people hate big brother, this technology will fade away as public ressintment for corrupt government grows.

    I advise investers to stay awaY from this tech.