“EMC and HDS are Chubby While 3PAR is Thin”; The Need to Stripe VMware ESX Paging Volumes

“You know things are tough when companies finally stop throwing capacity at their infrastructure problems and start thinking about how they provision and allocate storage.”

Those are the sentiments that Craig Nunes, 3PAR’s VP of Marketing, expressed in a recent conversation I had with him in regards to how the economy is affecting 3PAR’s business. In short, the economy is not affecting 3PAR (NYSEArca:PAR) badly at all.

Companies are starting to care more deeply more about how they provision storage and, as they do so, they are looking for more cost-effective options to store their data. This is obviously leading to more companies using 3PAR’s InServ Storage Systems for their server storage needs. 3PAR’s most recent earnings report showed revenue of $35.5 million. That reflects a significant rise over the prior year’s quarter and is indicative that more companies are buying into 3PAR’s “pay as you go” or “utility” message that thin provisioning and thin copy technologies deliver.

A major driver for 3PAR’s and almost every other storage vendors’ growth is the growing corporate adoption of server virtualization in general and VMware specifically. As companies virtualize their physical servers using products like VMware ESX, companies are connecting these ESX servers to FC and iSCSI SANs and using external storage to store each virtual machine’s (VM’s) data.

Since many of these servers scheduled for virtualization previously used internal or direct attached storage, it is resulting in a boom for many of these storage vendors. According to Nunes, 3PAR is getting more than its fair share of VMware deployments due in part to its technology which reduces capacity requirements and improves VM performance, two issues in enterprise VMware projects.

The historical problems with direct attached storage are over provisioning and “laissez faire” user attitudes. While everyone knew over provisioning was a problem, it was a problem no one cared about since there was nothing anyone could do about it anyway.

Now that companies are virtualizing these same servers, the over provisioning problem that everyone ignored is coming back to bite. Companies overprovision to their ESX servers because best practices for the virtual server environment dictate the allocation of large up-front storage capacity to support new and growing virtual machines without the overhead (time, availability, risk) of provisioning new capacity. In fact, the storage cost in a virtual server project far outweighs the cost of VMware itself and can significantly reduce the server consolidation ROI.

Nunes attributes this to being a big reason that companies are so interested in 3PAR’s InServ Storage Systems in general and its thin provisioning feature specifically. By using thin provisioning, companies can present the same virtual size volume to the ESX server that best practices dictate, but only provision physical capacity as the VMs write data.

When asked the question if 3PAR can continue to convince companies that they are still the right solution as their principal competitors – EMC and HDS – come to market with thin provisioning solutions of their own, Nunes was emphatic that there are significant technical issues with these bolt-on implementations that users should consider before buying which make for ‘chubby’ versus ‘thin’ provisioning. “These include very large allocation units (the smallest amount of capacity that is allocated in a write to a thin provisioned volume), the requirement for dedicated pools of reserved physical capacity for each RAID and disk type to serve thin provisioned volumes, and manual provisioning of capacity versus autonomic provisioning from the array itself,” says Nunes.

Another unique problem that 3PAR is specifically addressing in VMware environments is I/O performance and the amount of VM paging. Applications hosted on the ESX server were once accustomed to essentially having access to as much memory as they needed. Now that the servers are virtualized, VM-based applications only can access a fraction of the physical server memory that they once could which is resulting in the creation of very active paging to and from disk that Nunes refers to this as the “long pole” in server virtualization performance.

3PAR has found that it can address this problem by striping the ESX paging volume across every single disk in the 3PAR InServ Storage System. Striping this volume lowers the latency for the paging files of individual VMs and affords 3PAR’s clients the opportunity to see greater VM performance or even create more VMs per physical ESX server. Prior to implementing this striping capability, 3PAR’s client usually expected to create between 10 and 20 VMs per ESX server. By striping the ESX paging volume across multiple disks, the improvement in paging performance enables them to do so with higher overall performance and at times increase the VMs per ESX server by 30% or more.

The concern that can surface using this configuration is that by striping data across this many disks is whether the I/O for other applications hosted on those disks be affected. So far, Nunes says that 3PAR has not found that to be an issue. “The I/O of the volumes are sufficiently random so that it does not negatively affect application performance,” says Nunes.

3PAR has also done testing with large ISVs like Oracle that actually show substantial performance improvements from wide-striping. These tests apparently also revealed that users could consume more of the disk capacity and drive very high capacity utilization.

All storage systems companies seem to be benefiting from the growing corporate adoption of VMware and, as evidenced by its recent earnings report, 3PAR is no exception. 3PAR’s thin provisioning and striping features found on its InServ Storage Systems put it in a strong position to address the specific problems that VMware implementations create. Now it is up to 3PAR to continue to persuade decision-makers that the “thin” is better than “chubby” argument is reason enough to continue to select its InServ Storage Server over competing storage systems

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