The Storage Impediment to Scaling Virtual Environments…

All this talk of cloud computing makes me wonder what Microsoft will do with Visio; instead of a vast array of controls for all the components of a data center, they’ll have one widget: “cloud”.

To be fair, the use of the term probably did derive from networking diagrams where connectivity was represented as a cloud – and as it became less important what the actual server infrastructure was to power the applications, it became natural to think of server farms as clouds and now with the prevalence of virtualization, the application cloud has become closer to a reality…

Speaking of reality, I attended VMworld 2009 in the Moscone Center and had a great time – the show was well done, the party with Foreigner was a blast, and interacting with customers and prospects was extremely educational and fulfilling. Our booth (located directly across from Surgient, a large-scale VM-hosting company and Isilon customer) was packed throughout the show.

We had a great demonstration of vSphere 4.0 against an Isilon 5400S cluster – showcasing the ease of use of using Scale-Out NAS with VMware; we hosted roughly 200 virtual machines across four ESX servers and had constant interest in the performance and simplicity of our solution.

I was surprised by how many individuals were considering deploying a NAS environment due to the complexities of their current SAN and how many were looking for an alternative to traditional NAS because they found it to be just as complex. The challenges in virtualization are the same that I hear every day – “our storage infrastructure isn’t scaling effectively.”

If you’re a visual learner, Intel recently posted my chalk talk entitled “Scale-Out Storage for Large Scale Server Virtualization,” which I gave at their booth during the show. I also recently wrote an article for the Virtualization Journal providing significant detail on why traditional storage systems have become the bottleneck for virtualized environments, but I’ll repeat some of those key points here:

  1. A virtual environment is very flexible, given the robust tools provided to IT administrators and the inherent abstraction away from the physical hardware.
  2. Virtual environments scale very quickly, given the reduced friction that deployment and management pose for IT administrators.
  3. Virtual environments have a wide-mix of workloads – CPU-bound, I/O bound, streaming, transactional, etc.

I’m really just saying one thing – a virtualized environment is extremely dynamic.

This poses a real challenge for a traditional storage environment, as these environments are built to be pre-provisioned for specific workloads, cannot be dynamically scaled in terms of performance and/or capacity, and provide significantly less utilization of the computing resources involved (CPU, cache, and memory). To make matters worse, as these environments scale, they become significantly more complex to manage and own. Traditional storage devices, both SAN and NAS, were built and designed at a time when workflows were static.

This is in stark contrast to a Scale-Out Storage platform, such as Isilon’s OneFS. OneFS is designed and built with the expectation that workloads will change significantly, that growth and requirements will scale quickly, and that this must all be done without increasing management complexity.

As Sam said, it’s all about simplicity, scalability efficiency, and reliability – which leads to significantly lower total cost of ownership.

What surprised me about VMworld was that the people I spoke to were all looking for a scalable storage platform – some knew it existed but were just starting to believe, whereas others were still in disbelief. Some had even resigned themselves to the idea that the storage was just always going to be the most painful part of their data center.

I remember one individual who came to our booth at least 5 times. The first time he was skeptical, but curious. By the end of the show (and literally, he came running back to the booth as they announced the floor was closed) he couldn’t stop exploring ways in which his application could be designed differently without building around the constraints of storage. It was refreshing – the same feeling you get on a bright, beautiful, clear sunny day.

About the Author: Nick Kirsch