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Some customers are afraid of thin provisioning…

Practically every week I have discussions with customers about leveraging thin provisioning to reduce their storage costs and just as often the customer pushes back worried that some day, some number of applications, for some reason, will suddenly consume all of their allocated space in a short period of time and cause the storage pool to run out of space.  If this was to happen, every application using that storage pool will essentially experience an outage and resolving the problem requires allocating more space to the pool, migrating data, and/or deleting data, each of which would take precious time and/or money.  In my opinion, this fear is the primary gating factor to customers using thin provisioning.  Exacerbating the issue, most large organizations have a complex procurement process that forces them to buy storage many months in advance of needing it, further reducing the usefulness of thin provisioning.  The IT organization for one of my customers can only purchase new storage AFTER a business unit requests it and approved by senior management; and they batch those requests before approving a storage purchase.  This means that the business unit may have to wait months to get the storage they requested.

This same customer recently purchased a Symmetrix VMAX with FASTVP and will be leveraging sub-LUN tiering with SSD, FC, and SATA disks totaling over 600TB of usable capacity in this single system.  As we began design work for the storage array the topic of thin provisioning came up and the same fear of running out of space in the pool was voiced.  To prevent this, the customer fully allocates all LUNs in the pool up front which prevents oversubscription.  It’s an effective way to guarantee performance and availability but it means that any free space not used by application owners is locked up by the application server and not available to other applications.  If you take their entire environment into account with approximately 3PB of usable storage and NO thin provisioning, there is probably close to $1 million in storage not being used and not available for applications.  If you weigh the risk of an outage causing the loss of several million dollars per hour of revenue, the customer has decided the risks outweigh the potential savings.  I’ve seen this decision made time and again in various IT shops.

Sub-LUN Tiering pushes the costs for growth down

I previously blogged about using cloud storage for block storage in the form of Cirtas BlueJet and how it would not be to much of a stretch to add this functionality to sub-LUN tiering software like EMC’s FASTVP to leverage cloud storage as a block storage tier as shown in this diagram.

Let’s first assume the customer is already using FASTVP for automated sub-LUN tiering on a VMAX.  FASTVP is already identifying the hot and cold data and moving it to the appropriate tier, and as a result the lowest tier is likely seeing the least amount of IOPS per GB.  In a VMAX, each tier consists of one or more virtual provisioned pools, and as the amount of data stored on the array grows FASTVP will continually adjust, pushing the hot data up to higher tiers and cold data down to the lower tiers  The cold data is more likely to be old data as well so in many cases the data sort of ages down the tiers over time and its the old/least used portion of the data that grows.  Conceptually, the only tier you may have to expand is the lowest (ie: SATA) when you need more space.  This reduces the long term cost of data growth which is great.  But you still need to monitor the pools and expand them before they run out of space, or an outage may occur.  Most storage arrays have alerts and other methods to let you know that you will soon run out of space.

Risk-Free Thin Provisioning

What if the storage array had the ability automatically expand itself into a cloud storage provider, such as AT&T Synaptic, to prevent itself from running out of space?  Technically this is not much different from using the cloud as a tier all it’s own but I’m thinking about temporary use of a cloud provider versus long term.  The cloud provider becomes a buffer for times when the procurement process takes too long, or unexpected growth of data in the pool occurs.  With an automated tiering solution, this becomes relatively easy to do with fairly low impact on production performance.  In fact, I’d argue that you MUST have automated tiering to do this or the array wouldn’t have any method for determining what data it should move to the cloud.  Without that level of intelligence, you’d likely be moving hot data to the cloud which could heavily impact performance of the applications.

Once the customer is able to physically add storage to the pool to deal with the added data, the array would auto-adjust by bringing the data back from the cloud freeing up that space.  The cloud provider would only charge for the transfer of data in/out and the temporary use of space.  Storage reduction technologies like compression and de-duplication could be added to the cloud interface to improve performance for data stored in the cloud and reduce costs.  Zero detect and reclaim technologies could also be leveraged to keep LUNs thin over time as well as prevent the movement of zero’d blocks to the cloud.

Using cloud storage as a buffer for thin provisioning in this way could reduce the risk of using thin provisioning, increasing the utilization rate of the storage, and reducing the overall cost to store data.

What do you think?  Would you feel better about oversubscribing storage pools if you had a fully automated buffer, even if that buffer cost some amount of money in the event it was used?

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I’ve been having some fun discussions with one of my customers recently about how to tackle various application problems within the storage environment and it got me thinking about the value of having “options”.  This customer has an EMC Celerra Unified Storage Array that has Fiber Channel, iSCSI, NFS, and CIFS protocols enabled.  This single storage system supports VMWare, SQL, Web, Business Intelligence, and many custom applications.

The discussion was specifically centered on ensuring adequate storage performance for several different applications, each with a different type of workload…

1.)  Web Servers – Primarily VMs with general-purpose IO loads and low write ratios.

2.)  SQL Servers – Physical and Virtual machines with 30-40% write ratios and low latency requirements.

3.)  Custom Application  – A custom application database with 100% random read profiles running across 50 servers.

