Plan, Execute, THEN Drink the Beer!

This topic has been simmering in my mind for years now.  Everyone’s favorite thing to hate: planning.  I don’t have all the answers but I want to try to provide some guidance to someone specific.  Yes, you, the dude who recognizes the need for planning when nobody around does.  The dudette who is tired of having projects go awry Every. Single. Time.  Beers are great to celebrate a project victory, but a lot of you are using (abusing?) them throughout the project cycle to help numb the pain.  I get it; I’ve been there.

There are a lot of things that this post is not.  It is not a crash course in project management.  I don’t talk about cool buzzwords like agile or scrum.  I’m not going to talk about change management processes or anything like that.  It is simply a collection of my observations about the multitude of businesses I’ve worked in or with, and the multitude of projects I’ve seen succeed and fail.  But read on, I think you’ll still find it useful. Continue reading

The Amazingness That Will Be vSphere 6.5

In case you haven’t heard the news, VMware announced vSphere 6.5 at VMworld Europe this year.  As usual I wouldn’t recommend anyone jumps on the bandwagon at the .0 release (unless you have test environments).  Nobody wants to be that first gazelle across the river!

Make no mistake, there are a TON of new features and enhancements in this version, which you should be checking out on VMware’s press releases.  I don’t want to cover them all, as you’d need a gallon of coffee to make it through, but I did want to talk about a few of them that I’m personally excited about. Continue reading

Shedding Light on Storage Encryption

I’ve been noticing some fundamental misunderstandings around storage encryption – I see this most when dealing with XtremIO although plenty of platforms support it (VNX2 and VMAX).  I hope this blog post will help someone who is missing the bigger picture and maybe make a better decision based on tradeoffs.  This is not going to be a heavily technical post, but is intended to shed some light on the topic from a strategic angle.

Hopefully you already know, but encryption at a high level is a way to make data unreadable gibberish except by an entity that is authorized to read it.  The types of storage encryption I’m going to talk about are Data At Rest Encryption (often abbreviated DARE or D@RE), in-flight encryption, and host-based encryption.  I’m talking in this post mainly about SAN (block) storage, but these concepts also apply to NAS (file) storage.  In fact, in-flight encryption is probably way more useful on a NAS array given the inherent security of FC fabrics.  But then, iSCSI, and it gets cloudier.

Before I start, security is a tool and can be used wisely or poorly with equivalent results.  Encryption is security.  All security, and all encryption, is not great.  Consider the idea of cryptographic erasure, by which data is “deleted” merely because it is encrypted and nobody has the key.  Ransomware thrives on this.  You are looking at a server with all your files on it, but without the key they may as well be deleted.  Choosing a security feature for no good business reason other than “security is great” is probably a mistake that is going to cause you headaches.


Here is a diagram with 3 zones of encryption.  Notice that host-based encryption overlaps the other two – that is not a mistake as we will see shortly.

Data At Rest Encryption

D@RE of late is typically referring to a storage arrays ability to encrypt data at the point of entry (write) and decrypt on exit (read).  Sometimes this is done with ASICs on an array or I/O module, but it is often done with Self Encrypting Drives (SEDs).  However the abstract concept of D@RE is simply that data is encrypted “at rest,” or while it is sitting on disk, on the storage array.

This might seem like a dumb question, but it is a CRUCIAL one that I’ve seen either not asked or answered incorrectly time and time again: what is the purpose of D@RE?  The point of D@RE is to prevent physical hardware theft from compromising data security.  So, if I nefariously steal a drive out of your array, or a shelf of drives out of your array, and come up with some way to attach them to another system and read them, I will get nothing but gibberish.

Now, keep in mind that this problem is typically far more of an issue on a small server system than it is a storage array.  A small server might just have a handful of drives associated with it, while a storage array might have hundreds, or thousands.  And those drives are going to be in some form of RAID protection which leverages striping.  So even without D@RE the odds of a single disk holding meaningful data is small, though admittedly it is still there.

More to the point, D@RE does not prevent anyone from accessing data on the array itself.  I’ve heard allusions to this idea that “don’t worry about hackers, we’ve got D@RE” which couldn’t be more wrong, unless you think hackers are walking out of your data center with physical hardware.  If the hackers are intercepting wire transmissions, or they have broken into servers with SAN access, they have access to your data.  And if your array is doing the encryption and someone manages to steal the entire array (controllers and all) they will also have access to your data.

