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VMware Virtual SAN hits beta, VDI storage vendors ramp up appliances

VMware upped its VDI storage game with Virtual SAN, while storage vendors disclosed new flash and converged storage appliances for virtual desktops.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Higher server densities and capacity demands have led storage vendors to release new products for optimizing performance in VDI environments, and VMware swooped in on the evolving storage game here at VMworld 2013 with its Virtual SAN offering.

One of the ongoing challenges in virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) environments is the significant storage requirements. Storage demands fluctuate depending on application use and login spikes.

"[Virtual desktops] are the perfect solution for so many end-user computing customers, but they are too expensive, too complicated, have bad performance and a very bad user experience," said Steve O'Donnell, CEO of Providence, R.I.-based GreenBytes, Inc. a storage appliance and software vendor.

VMware Inc. debuted its Virtual SAN specifically for use in VDI environments and branch offices. Virtual SAN pools compute and direct attached storage and clusters server disks and flash to create one large data store. Some storage can be solid state drive (SSD), providing more capacity and speed to the end user.

However, Virtual SAN directly competes with VMware's partner ecosystem, said Todd Knapp, CEO of Envision Technology Advisors, a Pawtucket, R.I. based IT consultancy with a number of VDI customers.

 "The question now is: When you do the math, will [Virtual SAN] cost less than flash-based options or stateless solutions?" he said. "If VSAN works, it puts guys like Atlantis and Tintri on notice."

In a deep-dive session on the beta product, VMware touted Virtual SAN would cost one-fourth the price of a flash array. Still, since Virtual SAN aggregates different storage volumes, VMware must depend on those very vendors.

"It provides an opportunity to layer on the Virtual SAN," said Seth Knox, vice president of products at Atlantis Computing Inc., a VDI diskless storage provider. "It opens APIs that we can leverage to improve performance."

VMware storage competitors won’t be left behind

A swath of VDI storage vendors also announced products at the conference, with a different approach than VMware. Many take advantage of flash technology and allow organizations to deploy their products alongside existing storage.

"A lot of people will be interested in Virtual SAN, but there is so much more innovation happening in this space," said Jeroen van de Kamp, chief technology officer at Login Consultants, a desktop and virtualization consultancy based in the Netherlands.

Fusion-io, Inc., for example, demoed its new ioVDI software, which deploys flash on the server and directs storage traffic to existing direct-attached storage, SAN or network-attached storage capacity. Since about 80% of data that would have gone to the SAN is instead directed to server-side flash, IT can double the density of desktops per server, according to Lee Caswell, vice president of the virtualization products group at Fusion-io.

One IT pro here said his company uses Fusion-io for part of its virtual desktop environment and is looking at other vendors to help expand capacity.

“Server flash helps for faster delivery to the end users,” said Frank Perez, a systems support administrator at CPP Inc., a personal development services company based in Mountain View, Calif. “Our issue is space because our user base is growing really rapidly.”

Technologies such as inline deduplication could help some organizations reduce those capacity needs.

Also released this week is GreenBytes vIO 4.0, a flash-optimized virtual storage product that offers inline deduplication. This kind of deduplication optimizes blocks before committing them to storage, decreasing capacity and increasing the data speed. So, customers can get between 100 and 150 storage IOPS per desktop, which is very close to what they would get from a physical PC, said GreenBytes' O'Donnell.

"You can provide the same experience people had before they were virtualized," he said.

GreenBytes vIO 4.0 includes enhancements for multitenant environments that allow IT to set different performance expectations for different users or sites on a system, and it added dual network management with enhancements for the Simple Network Management Protocol and support for the Cacti open source protocol. Plus, it now integrates with VMware's vStorage API for Array Integration to increase VM cloning speeds and decrease network traffic.

Recent changes in IT -- namely the bring your own desktop trend and the end of Windows XP -- have also driven storage optimization efforts from VDI vendors.

Windows upgrades in particular have increased the demand for VDI products this year, according to Olivier Thierry, chief marketing officer at VDI storage appliance provider Pivot3, Inc.

"Thank you Microsoft for announcing the end of XP, because it got people going 'Uh oh, I need to do something with my desktops,'" Thierry said.

Pivot3 launched at VMworld a new converged storage and compute product, the vSTAC R2S P Cubed appliance, which includes a preconfigured VMware Horizon Suite.

Like other storage vendors such as Tegile, the vSTAC R2S P Cubed appliance offers hybrid storage for VDI. It combines SATA drives, multi-tier storage and SSDs; plus, it takes advantage of in-memory read-caching from VMware vStorage Accelerator. Integrating with the Horizon Suite allows companies to manage virtual and physical desktops along with mobile devices -- all with storage built in.

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