The EMC Unified solution:

EMC Storage already sports virtual provisioning in order to provision LUNs from large pools of disk to improve overall performance and reduce complexity.  In addition, QoS features in the array can be used to provide guaranteed levels of performance for specific datasets by specifying minimum and maximum bandwidth, response time, and IO requirements on a per-LUN basis.  This can help alleviate disk contention when many LUNs share the same disks, as in a virtual pool.  Enterprise Flash Drives (EFD) are also available for EMC Storage arrays to provide extremely high performance to applications that require it and they can coexist with FC and SATA drives in the same array.  Read and write cache can also be tuned at an array and LUN level to help with specific workloads.  With the updates to the EMC Unified Platform that I discussed previously, Sub-LUN FAST (auto tiering), and FAST Cache (EFD used as array cache) will be available to existing customers after a simple, non-disruptive, microcode upgrade, providing two new ways to tackle these issues.

So which feature should my customer use to address their 3 different applications?

Sub-LUN FAST (Fully Automated Storage Tiering)

Put all of the data into large Virtual Provisioning pools on the array, add a few EFD (SSD) and SATA disks to the mix and enable FAST to automatically move the blocks to the appropriate tier of storage.  Over time the workload would even out across the various tiers and performance would increase for all of the workloads with much fewer drives, saving on power, floor space, cooling, and potentially disk cost depending on the configuration.  This happens non-disruptively in the background.  Seems like a no-brainer right?

For this customer, FAST helps the web server VMs and the general-purpose SQL databases where the workload is predominately read and much of the same data is being accessed repeatedly (high locality of reference).   As long as the blocks being accessed most often are generally the same, day-to-day, automated tiering (FAST) is a great solution.  But what if the workload is much more random?  FAST would want to push all of the data into EFD, which generally wouldn’t be possible due to capacity requirements.  Okay, so tiering won’t solve all of their problems.  What about FAST Cache?

FAST Cache

Exponentially increase the size of the storage array’s read AND write cache with EFD (SSD) disks.  This would improve performance across the entire array for all “cache friendly” applications.

For this customer, increasing the size of write cache definitely helps performance for SQL (50% increase in TPM, 50% better response time as an example) but what about their custom database that is 100% random read?  Increasing the size of read cache will help get more data into cache and reduce the need to go to disk for reads, but the more random the data, the less useful cache is.   Okay, so very large caches won’t solve all of their problems.   EFDs must be the answer right?

EFD Disks

Forget SATA and FC disks; just use EFD for everything and it will be super fast!!   EFD has extremely high random read/write performance, low latency at high loads, and very high bandwidth.  You will even save money on power and cooling.

The total amount of data this customer is dealing with in these three applications alone exceeds 20TB.  To store that much in EFD would be cost prohibitive to say the least.  So, while EFD can solve all of this customer’s technical problems, they couldn’t afford to acquire enough EFD for the capacity requirements.

But wait, it’s not OR, it’s AND

The beauty of the EMC Unified solution is that you can use all of these technologies, together, on the same array, simultaneously.

In this customer’s case, we put FC and SATA into a virtual pool with FAST enabled and provision the web and general-purpose SQL servers from it.  FAST will eventually migrate the least used blocks to SATA, freeing the FC disks for the more demanding blocks.

Next, we extend the array cache using a couple EFDs and FAST Cache to help with random read, sequential pre-fetching, and bursty writes across the whole array.

Finally, for the custom 100% random read database, we dedicate a few EFDs to just that application, snapshot the DB and present copies to each server.  We disable read and write cache for the EFD backed volumes which leaves more cache available to the rest of the applications on the array, further improving total system performance.

Now, if and when the customer starts to see disk contention in the virtual pool that might affect performance of the general-purpose SQL databases, QoS can be tuned to ensure low response times on just the SQL volumes ensuring consistent performance.  If the disks become saturated to the point where QoS cannot maintain the response time or the other LUNs are suffering from load generated by SQL, any of the volumes can be migrated (non-disruptively) to a different virtual pool in the array to reduce disk contention.


If you look at offerings from the various storage vendors, many promote large virtual pools, some also promote large caches of some kind, others promote block level tiering, and a few promote EFD (aka SSDs) to solve performance problems.  But, when you are consolidating multiple workloads into a single platform, you will discover that there are weaknesses in every one of those features and you are going to wish you had the option to use most or all of those features together.

You have that option on EMC Unified.

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Buzzword Much?

If you have seen any of EMC’s marketing for EMC World, or you are attending EMC World in Boston this week, you no doubt noticed a ton of talk about the “Private Cloud”.  There has been a lot more talk from vendors as of late about the “cloud” and “cloud computing” and you may be reminded about how every few years the word “cloud” is shouted out by vendors of all kinds and how inevitably the talk quiets and nothing is really different.  So is it different this time?  I think so.

What is a Cloud?

In the context of IT, there are examples of clouds already.  The Internet and public telephone system are two examples of clouds.  Facebook, Flickr, and Salesforce are examples of clouds as well.  The common theme is that each of these examples provides some sort of service to the end user without requiring the end user to purchase or build any infrastructure to support it.  You can plug a phone into a wall and immediately call nearly anyone in the world.  Cloud is a fancy word (or buzzword) for providing something “as-a-service”. is software-as-a-service (SaaS).

