Optimizing and Accelerating Virtual Environments

The IO-intensive interaction between virtualized infrastructures and conventional storage systems can create performance logjams. What to do? By Erik Sherman

As server and desktop virtualization make significant inroads into the SMB market, solution providers are discovering an unfortunate fact: The IO-intensive interaction between virtualized infrastructures and conventional storage systems can create performance logjams. Or, as Greg Schulz puts it, “Aggregation will cause aggravation.”

“By consolidating with virtualization, you can introduce problems,” says Schulz, founder and principal analyst for consulting and advisory firm StorageIO Group. These problems include performance bottlenecks, space usage constraints, bandwidth issues, as well as IOPS and application response-time slowdowns. To address these issues, many vendors have created a new class of affordable, flash-based appliances designed to optimize available storage and accelerate virtual environments.

Schulz cautions, however, that storage optimization appliances should not be used as Band-Aids for performance issues. In addition to optimization appliances, he says, solution providers should make the case for server upgrades, solid-state storage, IO accelerators, and caching software to address the root cause of the bottlenecks and provide customers with a more lasting solution.

According to Schulz, sometimes resellers use storage optimization appliances when a more comprehensive solution is needed for the long term. “You really should be asking and investigating, 'What is causing the bottlenecks? What's causing the excessive space usage?' and fixing the underlying issues,” he says. “If you don't, your customer may quickly tire of fixing the symptoms and find another solution provider [that can] build a better mousetrap.”

FILLING A MARKET NICHE
Still, storage optimization appliances fill a niche in the market and shouldn't be dismissed, says Tom Coughlin, president of Coughlin Associates, a data storage consultancy and research firm. “These specialized appliances - whether used for storage tiering, backup and recovery, or data deduplication - can supply the functions and services necessary for virtualized and data-intensive storage infrastructures,” he says.

For SMBs, such appliances can add functionality that existing storage systems may not have, and might be more cost-effective in the short term, especially if the other option is a forklift upgrade, Coughlin notes. But over time, appliances that help with storage tiering, data deduplication, and backup may become integrated into larger storage systems or replaced by firmware that performs the same function. To get the greatest ROI from the purchase, it can help to tie an appliance to asset management or use it for cloud-based functionalities.

“There's a need for these appliances in the SMB market, because they offer capabilities you can't get anywhere else in your infrastructure,” explains Coughlin. “The necessity and demand for these solutions will most likely increase with the utilization of cloud-based resources and solutions, since there's so much data that needs to be moved and stored.”

Established storage vendors offering the appliances include EMC, NetApp, and Hitachi, along with start-ups like Nimble, WhipTail, Violin, SolidFire, and GreenBytes. Some of these newer vendors also provide software products for storage optimization.

Of course, Schulz maintains, the optimum IO is the one you don't have to use. But the second best is the one that is optimized and passing data smoothly, efficiently, and without bottlenecks.