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VMware users want more for storage

Users say that VMware could add more storage capabilities or do more to align with storage software vendors.

In the wake of VMware Inc.'s Infrastructure 3 announcement this week, beta testers and users say the addition of native iSCSI capabilities, clustering and a centralized backup option are a step in the right direction, but they also want to be able to manipulate data more easily with virtual machines.

VMware also boosted the number of LUNs that can be assigned to a virtual disk from 128 to 256 and added distributed journaling inside the file system for faster recovery. The product already allows snapshots of the OS and VM settings. But mirroring virtual disks, striping VM data across physical disks, adding LUNs on the fly to virtual disk and snapshots of data are "things we don't do just yet that we may get around to doing," said Patrick Lin, technical director of product development for VMware.

"I hope they'll think seriously about it," said Tom Becchetti, a VMware user who asked that his company not be named. "People want to be able to do serverless, networkless backups. They want to do block-change maps."

Becchetti added that three months ago, VMware opened up APIs to other vendors, such as Double-Take Software, to make replication more efficient. "Why haven't they done this with backup vendors?" he asked. "The pieces are all there."

VMware also announced the ability to support high-availability (HA) dual-node server clusters using what Becchetti termed a "half-done VMotion," which he said was a good development. But it led him, he said, to question even further why capabilities like mirroring hadn't yet been made available.

"They're at the layer in the code to do that, at least mirroring at the virtual disk level."

Becchetti also said that volume management was so tricky for him with ESX that he would often use GSX instead with his Symantec NetBackup tool. "It works better, especially with Linux, to do volume management that way," he said. "But then we don't get the benefits of ESX, like shared memory."

Becchetti said he was also waiting for "one pane of glass" from VMware for performance monitoring purposes. "Right now if we have a performance problem, we have to use five different tools to figure out where it is," he said. "It takes a rocket scientist to figure out the issue."

According to Ray Brady, a technology manager in the network computing services division of Johnson & Johnson, and a leader of the Philadelphia Area VMware User's Group (PAVMUG), the addition of native iSCSI support is a welcome one. At a global company like Johnson & Johnson, being able to use VMware for server consolidation at branch offices and remote departments running NAS or IP SANs could save millions, he said.

But from the constituents of PAVMUG, Brady said he's hearing similar unease with the lack of monitoring tools and storage capabilities within ESX. "I think a lot of people are looking for things around better management tools, better performance monitoring tools. They could go to a third-party company, but what we hear is that a lot of people aren't familiar with who those companies are, and they'd rather see the tools within VMware improved instead."

As for native iSCSI support -- meaning that VMs will now recognize disk and communicate through a network other than Fibre Channel (FC) -- users approve.

According to David Siles, chief technology officer of Kane County, Ill., iSCSI compatibility support "baked in" to VMware will save him some $5,000 on the cost of emBoot initiators, which he uses to boot his servers, both physical and virtual, off the IP SAN.

"It's not all that big a cost," Siles said. "The cost I'm more interested in is the cost of a Fibre Channel system -- up to $500,000."

Kane County had been using a FC system from Network Appliance Inc. until last December, when expansion forced them to look at adding FC capacity, and Siles said he went looking for something less expensive. He found it in an EqualLogic Inc. IP SAN, with 15 terabytes usable capacity, and said he put up with using the emBoot initiators because "some off-the-record inside information" he got on VMware's version 3 told him he wouldn't need to deal with it for long.

"It was far cheaper to go with that and wait for VMware 3.0 than to go with a $500,000 FC system," he said.

Meanwhile, the new centralized backup feature, which allows users to offload backup jobs to a proxy server for staging, came too late for one user, Chris Resch, chief technology officer of OfficeWare Inc., who had been using an IP SAN but dumped it for FC last summer when he found his VMware backups were taking too long. Each of his virtual servers, which VMware stores as a file on the physical servers, was between 50 and 80 GB. Transferring those files over IP for backup or data migration took from an hour to 90 minutes apiece. Within weeks, the company was looking at a 12- to 18-hour backup window.

Resch also said that the network bottlenecks were unacceptable for his Windows systems, since Windows limits the number of pending network transactions.

Asked if the backup proxy server would have solved this issue for him, Resch said, "I don't know. I haven't tested that type of environment."

Instead, Resch went with a FC SAN from Compellent, cutting the backup window down to a more acceptable eight to 10 hours.

"I wouldn't spend the money on it," Siles said of the centralized backup option. He uses a tool from VizionCore Inc. to do hot backups of VMs to disk. "I would rather see VMware coordinate with SAN vendors to allow snapshots at the disk level, something Microsoft already says they're going to do with VSS in the next release of Windows."

Siles wouldn't comment on whether his "little birds" had told him any more about what VMware may have hidden up its sleeve. "Hopefully in a three-dot-something release, they'll be doing more, at least on snapshots," he said.

VMware's extraordinary growth

Meanwhile, at EMC Corp.'s analyst event in New York City Wednesday, CEO Joe Tucci predicted that, in two to three years' time, VMware would be a $1B business for EMC. VMware did about $140 million in the first quarter of this year and is growing at about 60+% Year-over-year; this prompted Wall Street analysts in the audience to ask why EMC doesn't spin out the company to unlock this value for shareholders.

"Since VMware began, its revenue has doubled every year, and yet since EMC bought the company, its own stock price has gone down," noted an analyst in the audience.

How many companies do you know give away their best assets?" Tucci replied. He said VMware is part of EMC's family and is better positioned for growth with the weight of EMC behind.

His comments fell on deaf ears among the Wall Street crowd who seem convinced that EMC is either greedily hanging on to the company to make the rest of its business look good, or they think it's a signal that VMware faces increased competition, and it's growth prospects are not as good as everyone expects.

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