D@RE at the array level is also one of the easiest to deal with from a management perspective because usually you just let the array handle everything including the encryption keys.  This is mostly just a turn it on and let it run solution.  You don’t notice it and generally don’t see any fall out like performance degradation from it.

In-Flight Encryption

In-flight encryption is referring to data being encrypted over the wire.  So your host issues a write to a SAN LUN, and that traverses your SAN network and lands on your storage array.  If data is encrypted “in-flight,” then it is encrypted throughout (at least) the switching.

Usually this is accomplished with FC fabric switches that are capable of encryption.  So the switch that sees a transmission on an F port will encrypt it, and then transmit it encrypted along all E ports (ISLs) and then decrypt it when it leaves another F port.  So the data is encrypted in-flight, but not at rest on the array.  Generally we are still talking about ASICs here so performance is not impacted.

Again let’s ask, what is the purpose of in-flight encryption?  In-flight encryption is intended to prevent someone who is sniffing network traffic (meaning they are somehow intercepting the data transmissions, or a copy of the data transmissions, over the network) from being able to decipher data.

For local FC networks this is (in my opinion) not often needed.  FC networks tend to be very secure overall and not really vulnerable to sniffing.  However, for IP based or WAN based communication, or even stretched fabrics, it might be sensible to look into something like this.

Also keep in mind that because data is decrypted before being written to the array, it does not provide the physical security that D@RE does, nor does it prevent anyone from accessing data in general.  You also sometimes have the option of not decrypting when writing to the array.  So essentially the data is encrypted when leaving the host, and written encrypted on the array itself.  It is only decrypted when the host issues a read for it and it exits the F port that host is attached to. This results in you having D@RE as well with those same benefits.  A real kicker here becomes key management, because in-flight encryption can be removed at any time without issue.  You can remove or disable in-flight encryption and not see any change in data because at the ends it is unencrypted.  However, if the data is written encrypted on the array, then you MUST have those keys to read that data.  If you had some kind of disaster that compromised your switches and keys, you would have a big array full of cryptographically erased data.

Host Based Encryption

Finally, host-based encryption is any software or feature that encrypts LUNs or files on the server itself.  So data that is going to be written to files (whether SAN based or local files) is encrypted in memory before the write actually takes place.

Host-based encryption ends up giving you both in-flight encryption and D@RE as well.  So when we ask the question, what is the purpose of host-based encryption?, we get the benefits we saw from in-flight and D@RE, as well as another one.  That is the idea that even with the same hardware setup, no other host can read your data.  So if I were to forklift your array, fabric switches, and get an identical server (hardware, OS, software) and hook it up, I wouldn’t be able to read your data.  Depending on the setup, if a hacker compromises the server itself in your data center, they may not be able to read the data either.

So why even bother with the other kinds of encryption?  Well for one, generally host-based encryption does incur a performance hit because it isn’t using ASICs.  Some systems might be able to handle this but many won’t be able to.  Unlike D@RE or in-flight, there will be a measurable degradation when using this method.  Another reason is that key management again becomes huge here.  Poor key management and a server having a hardware failure can lead to that data being unreadable by anyone.  And generally your backups will be useless in this situation as well because you have backups of encrypted data that you can’t read without the original keys.

And frankly, usually D@RE is good enough.  If you have a security issue where host-based encryption is going to be a benefit, usually someone already has the keys to the kingdom in your environment.

Closing Thoughts

Hopefully that cleared up the types of encryption and where they operate.

Another question I see is “can I use one or more at the same time?”  The answer is yes, with caveats.  There is nothing that prevents you from using even all 3 at the same time, even though it wouldn’t really make any sense.  Generally you want to avoid overlapping because you are encrypting data that is already encrypted which is a waste of resources.  So a sensible pairing might be D@RE on the array and in-flight on your switching.

A final HUGELY important note – and what really prompted me to write this post – is to make sure you fully understand the effect of encryption on all of your systems.  I have seen this come up in a discussion about XtremIO using D@RE paired with host-based encryption.  The question was “will it work?” but the question should have been “should we do this?”  Will it work?  Sure, there is nothing problematic about host-based encryption and XtremIO D@RE interacting, other than the XtremIO system encrypting already encrypted data.  What is problematic, though, is the fact that encrypted data does not compress, and most encrypted data won’t dedupe either…or at least not anywhere close to the level of unencrypted data.  And XtremIO generally relies on its fantastic inline compression and dedupe features to fit a lot of data on a small footprint. XtremIO’s D@RE happens behind the compression and deduplication, so there is no issue.  However host-based encryption will happen ahead of the dedupe/compression and will absolutely destroy your savings. So if you wanted to use the system like this, I would ask, how was it sized?  Was it sized with assumptions about good compression and dedupe ratios?  Or was it sized assuming no space savings?  And, does the extra money you will be spending for the host-based encryption product and the extra money you will be spending on the additional required storage justify the business problem you were trying to solve?  Or was there even a business problem at all?  A better fit would probably be something like a tiered VNX2 and FAST cache which could easily handle a lot of raw capacity and use the flash where it helps the most.