So what is the Private Cloud?  

In the context of enterprise datacenters, the focus of EMC’s vision, the Private Cloud is Infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) and it enables corporate IT to transition from a necessary expense, to a profit center within the business, providing IT-as-a-Service to the rest of the business.  It decouples infrastructure from applications providing unprecedented levels of scalability, availability, and flexibility at lower cost.

What if…
a.) your corporate applications could run from anywhere, and users had access from anywhere?
b.) you could relocate your applications from anywhere to anywhere else, at any time, without disruption to your users.
c.) you could replace any piece of physical hardware in your infrastructure without impacting your applications.

Sounds too good to be true right? Maybe not…

This week, EMC announced a completely new product called VPLEX.  VPLEX has the ability to take your existing storage arrays and pool them into a cooperative pool of storage for hosts and applications.  It then allows you to move application data within and across those arrays as needed without disrupting the application or users.  If you are familiar with EMC’s Invista, IBM’s SVC, or Hitachi’s USP-V products you may be thinking that VPLEX is just another storage virtualization product.  But I assure you it’s different.  VPLEX virtualizes storage within the datacenter similar to how the above products can, but VPLEX can ALSO combine storage across multiple datacenters and allow an application to run from any of them or all of them, simultaneously, through the power of Federation.

Active/Active Datacenters

With VPLEX Federation, you can move a virtual machine and all of its data from datacenter A to datacenter B in a matter of minutes without user disruption; or hundreds of VMs, or thousands of VMs.  You can run the same application in both locations, sharing a single dataset.  Armed with EMC VPLEX and VMWare vSphere, you can upgrade, replace, and reconfigure any part of your infrastructure (storage, servers, network, power distribution, etc) without ever having to take your applications offline.  How’s that for availability?

The ability to create a virtual infrastructure from the storage layer through to the server layer and host any application on that infrastructure is the key to creating providing Infrastructure-as-a-Service, building the Private Cloud, and provisioning IT-as-a-Service within your organization.  Imagine running the IT department as a business within the business and actually showing financial value to the business.

There is a lot more to this concept but I wanted to at least bring some context around “cloud” as well as EMC’s new VPLEX product.  There will be more to come on this topic.

Chuck Hollis wrote about VPLEX as a new Storage Platform today, and VirtualGeek called it a Virtual Machine teleporter in his quite detailed write up of this new technology.  The key is to step back with an open mind and think about how application design and disaster recovery planning could be approached in entirely new ways when the data is no longer confined to a particular physical location.

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EMC released FLARE 29 ( for Clariion CX4 systems a few days ago.  The release of the CX4 hardware platform was a very significant upgrade for the Clariion series – moving to a 64bit operating system, implementing hot-add and hot-swap I/O modules, as well as multi-core CPUs for higher performance and scalability.  FLARE 28 was released to support the CX4 platform and introduced Virtual Provisioning (EMC’s name for thin provisioning) to the Clariion feature list.

According to the release notes FLARE 29 adds a couple of new features and builds on existing ones.  All of them will become available with the standard non-disruptive upgrade Clariion owners are accustomed to.

New Features in FLARE 29:

  • 2-port 10Gbps iSCSI IO modules are now available
  • The ability to hot swap IO modules for faster modules (ie: upgrade from 4gb FC to 8gb FC)
  • Idle SATA drives can now spin down to save power
  • iSCSI ports now support VLAN tagging
  • LUNs and MetaLUNs can now be shrunk if using new versions of Windows (ie: Windows 2008)

Additional Updates:

  • The maximum number of LUNs has been increased for all CX4 models (to 8192 for the CX4-960)
  • MirrorView now supports replicating to and/or from Thin provisioned LUNs
  • SANCopy now supports copying to and/or from Thin provisioned LUNs
  • The maximum number of MirrorView/Async sessions has increased to 256 and up to 64 consistency groups with up to 64 mirrors per group.  Up to 512 MirrorView/Sync sessions are supported on CX4-960 hardware.

The really big news here is with MirrorView.  When Virtual Provisioning was released in FLARE 28 on CX4 you could not use MirrorView with any thin LUNs, whether they were the source or destination.  This limited the use of thin LUNs to those applications and/or customers that don’t need or use array-based replication.  EMC’s RecoverPoint product did support thin LUNs but that is a separate, fairly expensive, solution.  The ability to replicate non-thin (fat) LUNs to thin LUNs could be really useful for maximizing the disk utilization at a DR location where performance isn’t a primary concern.

The added ability to upgrade I/O modules to faster versions while online is also very handy.  It means you can tackle problems like increasing iSCSI bandwidth or upgrading core infrastructure (ie: network and SAN switches) with little or no downtime on the storage system.  VLAN tagging with iSCSI can be useful for sharing a storage system between disparate server environments that need to be separated for security or performance reasons.

As a Clariion and MirrorView user myself, I look forward to taking advantage of the added thin provisioning support with our upcoming CX4-960.

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