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Storage Changes in the VMware vSphere 4 Family

VMware officially launched their next-generation (version 4) enterprise family of products today under the “vSphere 4″ name. As I’ve been doing for the last few major ESX releases, I’m focusing this post on the storage changes present in vSphere 4.

For more information on earlier updates, see my articles:

One first step is VMware’s whitepaper, “What’s New in VMware vSphere 4: Storage“.

Licensing and Availability of Features

The most important change at a glance is in the licensing model for VMware.

  • A new low-end “standard” level includes all of the components a small business might need, including  thin provisioning  of storage, at a very attractive price.
  • The “advanced” level includes advances in the area of  data protection.
  • At the “enterprise” level,  live migration  of storage is enabled.
  • Top of the heap is “enterprise plus”, which enables the intriguing plug-in  third-party multipathing  support previously rumored.
  • Enterprise customers  with current support will get vStorage  thin provisioning  and  data protection  when they upgrade.
Each step up the licensing ladder enables important new storage features

Each step up the licensing ladder enables important new storage features (source: VMware)

Thin Provisioning

One of the most widespread storage features is native thin provisioning. VMware ESX 4 will allocate storage in 1 MB chunks as capacity is used. This isn’t really completely new – similar support was enabled by default for virtual disks on NFS in VI 3, and thin provisioning could be enabled on the command line for block-based storage as well. It was also present in VMware’s desktop products, including my own copy of Fusion. And ESX allows thick-to-thin conversion during Storage VMotion.

The difference with vSphere 4 is that thin provisioning is fully supported and integrated into every version of ESX. Although many storage arrays now also offer thin storage, the addition of native, integrated thin provisioning right in ESX is huge. This alone will be a major capacity (and thus, cost) savings feature! VMware claims 50% storage savings in their lab tests.

Dynamic Expansion of VMFS Volumes

VMFS volumes can now grow (and, in some cases, shrink) online without resorting to spanning to a new LUN. Under vSphere 4, VMFS volumes can grow to take advantage of expanded LUNs (up to 2 TB per LUN). The old method still works as well, and multi-LUN spanned VMFS volumes can grow when any of their LUNs is expanded.

Enhanced Storage VMotion

Like thin provisioning, Storage VMotion has been elevated to first-class status, supported just about everywhere you’d want it. It’s in all the likely spots within vCenter.

Storage VMotion gives serious storage flexibility now, enabling (almost) any-to-any migration of VMFS volumes: Pick up a Fibre Channel, iSCSI, or NFS disk image and move it to another datastore running any of those protocols to convert live. And you can do thick-to-thin provisioning at the same time.

Under the hood, the whole infrastructure has been revised. Storage VMotion leverages VMware’s change block tracking instead of disk snapshots now, speeding up the migration process and reducing the (formerly excessive) memory and CPU requirements of Storage VMotion in 3.5. This is the same technology leveraged by vSphere’s High Availability features, by the way.

Pluggable Storage Architecture (PSA)

Only “Enterprise Plus” licensees will get to use it, but the vSphere family also sports a new pluggable storage architecture (PSA) which will initially be leveraged to deliver vendor-specific multipath support.  Note that the native multipath support in vSphere continues to be round-robin fail-over only – it will not load balance I/O across multiple paths or make more intelligent decisions about which paths to use.

vSphere 4's Pluggable Storage Architecture allows third-party developers to replace ESX's storage I/O stack

vSphere 4’s Pluggable Storage Architecture allows third-party developers to replace ESX’s storage I/O stack (source: VMware)

As you may gather from this VMware illustration (but would probably miss since it’s not all that comprehensible), there are two classes of third-party plug-ins:

  1. Basic path-selection plugins (PSPs) will merely optimize the choice of which path to use, ideal for active/passive type arrays
  2. Full storage array type plugins (SATPs) will allow load balancing across multiple paths in addition to path selection for active/active arrays

EMC also announced PowerPath/VE for vSphere, integrating their popular multi-platform path management software directly into ESX. It’s not clear at this point whether PowerPath will require an Enterprise Plus license (or if it will come with one) or if it will work with all editions, but I’m sure that will be clarified soon. My EMC contacts do tell me that PowerPath/VE is licensed on a per-socket basis (like VMware of yore) and that EMC sales reps have some room to get creative on licensing.

iSCSI Software Initiator Enhancements

It’s harder to claim it as a new feature, but the iSCSI software initiator has also been tweaked and tuned to use less CPU time and deliver better throughput.  The iSCSI configuration process has also been smoothed out so one no longer needs to have a live Service Console connection in order to communicate with an iSCSI target. And changes made in the general tab are now global, so they’ll propagate down to each target.  Bi-directional CHAP is also added, so the target can now be authenticated in addition to the initiator.

vSphere also includes a paravirtualized iSCSI driver (PVSCSI) which works like vmxnet to present a higher-performance iSCSI adapter within certain supported guest OSes.

More information on multipathing iSCSI can be found at  Yellow Bricks  and in Chad Sakac’s  mega-post  on the topic.

High-Performance I/O

vSphere really pours on the I/O power. They claim a 3x increase, to “over 300,000 I/O operations per second”, but mentioned in the launch that they’ve gotten to 400,000 in some workloads. This is really amazing, and if it’s true in real-world use means that VMware ESX can now host just about any application you can think of.

It’s funny, but just a few weeks before the announcement VMware’s Chief Data Center architect, Scott Davis, told me at Storage Networking World that vSphere would double I/O performance. I thought this was a bold statement at the time, but VMware went further in their official documents, claiming 3x improvement. Now we have an on-stage admission that it could be up to 4x! This is serious stuff, folks: Can VMware really do 400,000 IOPS?

One question is whether these IOPS improvements require the new VMDirectPath I/O for Storage, which binds a physical Fibre Channel HBA to a single guest OS, or if they’re generalized across all systems.

vCenter Improvements

vCenter now includes  more storage information:

  • Each VM and ESX in the inventory has a tab showing storage information and allowing users to set alarms on storage use – setting capacity alarms becomes extremely important when thin provisioning is used!
  • vCenter inventory has a view showing datastore details
  • There’s also a nice storage topology map

Data Protection APIs

VMware also enhanced the APIs for consolidated backup (VCB) into “vStorage Data Protection”. Available only with Advanced or Enterprise licenses, these APIs allow enterprise backup vendors to develop specific integration with VMware without VCB in the middle.


vSphere is loaded with storage improvements, though many seem like incremental updates rather than new features. Admins will welcome thin provisioning support, and the full integration of Storage VMotion is certainly welcome, but I think the changes to vCenter will be most noticeable. I’ll be looking into EMC’s PowerPath/VE and the amazing I/O improvements as we move forward and learn more about the next ESX!

Duncan Epping posted much more  vSphere Linkage  on his Yellow Bricks blog if you’re interested in non-storage features.

About the author

Stephen Foskett

Stephen Foskett is an active participant in the world of enterprise information technology, currently focusing on enterprise storage, server virtualization, networking, and cloud computing. He organizes the popular Tech Field Day event series for Gestalt IT and runs Foskett Services. A long-time voice in the storage industry, Stephen has authored numerous articles for industry publications, and is a popular presenter at industry events. He can be found online at,, and on Twitter at @SFoskett.


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