Again, security is a tool, so choose the tools you need, use them judiciously, and make sure you fully understand their impact (end-to-end) in your environment.

Bustin’ Your Data Center Ghosts

Fair warning – this is not meant to  be a technical article, but hopefully it will inspire you to better your organization!  This is based on my observations for companies I have worked for and companies I have worked with.

Data center ghosts.  Or relics.  Or demons.  Or zombies.  You should know what I’m talking about, because almost every company has them.

Sometimes there are fascinating stories about them that read like something out of a Stephen King novel.

Oh yea don’t go near rack C-39!  One time a site ops guy spent too much time fixing up cables in there, and the entire infrastructure went down.  Some say he went mad and is now locked up in a velcro tie straight jacket…


Sometimes it is ancient hardware that people joke about…but always in a respectful way!

Yep this is the oldest server in the data center…takes up 24U of rack space and is less powerful than my cell phone.  Ol’ Loudy McDiesALot we call him.  Sure we roast marshmallows on his rear exhaust but he’ll outlive us all.


And worse sometimes you might not really know they are around you.

What that network hub on the desk in the corner?  Naa that isn’t managing our entire inbound/outbound network.  I’m sure if we unplugged it we totally wouldn’t lose entire connectivity to the outside world.  I mean, we never have unplugged it because we don’t really know what it is doing…still don’t look at it too long.


Often there is a lot of pain in dealing with these entities.  It takes a concentrated effort and a lot of buy-in by key players.  They require a massive overhaul to remove, or a herculean migration effort to swap out.  There are people in the organization who will fight it.  Maybe they are stuck in the past.  Maybe they are lazy.  Or maybe they’ve been around long enough to see the scorched earth after the demon rears its ugly head – usually once you’ve seen the fallout of trying to correct a problem and causing an outage, you don’t want to be around when they push that button again.

It can seem like a “good thing” to just leave it be, but by not dealing with these entities head on problems simply cascade through the environment.

These ghosts in your environment are toxic.  They are short term heart attacks and long term ulcers for employees.  They make admins hate the infrastructure and the data center.  They make managers and C-levels unsure of the stability of their enterprise.

They make any “new” people in your environment very dangerous.  Whether that is someone like myself who is coming in to implement some new hardware, or just some new employee you hired on.  Ghosts are especially problematic because they usually don’t have giant red warning signs on them.  I don’t know about that Windows NT server you’ve got stowed away in the corner managing your database connections.  The new guy doesn’t know that disconnecting the hub in the corner is going to take down your entire business.  Unless you make that part of your onboarding process…in which case I’d expect that if you are bringing in some intelligent new hires they won’t be with you too long…

Some admins wear ghosts like a badge of honor.  It has always been really strange for me to listen to someone say, “yessir, this widget is my responsibility and IT CAN NEVER GO DOWN!” with a big beaming smile.  I mean, I get what you are saying, but all I’m hearing you proudly declare is, “yep, I first designed and now admin this terrible solution!”  You can design a SERVICE to (likely) never go down, but not a SERVER.

It is no exaggeration to say that there are hundreds of good solutions out there for virtually any problem.  As much as orgs like to think they are beautiful, unique snowflakes (and in some tiny ways almost all of them are) most problems fall into general buckets and have been tackled before.  By not availing yourself of these solutions it is simply doing a disservice to your company.  Solutions come in many shapes and sizes (which mostly just means complexity and cost), from new hardware, to updated methodologies, to new ways of thinking like automation or public cloud (let someone else worry about hardware problems).

The pay off for eradicating your ghosts is immeasurable.  The infrastructure will be stable, but it is something even more than that.  It is the admins being able to stroll in to work in the morning, grab their coffee, and saunter over to their desks without dreading what horrific email alerts are going to greet them.   It is the data center tech who is no longer terrified to open up a rack door.  It is a manager having a firm understanding of what is in his environment and all the redundancy he could ever want.

