Knowing When to Call it Quits on Virtualization

I have recently heard it said that server virtualization is to data centers what marijuana is to other drugs: a “stepping stone” or “gateway” drug. After all, once you start down the path of server virtualization, at what point do you quit and stop virtualizing the rest of the infrastructure?

In the case of marijuana, barriers exist that prevent people from going directly from marijuana to cocaine (access to the drug, ethics, finances). Similarly, barriers also exist that keep organizations from immediately virtualizing their entire data center and moving entirely to a cloud-based model.

However knowing exactly what those barriers are and when to stop can be a difficult decision to make. Stop too soon, and you may lose out on the many benefits that virtualization can bring. Stop too late and you quickly move from leading edge to bleeding edge technology.

A good example of why moving too quickly with virtualization and its close counterpart, cloud storage, can lead to unexpected results came out in a recent conversation that I had with Andres Rodriguez, the founder and CEO of Nasuni.

Nasuni is a new player in the storage market that just came out of stealth mode this past week. Its new Nasuni Filer acts as a virtual NAS file server that is installed as a virtual appliance on an existing VMware server. However what caught my attention is that the Nasuni Filer does not simply virtualize direct or SAN attached storage. Though it does that in part, the more interesting angle to the Nasuni Filer is that it acts as gateway for organizations wanting to seamlessly store their data with public cloud storage providers like Amazon S3, EMC Atmos, Nirvanix and others.

This was when Rodriguez began to share one of the little secrets about storing data with cloud storage providers. While I was already aware that in order to store data with a cloud storage provider, the application many times has to support the REST API. However what I learned from Rodriguez was that once data is stored with a cloud storage provider, it cannot be manipulated or changed.

That little tidbit of information can quickly help to mold one’s attitude about what data should be stored with a public cloud storage provider and under what circumstances. For the most part, this clearly limits the use of cloud storage to the storage of archival or backup data.

While this is the way most organizations probably look to utilize public storage clouds in the near term anyway, this is an image that public cloud storage providers need to be careful how they cultivate. Go too far down this path and they may find it difficult to ever break out of this mold should they desire at some point to do so.

Of course, this limitation of public cloud storage is what the Nasuni Filer addresses. By providing a local disk cache that consists of local or SAN-attached storage, data is stored locally that can be changed and manipulated as it would on any NAS Filer. Then as the data ages, because the Nasuni Filer supports the REST APIs for multiple public cloud storage providers, it automatically can move the data from the local disk cache and store it with a public storage cloud provider.

Clearly the Nasuni Filer is an SMB solution that is intended for those that use VMware. By Nasuni including public cloud storage as part of its Filer’s virtual disk pool, mid-sized organizations gain access to any of a number of public cloud storage providers without the requirement for each of their applications to support the REST API. This essentially gives them a virtual NAS pool that is limitless in size while giving them a method to manage some of cloud storage’s restrictions.

So what does Nasuni have to do with the point I made at the outset of this blog? Simply this. Virtualization in any of its forms is an alluring drug. The possibilities it creates are almost endless (for example, two or three years ago a NAS solution that installs as a virtual appliance on a VMware server and provides cloud storage as an option was not even on the radar screen of most people), the cost savings it delivers are significant and, once you are using it, you would not think of going back.

But this is the danger of virtualization. What new problems does a solution like the Nasuni Filer create? Does it create a performance bottleneck? Does it suck all of the life out of your virtual server’s CPU? Who knows? It sounds like a great idea and I told Nasuni as much but there is probably just as much unknown about virtualization as there is known. So while I am not suggesting that one not pursue a virtualization strategy or look to store data with a cloud-based provider, don’t be too quick to get addicted to any form of virtualization or you may find yourself experiencing some very unpleasant side effects if and when its dark side shows itself.


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