The Guide to Selecting Flash for Virtual Environments

High performance flash based storage has dramatically improved the storage infrastructure’s ability to respond to the demands of servers and the applications that count on it. Nowhere does this improvement have more potential than in the virtualized server environment. The performance benefits of flash are so great that it can be deployed indiscriminately and still performance gains can be seen. But doing so may not allow the environment to take full advantage of flash performance. It may also be a much more expensive deployment model and put data at risk. Modern data centers need to understand which forms of flash and which deployment models will show the greatest return on investment while not risking any data.

The Value of Flash for Virtual Servers

Flash storage allows for a higher number of virtual machines (VM) per host. Increasing VM density reduces the number of physical servers required and thereby reduces one of the largest ongoing costs, buying more physical servers, which often are configured with multiple processors and extra DRAM. At the same time, the high performance and low latency of flash allows more mission critical applications to be virtualized. Finally, storage and hypervisor vendors are getting smarter about leveraging this faster form of storage by including storage quality of service (QoS) intelligence in their systems or environments.

To see the full return on the flash investment, server administrators will need to dramatically increase the total number of VMs per physical server and start virtualizing mission critical workloads. It also means investing more in the server internals as well as the network that connects servers to servers and servers to storage. Administrators should consider at least a 30:1 VM to host ratio, even if those VMs are CPU and storage resource intensive.

Flash Form Factors

Flash is available in four form factors, the most common of which is the solid state disk drive (SSD), which is flash memory containerized in a package similar to a hard disk drive. SSDs are popular both in servers and arrays because they can leverage the existing investment in hard drive bays and shelves. They are generally the least expensive form of flash that can be purchased. On the down side SSDs are not necessarily the most efficient form of flash. They require access through the standard SCSI storage protocol stack, and the form factor requirements limit their density.

The second form is a custom form factor that fully leverages the reality that flash is memory first and storage second. This approach, available in some arrays, requires a custom designed board and interface. These systems allow for maximum performance and maximum density. But they are proprietary and the customer is fully dependent on the vendor to keep pace with flash memory technology.

The third form is PCIe flash, which is flash storage placed on a PCIe board that can be installed in a server or storage system, although the most common by far is installation in a server. PCIe flash also takes two forms. The first is native PCIe flash, which provides native access to the PCIe bus and does not need to go through the SCSI storage stack. Doing so reduces latency and delivers greater performance, but this form of PCIe flash requires specific drivers in order to be accessed. Most PCIe flash vendors provide VMware, Windows and Linux support, so the driver concern should not be an issue for most virtualized environments.

The other form of PCIe flash is better described as PCIe SSD which means the PCIe board essentially has a SSD mounted on it along with a storage controller to manage that SSD. While it reintroduces SCSI latency, it often does not require special drivers.

The forth form is Memory bus flash, which allows flash to be installed in the same I/O path and slots as DRAM. Memory bus flash physically looks like a memory DIMM. This “network” further reduces latency for the ultimate in performance. Memory bus flash is so far only available to install in a server, but no storage vendor as of yet has announced a product that leverages this form of flash. Part of the challenges for memory bus flash is that motherboards need to be updated to natively support these modules, but so far only IBM and Super Micro are shipping products that support memory bus flash.

Flash Implementation Options

In general, there are two locations that flash can be implemented; server side and shared on a network. And there are three options for shared flash implementations; server aggregated flash, hybrid flash arrays (mixed flash and HDD) or all-flash. Each of the possible implementations has specific advantages.

Server Side

A common starting point for many virtual server administrators is server side deployment. In fact, many environments have moved to using SSD, as described above, for server boot and memory swap areas. Often in these situations the shared storage is still 100% hard drive based and the network may be a generation or two behind the current state of the art. In these cases a server side solution may be ideal. These solutions, especially for smaller environments, may be substantially less expensive than their shared storage alternatives, especially if a network upgrade can be avoided.

