Top 10 Tips for Implementing a Virtual SAN

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Virtual storage area networks (vSANs) are beneficial for their scalability, ease of management, and cost-effectiveness—but like all technologies, their efficacy depends on their implementation. We asked a number of enterprise storage experts for their best advice on how to successfully implement a vSAN solution and summarized their recommendations here.

Top 10 Tips for Implementing a Virtual SAN

A virtual storage area network, or vSAN, is a type of software-defined storage solution that relies on abstraction to pool multiple direct-access storage devices across a network, creating a centralized source of storage that can be shared and used independently by a number of virtual machines. Here are expert-recommended top 10 tips for implementing a vSAN.

Don’t Rely on Metadata Controllers

Be wary of metadata controllers, region ownership, and similar “traffic cop” approaches to vSAN configuration. While these controls may seem initially beneficial, they introduce single points of failure that can disrupt the vSAN down the road.

One of the key advantages of a vSAN is resilience. Virtualization allows stored data to migrate without disruption. On top of enabling easier network management, that adaptability means an error in one device won’t affect the data as a whole—but metadata controllers remove that benefit.

A vSAN is already relatively easy to manage without these controllers. Businesses don’t need them to retain network simplicity. Using them may make some workflows easier, but not enough to justify the entire network suffering from a single controller error.

Don’t Rip and Replace

Similarly, avoid implementing a software-defined storage platform that requires a “net new” or “rip and replace” approach. Virtualized storage like vSANs should assist an organization’s existing infrastructure, but they should not replace it entirely.

The point of a virtualized data storage solution is to make the most of an organization’s available hardware. Removing the old system in its entirety to embrace a virtualized alternative misses that benefit. The new solution will be more resilient, but the expense and disruption of the transition will hinder its cost-effectiveness.

Instead, start by applying the vSAN to a small but critical part of the network. Over time, expand it to incorporate more of the business’s storage infrastructure. Companies can upgrade or switch systems as needed throughout this process to enable higher gains, but change should be gradual to ensure a better return on investment.

Consider Other Storage Options

A vSAN may not be the right choice for every application—just because a business can deploy a technology doesn’t necessarily mean it should. Consider the cost and complexity of implementing a vSAN. If it takes more time and money to configure and troubleshoot than it will to use a right-sized storage system with higher initial costs, then the latter may be the better choice.

Physical storage is expensive, but cloud costs are also rising, and virtualization takes a toll on physical machines’ memory and computing power. Given these complexities, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to which storage method is most cost-effective. It depends on specific needs and resources.

Pay Attention to the Big Picture

Take a close look at ongoing virtualization strategies and the general direction of IT as a first step in the implementation process, and consider how a vSAN fits into the larger storage virtualization strategy before implementing it.

Failing to consider the big picture could leave teams with siloed infrastructure that doesn’t work together. Virtualization should make data more accessible, not less. This requires an understanding of how each choice fits into the overall strategy, so it’s important to keep compatibility and the user experience in mind.

Consider External SANs

Many businesses begin implementing a vSAN with the idea of keeping it wholly internal, but things may not pan out that way. Internal vSANs often grow into external SANs as their host nodes increase. That transition is easier when teams consider this expansion from the beginning.

SANs often manage data across multiple locations—so why restrict these locations to internal areas? Companies that plan on managing external vSANs from the start should ensure they have the infrastructure and experience necessary to make that expansion seamless.

Choose Hypervisors Carefully

Another important consideration is how your choice of a virtual SAN product applies to other hosts, which may be using a different hypervisor or none at all. After all, several of your existing applications may remain un-virtualized or may work better with another server virtualization package.

Think about data portability across hypervisor options—choosing a hypervisor without considering how it integrates with other systems is an easy way to restrict data movement across an organization. Similarly, keep an eye on emerging technologies. New software-based tech will offer ways to capitalize on new hardware. Consider these when picking hypervisors to future-proof networks.

Don’t Forget Data Protection

Regardless of which virtual SAN is deployed, make sure the environment is resilient. This resilience must include backups and protection outside the vSAN. Data protection is too big an issue for companies of any size to ignore. Data breaches cost $4.24 million on average, and almost half target small and medium-sized businesses. vSANs that don’t account for these risks could quickly outweigh any gains from higher efficiency and scalability.

Backups should be online and offline. Virtual SANS should also feature advanced encryption throughout to minimize vulnerabilities. Automated monitoring software may be necessary for more sensitive applications.

Don’t Create Bottlenecks

Larger environments where server CPU, memory, and input/output (I/O) are already busy from consolidation efforts are a significant concern. Adding storage virtualization on top places more workload and demands on those systems.

Avoid performance bottlenecks by using software I/O caching solutions. Similarly, solid state drives (SSDs) and enterprise-class solid-state hybrid drives (SSHDs) can provide more performance when networks need a boost.

Virtualizing one part of the network at a time will also help spread out consolidation efforts to offset these bottlenecks. Moving everything simultaneously may put too much pressure on the system.

Monitor Mirroring Impact

Some vSANs will mirror easily, while others will exact a severe performance hit—particularly as the virtual SAN expands. Consequently, ongoing evaluation is essential.

Monitor how mirroring impacts performance between nodes as soon as you implement a vSAN. Measuring performance before the switch will make it easier to benchmark this impact. Monitoring should be an ongoing process. There will be more to keep synchronized as virtualization efforts expand, so more could go wrong. Detecting issues early is key to remediation.

Don’t Overlook Third-Party Tools

Some vSANs are wholly proprietary or only work with one hypervisor or set of tools. This may not work out well in a heterogeneous enterprise. Inspect vSANs for any nuances that could stop teams from using third-party products. Organizations use 130 software tools on average, so interoperability is critical. The vSAN won’t be efficient in practice if anything doesn’t work with the many programs teams already use.

Bottom Line: Follow vSAN Best Practices

Virtual SANs are highly effective tools when implemented properly. Businesses that hope to experience all these benefits to the fullest must know what to do and avoid. These 10 recommendations show the way forward.

Read 7 Risks of Implementing a vSAN and How to Mitigate Them to learn more about how ensure your vSAN is secure.

Zac Amos
Zac Amos
Zac Amos is a contributor to Enterprise Storage Forum with a wide range of experience writing about cybersecurity, data management, automation, and storage. He has been featured in Datamation, ISAGCA, DZone, CyberTalk, and other publications.

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