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This article is part of our Conference Coverage: VMworld 2016 conference coverage

All-flash VSAN gaining speed

When buzzwords collide: Flash storage is making its mark on hyper-convergence, and VMware VSAN customers are giving all-flash VSAN clusters a try.

LAS VEGAS -- VMware is banking on flash and future advances in security and analytics to push its Virtual SAN hyper-converged software deep into the enterprise.

VSAN became more flash-friendly with version 6.2 earlier this year, with data deduplication enabling customers to gain more usable capacity from their expensive flash media. That has prompted customers to use all-flash VSAN nodes for applications that demand significant performance.

At VMworld this week, Lee Caswell, VMware's vice president of storage and availability products, called VSAN "the fastest-growing product in the fastest-growing market in storage." He said VSAN is lining up 100 customers per week -- triple its growth rate from last year -- and now has 5,000 customers.

Caswell said, with flash and hyper-converged, VSAN is bringing "the two biggest disrupters in the market together."

It helps that storage and server vendors, such as VMware's parent company EMC and EMC's new parent Dell Technologies, sell hyper-converged systems running VSAN. EMC representatives said its VSAN-powered VxRail has beaten internal sales forecasts since its February launch. Dell is among the partners who sell all-flash VSAN on Ready Node prepackaged hardware.

But VMware claims 500,000 overall customers, which means VSAN has only a 1% penetration rate of its customer base. Hyper-converged competition is heating up, with mature hyper-converged companies, such as Nutanix and SimpliVity, now supporting alternative hypervisors along with VMware. They also support all-flash hyper-converged appliances.

As hyper-convergence moves beyond virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) and remote office deployments, all-flash VSAN may not be enough for VMware to catch market leader Nutanix. VMware also seeks to add management features to make its case.

"Management is the No. 1 issue that we can improve," Caswell admitted during a VMworld session this week.

Caswell said hyper-converged is not the right choice for companies that have hundreds of servers and those who need the lowest latency, such as stock-trading firms. "The target design for VSAN is not the highest possible performance," he said.

But he said he sees it as a good fit for most mixed workloads, and he said most VSAN customers say they use it to run business-critical applications.

Of seven companies involved with two VSAN user panels on the first two days of VMworld, five were already using all-flash clusters, running them in the lab or evaluating them. Most of those all-flash VSAN implementations were on Ready Nodes.

"We're going to do all-flash from now on," said Adam Cook, a senior systems engineer at Amway, based in Ada, Mich., who began using all-flash for VDI. "Our private cloud will be all-flash."

Cook said the cost of flash was an initial concern, but deduplication reduced it to just over $1 per gigabyte on Supermicro servers, and that includes the cost of software and networking.

Michael Caruso, assistant vice president of corporate information systems for Synergent Corp., based in Westbrook, Maine, said he is switching his Horizon View VDI clusters from hybrids to all-flash. He said his hybrids "seem to be holding their own" with 310 virtual desktops, but users always want more performance.

My end users are always complaining about performance and speed. I'm not messing around; I'll just give them all-flash.
Michael Carusoassistant vice president of corporate information systems, Synergent Corp.

"My end users are always complaining about performance and speed. I'm not messing around; I'll just give them all-flash," he said. "Hopefully, it will give them a better experience."

Unlike the past two VMworld conferences, VMware had no new VSAN product releases this year. However, the company is including VSAN in its new Cloud Foundation, which received a lot of attention at the conference. VMware executives also previewed roadmap features that will appear in a coming VSAN beta release and versions beyond that.

Christos Karamanolis, CTO of VMware's storage and availability group, said the next beta will add native encryption of data at rest as part of the design goal to increase enterprise features. A longer-term project is to provide cloud-based analytics that have been showing up in storage arrays over the past few years.

"We'll collect data through telemetry and crunch the numbers in the VMware public cloud," Karamanolis said.

A goal of the analytics is to help customers predict problems and suggest actions to alleviate them. For instance, if usage patterns detect a demand surge on a cluster, the analytics engine can recommend moving a workload to an all-flash cluster or off to a public cloud.

VMware would use the data collected from thousands of customers to do root-cause analysis and send information back to customers through the vSphere interface. Karamanolis said VMware is also working on adding data governance to VSAN, enabling administrators to control "what data is where, who has control of it and how it is accessed."

VMware is also planning integrated support for containers and its Photon Platform for cloud-native applications in VSAN.

During a hyper-converged technology session, Karamanolis discussed how VSAN will also benefit from future flash advances, such as NVMe and then 3D XPoint. "All-flash is becoming the predominant configuration," he said. "This is the model going forward."

Next Steps

Hyper-convergence finds ways to use all-flash

Implementing flash storage in hyper-converged systems

Scale Computing boosts hyper-converged systems with flash

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What makes all-flash worth the extra cost to you for a hyper-converged implementation?
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Thanks for this thoughtful article. With 5000 customers VMware is claiming to be the HCI market leader now, yet your article references Nutanix as the market leader. Perhaps that is based on 2015 data?

p.s.  I am a VMware employee. :)
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