VMware’s Storage Ambitions

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Talk about storage for any length of time and you can be pretty sure that the V word will crop up — not storage virtualization, which is a hot enough topic in its own right, but VMware, the fast-growing server virtualization technology company. If you are involved in storage administration, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll have had — or soon will have — contact with VMware and its portfolio of products.

VMware has differentiated itself from its virtualization competitors by offering an increasingly sophisticated set of virtual infrastructure products and capabilities to support its core virtual machine technology. Increasingly, this strategy is involving the storage world. Gathering servers into pools of computing resources on which to run virtual servers creates a requirement for networked storage.

“There’s no question that VMware is driving network storage adoption,” said Mark Bowker, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. “Server virtualization is a clear driver for network storage.”

And as networked storage becomes an increasingly important part of the picture, the demand for virtualized storage increases. Virtualized servers drive demand for virtualized storage. The two markets are linked.

VMware, of course, is owned by a storage vendor, EMC. And when it was acquired in 2003, VMware said the acquisition would be “advancing (the) convergence of storage and server virtualization.”

With that in mind, it begs the question: how far do VMware’s storage aspirations extend? From virtual machine technology, it has expanded into virtual infrastructure — the next logical step would certainly seem be storage. Play its cards right and VMware could be uniquely positioned to provide an integrated virtualized data center, with pools of computing resources and pools of storage allocated to tasks automatically, managed from a single, all-powerful VMware management console.

Centralized management of the entire data center is certainly something that VMware wants to make possible, according to Lionel Cavalliere, senior product marketing at VMware. “One of the goals of VMware is optimizing the management of storage in a virtualized environment,” he said.

But he categorically rules out the possibility of VMware moving into the storage space to create a total virtual environment. “We certainly want to give Virtual Center vision of storage so it can manage storage resources, but there will be no integration into a single product,” he said. “What we intend to do is this: rather than being integrated, we will provide SDKs to enable our VI3 (Virtual Infrastructure 3) to report on storage. We will allow (storage) management tools to plug in.”

And EMC won’t get any preferential treatment, despite being VMware’s parent company, Cavalliere said. “Our approach is to base the overall setup on a spirit of openness. When it comes to outside tools there is no reason for us to focus on any one vendor.”

Although EMC storage executives might not agree, it would certainly seem to be a sensible approach from VMware’s point of view to avoid being perceived as tying its virtualization products to any particular vendor’s storage products. That, said Bowker, would be commercial suicide for the company.

To date, VMware has really only made relatively small forays into the storage space, in areas like backup (see Making Sense of VMware Storage Options and Backing Up on VMware) and storage migration. For example, the company recently announced its Storage VMotion product. The standard VMotion enables companies to move a working virtual machine from one physical server to another without interruption to operations. Cavalliere said VMware’s customers have been demanding something similar for storage. Essentially, that’s because virtual machines’ disk storage is virtualized and stored elsewhere.

“Your virtual infrastructure depends on storage,” he said. “So if you decide to do a vendor change in an array, or have to carry out some maintenance in an array, you are going to need a way to move your storage. While a virtual machine is running, you need to move the contents of its disk from one place to another without shutting down the VM.”

Storage VMotion can also be used to implement a tiered storage infrastructure approach, for example, moving some data from tier 1 storage to tier 2 when it is no longer “fresh,” without interrupting the operation of the virtual servers that use it.

The company also launched its hardware certification program for virtualized storage devices in September, to make it easier to choose storage products that will work with the virtualization enabling technologies in VMware’s ESX Server.

Cavalliere said a complete management solution using plug-in storage management tools may be the long-term goal of VMware’s strategy, but it is still a long way off. “Clearly VMware will have a big impact on storage practices, but we are only really just starting to speak about it,” he said.

So it’s early days yet, but VMware clearly has its eyes firmly focused on the whole data center and is likely to be a very big player in years to come.

“I think a lot of storage companies are scurrying around right now trying to get their storage systems certified by VMware,” said Bowker. “Almost all our customers are involved in server virtualization, and the first thing they look for in a storage solution is interoperability with VMware.”

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Paul Rubens
Paul Rubens
Paul Rubens is a technology journalist based in England and is an eSecurity Planet and Datamation contributor.

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