Server side flash, beyond boot drives, typically involves two components. First there is the flash device itself which can be any of the form factors described above, but often it is higher performing than the drive form factor SSD, with PCIe SSD being the most common, today. This hardware is then combined with caching software. This software automatically copies the most active data from the local hard drive or shared storage array into the flash area on the server. This provides maximum performance since the VM is accessing data from flash that is installed directly in the server.

Caching Software

Because hypervisors like VMware are a clustered environment, extra consideration should be taken when choosing one for the environment. The type of caching to be used needs to be decided on. There are three options; write around cache, write-through cache and write-back cache. All three of these cache types write the most frequently read data to the flash storage area, but vary in how they handle writes. Understanding these caching types and their pros and cons is also important for environments considering shared hybrid arrays, discussed below.

Write around caches are the safest form of caching available. All new or modified data is written to the local or shared hard disk array. Only after the data has been accessed enough is it promoted to the flash inside the server. This technique is the most “gentle” on flash, meaning that fewer write I/O’s happen to the flash tier and the data that is written to flash is qualified to be there. The downside is that all writes are limited to hard disk and network performance. Also it will take longer for the data to be promoted to the flash tier, meaning a much higher percentage of reads will be serviced from hard disk.

Write-through caches write data to both the flash area and the hard disk area at the same time. The application is not given acknowledgement of a completed write until the hard disk area has completed that write, so this technique is as safe as write around caching. The advantage of this technique is that the newly written data, the most likely to be read again, is already in cache. This means there are fewer reads that come from the HDD. There are three downsides to this technique. First, it does not eliminate writes to flash like write-around caching, so the chance of a flash wear-out is higher. Second, the technique does not improve write performance since acknowledgment has to come from the hard disk tier. Third, it is susceptible to a cache over-run where a large sequential write could replace all the data in the cache.

The final cache type is write-back. With this method all writes are cached in the local flash storage and then written to the hard disk drive tier asynchronously, typically a few seconds to a few minutes after completion of the write on the flash tier. This method provides equal improvements on both read and write performance. The downside is that there is a point in time where data may be on flash and not on HDDs, but the application has had the write fully acknowledged. That means that data written to the flash tier could be lost if there is a flash failure or the server. As a result, redundancy should be part of a write-back implementation, at a minimum flash should be mirrored in the server, but preferably by some sort of external write to another flash card installed in another server or a shared flash appliance.

There is also a downside to write-back caching in the virtualized server environment. If a VM is migrated from one host to another, the data that is in the write cache has to be flushed prior to migration. This means that the cache software vendor has to be integrated with the hypervisor software to make sure that this occurs. Most caching vendors have VMware support, but many are lacking Hyper-V support.

Shared Flash

The concerns and complexity that surrounds the caching software selection has lead to an increase in the adoption of a shared flash option. Generally there are three choices available; aggregated server flash, shared hybrid array and an all-flash array. Since they are shared and typically have data protection built in they avoid the challenges associated with server side deployments, but they all introduce network latency.

Aggregated Server Flash

Aggregated server flash leverages the cost effectiveness of server side flash, but has the redundancy of shared flash arrays. Essentially, the flash resources installed in each server are aggregated into a virtual pool. That pool can be a cache in front of a hard disk tier or it can be a dedicated flash only tier of storage. Software installed on each server that contributes to the aggregated volume and then that volume is accessible by the VMs in that hypervisor cluster. A RAID like, often erasure coding, redundancy is typically implemented so that the failure of any flash device or server should not lead to the loss of data.

While the flash aggregation concept has a lot of appeal there are some downsides. First, the networking between servers has to be expertly configured so that performance is not impacted. Most of these solutions perform their aggregation over IP based networks so a 10GbE connection is recommended, but it does not need to be dedicated solely to the storage aggregation. Second, there is resource consumption on each host as it manages the aggregation and communicates with the other hosts. This overhead should be manageable with today’s available compute resources but aggregated server flash may lead to lower VM densities than what is possible with dedicated shared flash. Third, and potentially the biggest, is that this is a new way to implement storage and IT professionals may simply not be comfortable with the choice.

