Virtualising file servers

Hi,

We're joining the virtual party a little late and we have a couple of questions regarding file servers. This question is a general question rather than one aimed at Microsoft or VMware. I'd actually appreciate answers from both sides of the fence (I appreciate other virtualisers are available!)

Also worth noting that we are a systems integrator aimed at the small businesses. Our largest site is around 45 users. Most sites are 5 - 10 users and they generally do not have the cash to buy thousands of pounds worth of software. We're trying to see if its worth us trying to offer the main benefits of virtualised servers to our customers without costing them a small fortune. Most of our sites will only have a single Microsoft SBS type server.

Firstly, I absolutely see the point of virtualising application servers and servers with a small physical footprint. We already have a couple of VM'd RDS servers on customer sites and we're soon to install another, It's file servers that we're having problems getting our heads around...

As I understand it, half the point of having a virtual server is that we can make regular offline images that can be restored to dissimilar hardware extremely quickly. This sounds good for us and our customers. However, in the case of a file server that may have 500GB or more of stored data, we wouldnt be able to quickly create images. Storage would also be an issue. We could use 3TB USB drives but surely there must be a better way to achieve this?

Does Hyper-V or VMWare have any facility to mount file storage onto the file server that isnt included in the main VM image? Or am I missing some important part of all of this? Is there a way to exclude data areas from an image backup perhaps?

Lastly, and of much lesser importance, how would you manage RAID software? From what I can tell, it becomes difficult to view & manage the RAID when you have ESXi or Hyper-V core installed as this management software cannot be installed on the hyperviser.

Thanks in advance

Stephan
academynetworksAsked:
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mmahaekConnect With a Mentor Commented:
This would somewhat depend on the type of storage you are using.  For our VMware environment, we are using a fiber channel SAN, which give some extra flexibility, but what we are doing is possible with server attached RAID arrays.

When we moved from our physical file server to a virtual file server, we used what VMware refers to as a "raw device mapping."  This means that the hypervisor was able to present the disk space directly to the virtual machine without using a virtual disk format in between.  After presenting storage space to the physical server, the space can be assigned to a VM instead of going through the formatting steps to assign the space as virtual storage.

Since the space is presented directly to the VM, there shouldn't be any performance overhead for these volumes.
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Larry LarmeuPrincipal ConsultantCommented:
There are many options for backing up VMs.  Sounds like you are interested in image backups but concerned about the data storage.  Look into "change block tracking" a function of VMware that allows image backups but only backs up the changed data between backups.  Similar to an incremental file backup.

RAID will have to be managed at BIOS level.
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Andrew Hancock (VMware vExpert / EE MVE^2)Connect With a Mentor VMware and Virtualization ConsultantCommented:
I'll answer the question backwards....

RAID is managed on both Microsoft Hyper-V and VMware ESXi via Agents, and Management software.

As for data areas, you coul;d create a Virtual Machine, with the data stored on a specific disk, or maybe use a NAS (which is not a VM) to store the data.

As for Backups, checkout my EE Article


VMware ESX/ESXi Backup Guide
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academynetworksAuthor Commented:
Thanks all. Of all of this, the solution suggested by mmahaek seems like the best option but I presume this is only possible with SAN hardware? Any way to present a standard internal RAID in this manner? Perhaps if it was on a separate RAID to that of the virtualiser?

Thanks for the tip on the agents.

Thanks again.

Stephan
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mmahaekCommented:
for your question regarding RAID management, VMware works best when you have a hardware RAID controller, though you may check with your hardware vendor.  They may have a VMware plugin to manage the storage.
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mmahaekCommented:
For a stand-alone RAID, you can present multiple array volumes to your hypervisor.  Format one as virtual storage and add the other to your virtual machine as a secondary disk.  The link below is from VMware about the different types of disks.

http://blogs.vmware.com/apps/2011/11/virtualized-exchange-storage-vmdk-or-rdm-or.html
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Andrew Hancock (VMware vExpert / EE MVE^2)VMware and Virtualization ConsultantCommented:
Yes, you can do this using Virtual SAN software, e.g. VMware vSphere VSA, Starwind VSA etc
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academynetworksAuthor Commented:
Thanks for all the answers. Doesn't seem like there is a simple solution to this.

Many of the responses seem to rely on expensive technologies such as iSCSI & fibre channel etc, neither of which I think we would implement on a site of 5 people. The main idea is to see if we can VM small sites cheaply & bring some benefit especially for DR.

If I have understood correctly, best answers seem to be to add some basic SCSI storage which supports LUNs to allow Raw Device Mapping or otherwise, to add a second VM or NAS as a really basic file server which will allow the main SBS server to stay small enough be easily imaged.

Have tried to assign points appropriately.

Thanks again

Stephan
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mmahaekCommented:
With five users, I don't think you will see much performance difference between a raw hard disk mapping and a virtual hard disk.  You wouldn't start seeing an impact until you have several dozen users with high concurrent activity.
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academynetworksAuthor Commented:
From what you've just said, I think I've been really thick here - Think I may have been expecting a complex answer & missing the stupidly simple one. Are you saying I can simply add an additional VHD hard disk to a VM, then when looking at imaging & backing up, we can just image the OS hard disk? Then we can backup the other data hard disk using a traditional solution?

Can't believe I missed this if so....

Yours idiotically...

Stephan
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mmahaekCommented:
If you are only looking at five to ten users, and have a manageable amount of space, then you really don't need to worry about complex storage configuration.  For larger sites, it may be good to look at RDM for long term scalability.  The bigger performance factor is your drives and RAID array, and how fast they can serve the data.
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academynetworksAuthor Commented:
That's really helpful. Many thanks. The more complex solutions are still worth knowing about though as we may have a need for those at some point.

Cheers

Stephan
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