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iSCSI & VMware

11:30 AM -- While my esteemed fellow Byte and Switch blogger George Crump sees NFS as the storage protocol of choice for VMware, I have to take a contrary position and champion the iSCSI SAN. iSCSI SANs are cost effective, generally easy to configure and supported by all the features of both VMware and Windows server, which is the most common VMware guest. All that, and it runs on IP to boot.

I know all you grizzled storage geeks out there are going apoplectic at the mere thought of iSCSI. From where you sit, iSCSI is storage's red headed stepbrother. You see it as a little simple (implying not ease of use but slow on the uptake), slow, and not really suitable for big boys. Even the fact that adding a server to a Fibre Channel SAN costs three or more times what it costs for iSCSI or NFS reinforces the enterprise elites' position that iSCSI is for SMBs.

Well, the truth is, a couple of 1-Gbit/s Ethernet channels is more than the vast majority of virtual server hosts need when running applications, Web tests, development, and assorted other servers. The best published benchmarks from NetApp (found here) and VMware (found here) at VMWorld Europe 2008 show that with typical workloads, iSCSI is less than 10 percent slower than FC, and up to 10 percent faster than NFS, while using just 20 percent more CPU than NFS.

NFS advocates like George argue that NFS data stores are, by definition, thin provisioned. After all, each VMDK and snapshot only takes up space in the file system when the machine, or snapshot, is created. Of course, that is a feature of any file system. Even without thin provisioning support in the storage hardware, which is becoming pretty common, creating a VMFS LUN that supports multiple VMs accomplishes the same thing. NFS-hosted VMDKs are created as sparse files, which can also save space. But if you use Storage vMotion or clone from templates, which is how I create most of my VMs, they expand, eliminating that advantage.

In his VM & iSCSI entry, George also makes some of the standard storage-guy arguments against iSCSI. To paraphrase, "FC's gotten easier, I can manage an FC SAN just as easily as I can an iSCSI SAN" and "When iSCSI scales it gets complicated with HBAs and VLANs and such." While there's some truth in both, they're strictly from the storage guys' point of view.

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