Shared Hybrid Storage

Shared hybrid storage is the deployment of flash on a more traditional shared storage platform. In this use case, it is a mixture of flash storage with HDD. The goal is to deliver performance while keeping the cost per GB affordable. They will typically use one of the caching techniques described above to move data between the HDD and flash tiers, but the most common is a write back technique. Again, because this is a shared storage array, the traditional concerns of flash failure and VM migration are eliminated.

The concern with hybrid storage systems is inconsistent performance. While they provide excellent performance when retrieving data from flash, performance suffers when there is a cache miss, and data has to be recalled from the hard disk tier. Hybrid systems can be fine tuned to deliver near all-flash consistency. There are three keys to achieving that success. First, overbuying a little on flash capacity, most vendors suggest that flash be 5% of total capacity. Storage Switzerland finds that cache misses can be almost eliminated by increasing this to 10%. Second, by locking in certain mission critical or performance sensitive workloads into flash. The third step is to optimize the flash tier through deduplication and compression technologies, so that the 10% actually appears larger than it is.

Shared All-Flash

The final option is shared all-flash. If it can be afforded and combined with a modern storage network (10GbE or 16Gbps Fibre Channel) it eliminates much of the concerns discussed in this article. There is no tuning and no concerns about cache misses. In fact, one of the biggest surprises that IT professionals experience after implementing an all-flash array is how greatly their storage management time is reduced.

The key with all-flash is “can we afford it?”. All-flash vendors have gone to great lengths to reduce costs. First, the price of raw flash has decreased significantly over the past few years, and vendors have aggressively applied storage optimization techniques like deduplication and compression. Deduplication is the elimination of redundant data across files and compression is the elimination of redundant data within a file. On average, when both techniques are combined most environments report a 5:1 efficiency rating, and this rating is higher in a virtual server environment, by as much as 9:1. That means a 10TB system could appear to store 50 to 90TBs of information.

The second factor that brings all-flash pricing more inline is how much more value it can drive from the rest of the enterprise. Since this is a dedicated device, hosts consume no resources and since it is all-flash, all the time performance is consistent. This means that VM density can be pushed to new limits when all-flash is the storage infrastructure. The elimination of two times as many hosts as in other deployment models could more than cover the additional cost of all-flash.


Flash is almost tailor made for virtualization. It handles the random I/O profile of the environment with relative ease and allows for additional cost savings by increasing VM density. The challenge facing IT administrators is which of these options to pick. All-Flash, if it can be afforded, provides the simplest solution of them all, but as the realities of budget constraints set in, the other options become more valid. The key is to identify the configuration that can provide the most consistent performance without increasing complexity.

For most environments Shared Hybrid Storage, with a slightly higher allocation of flash capacity, makes the most sense. This is especially true if the storage system has the ability to pin or hard allocate certain workloads to flash. This allows mission critical workloads to be assured high performance while business critical workloads can count on the automation provided by the cache technology within the Hybrid Array to properly accelerate business critical workloads.

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Sponsored by Tegile Systems

This independently developed document is sponsored by Tegile Systems. The document may utilize publicly available material from various vendors, including Tegile, but it does not necessarily reflect the positions of such vendors on the issues addressed in this document.

Tegile Systems makes both All-Flash and Hybrid arrays that are feature rich. This allows their customers to select the type of flash solution that makes the most sense for their specific data center. Tegile’s storage arrays also include data efficiency techniques like deduplication and compression, making them ideal for virtualized environments.

George Crump is the Chief Marketing Officer of StorONE. Prior to StorONE, George spent almost 14 years as the founder and lead analyst at Storage Switzerland, which StorONE acquired in March of 2020. In his spare time, he continues to write blogs on Storage Switzerland to educate IT professionals on all aspects of data center storage. He is the primary contributor to Storage Switzerland and is a heavily sought-after public speaker. With over 30 years of experience designing storage solutions for data centers across the US, he has seen the birth of such technologies as RAID, NAS, SAN, Virtualization, Cloud, and Enterprise Flash. Prior to founding Storage Switzerland, he was CTO at one of the nation's largest storage integrators where he was in charge of technology testing, integration, and product selection.

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