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Effectively implement Azure Ultra Disk Storage

Ultra Disk Storage delivers consistent performance and low latency for I/O-intensive workloads. Learn why it's solving latency problems and where you can use Azure Ultra Disk.

In August 2019, Microsoft announced the general availability of a new Managed Disks tier: Ultra Disk Storage. The new offering represents a significant step up from the other Managed Disks tiers, offering unprecedented performance and sub-millisecond latency to support mission-critical workloads.

The Ultra Disk tier addresses organizations reluctant to move data-intensive workloads to the cloud because of throughput and latency requirements.

According to Microsoft, Azure Ultra Disk Storage makes it possible to support these workloads by delivering next-generation storage technologies geared toward performance and scalability, while providing you with the convenience of a managed cloud service.

Understanding Azure Ultra Disk

Managed Disks is an Azure feature that simplifies disk management for infrastructure-as-a-service storage. A managed disk is a virtual hard disk that works much like a physical disk, except that the storage is abstracted and virtualized. Azure stores the disks as page blobs, in the form of random I/O storage objects.

To use managed disks, you only have to provision the necessary storage resources and Azure does the rest, deploying and managing the drives.

Azure offers four Managed Disks tiers: Standard HDD, Standard SSD, Premium SSD and the new Ultra Disk Storage, which also builds on SSD technologies. Ultra Disk SSDs support enterprise-grade workloads driven by systems such as MongoDB, SQL Server, SAP HANA and high-performing, mission-critical applications. The latest storage tier comes with configurable performance attributes, making it possible to adjust IOPS and throughput to meet evolving performance requirements.

Azure Ultra Disk Storage implements a distributed block storage architecture that uses NVMe to support I/O-intensive workloads. NVMe is a host controller interface and storage protocol that accelerates data transfers between data center systems and SSDs over a computer's high-speed PCIe bus.

Ultra Disk Storage makes it possible to utilize a VM's maximum I/O limits using only a single ultra disk, without needing to stripe multiple disks.

Along with the new storage tier, Azure introduced the virtual disk client (VDC), a simplified client that runs on the compute host. The client has full knowledge of the virtual disk metadata mappings in the Azure Ultra Disk cluster. This knowledge enables the client to communicate directly with the storage servers, bypassing the load balancers and front-end servers often used to establish initial disk connections.

With earlier Managed Disk storage tiers, the route was much less direct. For example, Azure Premium SSD storage is dependent on the Azure Blob storage cache. As a result, the compute host runs the Azure Blob Cache Driver, rather than the VDC. The driver communicates with a storage front end, which, in turn, communicates with partition servers. The partition servers then talk to the stream servers, which connect to the storage devices.

The VDC, on the other hand, supports a more direct connection, minimizing the number of layers that read and write operations traverse, reducing latency and increasing performance.

Deploying Ultra Disk Storage

Azure Ultra Disk Storage lets you configure capacity, IOPS and throughput independently, providing the flexibility necessary to meet specific performance requirements. For capacity, you can choose a disk size ranging from 4 GiB to 64 TiB, and you can provision the disks with up to 300 IOPS per GiB, to a maximum of 160,000 IOPS per disk. For throughput, Azure supports up to 2,000 MB per second, per disk.

Ultra Disk Storage makes it possible to utilize a VM's maximum I/O limits using only a single ultra disk, without needing to stripe multiple disks. You can also configure disk IOPS or throughput without detaching the disk from the VM or restarting the VM. Azure automatically implements the new performance settings in less than an hour.

To deploy Ultra Disk Storage, you can use the Azure Resource Manager, Azure CLI or PowerShell. Ultra Disk Storage is currently available in three Azure regions: East US 2, North Europe and Southeast Asia. Microsoft plans to extend to other regions, but the company has not provided specific timelines. In addition, Ultra Disk Storage supports only the ESv3 and DSv3 Azure VMs.

Azure Ultra Disk handles data durability behind the scenes. The service is built on Azure's locally redundant storage (LRS), which maintains three copies of the data within the same availability zone. If an application writes data to the storage service, Azure will acknowledge the operation only after the LRS system has replicated the data.

When implementing Ultra Disk Storage, you must consider the throttling limits Azure places on resources. For example, you could configure your VM with a 16-GiB ultra disk at 4,800 IOPS. However, if you're working with a Standard_D2s_v3 VM, you won't be able to take full advantage of the storage because the VM gets throttled to 3,200 IOPS as a result of its limitations. To realize the full benefits available to Ultra Disk Storage, you need hardware that can support its capabilities.

Where Ultra Disk fits in the Managed Disk lineup

Azure Managed Disks simplify disk management by handling deployment and management details behind the scenes. Currently, Azure provides the following four storage options for accommodating different workloads.

The Standard HDD tier is the most basic tier, providing a reliable, low-cost option that supports workloads in which IOPS, throughput and latency are not critical to application delivery. For this reason, the Standard HDD tier is well suited to backup and other non-critical workloads. The maximum disk size for this tier is 32,767 GiB, the maximum IOPS is 2,000 and the maximum throughput is 500 MiB per second.

The Standard solid-state drive tier offers a step up from the Standard HDD tier to support workloads that require better consistency, availability, reliability and latency. The Standard SSD tier is well suited to web servers and lightly used applications, as well as development and testing environments. The maximum disk size for this tier is 32,767 GiB, the maximum IOPS is 6,000 and the maximum throughput is 750 MiB per second.

Prior to the release of the Ultra Disks tier, the Premium SSD tier was the top offering in the Managed Disks stack. The Premium tier is geared toward production and performance-sensitive workloads that require greater performance than the lower tiers. This tier can benefit mission-critical applications that support I/O-intensive workloads. The maximum disk size for this tier is 32,767 GiB, the maximum IOPS is 20,000 and the maximum throughput is 900 MiB per second.

The Ultra Disks tier is the newest Managed Disks service available to customers. The new tier takes performance to the next level, delivering high IOPS and throughput, with consistently low latency. Customers can dynamically change performance settings without restarting their VMs. The Ultra Disks tier targets data-intensive applications such as SAP HANA, Oracle Database and other transaction-heavy workloads. The maximum disk size for this tier is 65,536 GiB, the maximum IOPS is 160,000 and the maximum throughput is 2,000 MiB per second.

Because Ultra Disk Storage is a new Azure service, it comes with several limitations. The service is available in only a few regions and works with only a couple types of VMs. Additionally, you cannot attach an ultra disk to a VM running in an availability set. The service also does not support snapshots, VM scale sets, Azure disk encryption, Azure Backup or Azure Site Recovery. You can't convert an existing disk to an ultra disk, but you can migrate the data from an existing disk to an ultra disk.

Despite these limitations, Azure Ultra Disk Storage could prove to be an asset to organizations that plan to move their data-intensive applications to the cloud. No doubt Microsoft will continue to improve the service, extending their reach to other regions and addressing the lack of support for other Azure data services, but that hasn't happened yet, and some IT teams might insist that these issues be resolved before they consider migrating their workloads. In the meantime, Ultra Disk Storage promises to be a service worth watching, especially for organizations already committed to the Azure ecosystem.

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