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VMware Virtual SAN, Flash Read Cache, Virsto highlight storage plans

VMware Virtual SAN, VMware vSphere Flash Read Cache and Virsto play big roles in VMware's software-defined storage strategy.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Like EMC Corp. did at EMC World 2013, VMware Inc. is using the VMworld 2013 conference to pump up its software-defined storage strategy.

VMware executives are emphasizing software-defined storage as part of their overall software-defined data center plans. Software-defined storage is also the next step in the virtual server vendor's strategy of building software management features into its hypervisors.

VMware made three product announcements today to open the show: availability of the public beta of the VMware Virtual SAN (vSAN) software that clusters storage on servers and flash; inclusion of VMware vSphere Flash Read Cache (formerly vFlash) as part of vSphere 5.5; and availability of VMware Virsto virtual machine (VM) acceleration software. Virsto isn't a new product -- the software VMware launched today is the same Virsto was selling when VMware acquired the startup last February.

According to VMware, software-defined storage is enabled when heterogeneous storage resources are abstracted into logical pools, and consumed and managed through application-centric policy-based automation.

The VMware Virtual SAN product is a big part of what VMware is trying to accomplish in storage management. VSANs allow customers to build storage pools across solid-state drives (SSDs) and hard drives. They cluster SSDs and hard drives from multiple hosts and present storage as a shared data store. A vSAN scales out so customers can expand capacity by adding new hosts or capacity inside servers already in the cluster. The VMware vSAN includes read-write SSD caching and policy-based management for tuning storage.

"One of the key aspects is [that] it is hardware-agnostic," said Alberto Farronato, VMware's director of storage and availability product marketing. "It plays with any server hardware you're using. It's a complete self-tuning entity that monitors utilization and compliance service levels of each VM, and self-adjusts itself to make sure service levels are delivered."

The vSAN also has high-availability features through its SSD read-write cache mirroring and distributed RAID on hard drives. Customers can set a policy to have copies of data written to different hosts or drives, so data is still available if a drive fails. If an entire host is lost, the VM will start on a different host using vSphere High Availability (HA) and reconnect to the available copies. That limits downtime to the time it takes to reboot the VM.

VMware Virtual SAN is a separately licensed product within vSphere 5.5 and is managed from the vSphere Web Client. VMware has run a private beta program since early this year, and customers can sign up for the public beta here.

VMware vSphere Flash Read Cache is another vSphere 5.5 feature, available in the vSphere Enterprise Plus edition. It virtualizes server-side flash to provide per-VM, hypervisor-based read caching to accelerate application performance. Flash Read Cache works with VMware vMotion, VMware Distributed Resource Scheduler and VMware HA features.

"It allows customers to have vMotion-consistent caching, which is not available today with flash," Farronato said. "That limits adoption of flash in virtualized environments."

Virsto runs as a virtual appliance on top of vSphere and optimizes block storage performance by capturing random I/O write traffic and making it sequential.

Farronato said he sees Virsto as a good fit for companies running a virtual desktop infrastructure or doing a lot of snapshots and clones for test/dev or virtualized databases.

VMware's latest storage developments are part of a years-long process of tying its hypervisors more tightly into storage.

"These changes will profoundly change the connection to storage arrays and obviate much of the previous work done," Wikibon chief technology officer David Floyer wrote in the analyst firm's recent report on VMware's role in the data center. "Wikibon expects that the hybrid and flash-only vendors will integrate much more aggressively with the new integration points, despite the best efforts of [VMware parent company] EMC to slow them down by not giving them early access to the APIs.

"The result of this," he noted, "should be a much larger group of storage arrays that will be integrated into VMware storage APIs in 2014 and much better storage integration."

VMware's Farronato said his company can only achieve its goals by working with storage system vendors.

"We clearly plan to work on storage path innovation with our storage partner ecosystem," he said. "It's impossible to do it in any other shape or form."

There has been speculation in the industry that VMware would like to take some of the storage management out of the hands of storage administrators and put it into the hands of virtualization admins.

But those admin roles are increasingly emerging in many organizations. Ed Ricks, CIO of Beaufort Memorial Hospital in South Carolina, said his eight-person IT team allows for little specialization. "We have a lot of cross-training on our virtualization, storage, server build-out and desktop management," he said. "It's a small group, and they do a little of everything. One guy is more dedicated to storage, one is more dedicated to virtual servers and desktop build-out, but they all do a little bit of cross-training."

Ricks is scheduled to host a session on securing mobile solutions at VMworld, but said he is also looking forward to walking the show floor to see products across all IT disciplines. "I want to see what's out there, what's new and what's available," he said. "Obviously, EMC [his storage vendor] will want to talk to me about things they're working on and what could be in our path, but I want to know about everything out there."

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