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VMware: the next big storage vendor?

Re-envisaging the storage array

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Nowadays some of the most discussed topics in the storage industry are related to VMware: "VMware support and integration", "VMware-aware storage" and "storage features for VMware" are only a few examples of what I mean but, are we sure that the relationship between VMware and traditional storage will be so tight in the long term?

Right now storage is one of the most prominent spending items in a virtualised infrastructure and the storage vendors are all committed to show their love to VMware. But is VMware really working in the same direction as these suppliers?

Perhaps VMware has also found an interesting way to cut, in the long term, the storage costs of virtualised infrastructures.

Until now

During the years, VMware added a lot of features to its hypervisor (high availability, fault tolerance, network load balancing and security, etc) and, many of these features dramatically changed the way end users deal with different layers of their infrastructure. Hypervisor storage features are the latest big bet (i.e: Storage APIs like VAAI were introduced about a yeas ago) and development is progressing very quickly in two distinct directions.

On one side, features like VAAI (to offload some high demanding storage tasks directly into the storage controllers) and SIOC (to provide a fair access to storage resources) but, on the other side, the recent vSphere 5 announcement introduced many features into the virtualisation layer to enhance commodity storage!

The traditional VMware architectures imply the use of a shared storage (SAN or NAS) to store VMs and data coupled with stateless servers (i.e. blades). Today, shared storage is the only way to go to achieve the best performance, scalability and manageability results but this approach also brings the biggest costs. Indeed, customers are looking for new ways to save on storage costs while keep adding space and performance.

Changing the game (again)

SDRS (Storage DRS), VSA (Virtual Storage Appliance) and the redesigned SRM (Site Recovery Manager) are the first implementations of what we could see in a not-so-distant future: VMware will not need any external shared storage anymore!

Somewhat differently from what we see today we will have self-sustained VMware nodes (CPUs, RAM, Networking and local storage): the best VMware node will become the old fashioned 2RU server (with plenty of local fast and cheap storage), a couple of CPUs and 10GbitE ports!

The VSA (vSphere storage Appliance, now positioned for the SMB market) is a solution that brings shared storage benefits without adding complexity and costs. The VSA is a VM running in an ESXi host that uses local server storage to grant service to local VMs. It also replicates data to the other VSAs in the cluster to assure efficiency and availability.

Other vendors are working on their Virtual Storage Appliances and I'm sure we will see a lot of news coming in the next months: almost all the latest generation storage features (like automated tiered storage, data footprint reduction techniques and so on) could be added.

SDRS (storage DRS) could evolve to simplify and automate storage management granting the right facilities to virtual disks (I'm thinking about nodes with local SSDs or Flash cards and others with traditional, but more capacious disks). The SRS+SDRS duo will find the best fit for each VM in function of response priority, workload type, etc.

SRM (site recovery manager) has a new host-based replica feature and allows automated DR recovery operations; why spend much more for an array-based replica? Of course, at the moment, the SRM replica hasn't the same sophisticated features found in high-end storage systems but I'm sure VMware is working hard to improve it!

And the winners are…

If VMware continues in this way and is able to improve the features I mentioned above, we will see the beginning of a new "Storage for VMware" paradigm.

Internal PCI flash cards manufacturers and "dumb storage" manufacturers will win hands-down because costs and performance will be much lower than for traditional feature-rich SAN/NAS vendors.

But there's more; a new kind of appliance, like the recently introduced Nutanix, will have a chance to become very popular, the commodity node with little intelligence could be a great solution: simpler and better integrated than "integrated stacks" like the ones from HP, Dell, VCE and NetApp!

Bottom line

Obviously these are only conjectures and I don't know about VMware strategy and roadmaps, but customers are asking for cheaper storage options and easy to use, predictable performance/cost building blocks... aren't they? And, on the other hand, VMware is recognised for its ability to listen to its customers base… isn't it? So a re-interpretation of mainstream storage by VMware is quite a likely possibility. ®

Enrico Signoretti is the CEO of Cinetica, a small consultancy firm in Italy, which offers services to medium/large companies in finance, manufacturing, and outsourcing). The company has partnerships with Oracle, Dell, VMware, Compellent and NetApp. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/esignoretti.

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