Nobody wants to work in, around, or above infrastructure that is fragile. Find the fault lines and seal them up permanently.  Make it your New Years resolution.  Your stress levels will thank me.

Thoughts on Thin Provisioning

I finally decided to put all my thoughts down on the topic of thin provisioning.  I wrestled with this post for a while because some of what I say is going to go kinda-sorta against a large push in the industry towards thin provisioning.  This is not a new push; it has been happening for years now.  This post may even be a year or two too late…

I am not anti-thin – I am just not 100% pro-thin.  I think there are serious questions that need to be addressed and answered before jumping on board with thin provisioning.  And most of these are relatively non-technical; the real issue is operational.

Give me a chance before you throw the rocks.

What is Thin Provisioning?

First let’s talk about what thin provisioning is, for those readers who may not know.  I feel like this is a pretty well known and straightforward concept so I’m not going to spend a ton of time on it.  Thin provisioning at its core is the idea of provisioning storage space “on demand.”

Before thin provisioning a storage administrator would have some pool of storage resources which gave some amount of capacity.  This could be simply a RAID set or even an actual pooling mechanism like Storage Pools on VNX.  A request for capacity would come in and they would “thick provision” capacity out of the pool.  The result would mean that the requested capacity would be reserved from the pooled capacity and be unavailable for use…except obviously for whatever purpose it was provisioned for.  So for example if I had 1000GB and you requested a 100GB LUN, my remaining pool space would be 900GB.  I could use the 900GB for whatever I wanted but couldn’t encroach into your 100GB space – that was yours and yours alone.  This is a thick provisioned LUN.

Of course back then it wasn’t “thick provisioning,” it was just “provisioning” until thin came along! With thin provisioning, after the request is completed and you’ve got your LUN, the pool is still at 1000GB (or somewhere very close to it due to metadata allocations which are beyond the scope of this post).  I have given you a 100GB LUN out of my 1000GB pool and still I have 1000GB available.  Remember that as soon as you get this 100GB LUN, you will usually put a file system on it and then it will appear empty.  This emptyness is the reason that the 100GB LUN doesn’t take up any space…there isn’t really any data on it until you put it there.

Essentially the thin LUN is going to take up no space until you start putting stuff into it.  If you put 10GB of data into the LUN, then it will take up 10GB on the back side.  My pool will now show 990GB free.  You should have a couple of indicators on the array like allocated or subscribed or committed and consumed or used.  Allocated/subscribed/committed is typically how much you as the storage administrator have created in the pool.  Consumed or used is how much the servers themselves have eaten up.

What follows are, in no particular order, some things to keep in mind when thin provisioning.

Communication between sysadmin and storage admin

This seems like a no-brainer but a discussion needs to happen between the storage admins providing the storage and the sysadmins who are consuming it.  If a sysadmin is given some space, they typically see this as space they can use for whatever they want.  If they need a dumping ground for a big ISO, they can use the SAN attached LUN with 1TB of free space on it.  Essentially they will likely feel that space you’ve allocated is theirs to do whatever they want with.  This especially makes sense if they’ve been using local storage for years.  If they can see disk space on their server, they can use it as they please.  It is “their” storage!

You need to have this conversation so that sysadmins understand activities and actions that are “thin hostile.”  A thin hostile action is one that effectively nullifies the benefit of thin provisioning by eating up space from day 1.  An example of a thin hostile action would be hard formatting the space a 500GB database will use up front, before it is actually in use.  Another example of a thin hostile action would be to do a block level zero formatting of space, like Eager Zero Thick on ESX.  And obviously using excess free space on a LUN for a file dumping ground is extremely thin hostile!

Another area of concern here is deduplication.  If you are using post-process deduplication, and you have thin provisioned storage, your sysadmins need to be aware of this when it comes to actions that would overwrite a significant amount of data.  You may dedupe their data space by 90%, but if they come in and overwrite everything it can balloon quickly.

The more your colleagues know about how their actions can affect the underlying storage, the less time you will spend fire fighting.  Good for them, good for you.  You are partners, not opponents!

Oversubscription & Monitoring

With thin provisioning, because no actual reservation happens on disk, you can provision as much storage as you want out of as small a pool as you want.  When you exceed the physical media, you are “oversubscribing” (or overcommitting, or overprovisioning, or…).  For instance, with your 1000GB you could provision 2000GB of storage.  In this case you would be 100% oversubscribed.  You don’t have issues as long as the total used or consumed portion is less than 1000GB.

There are a lot of really appealing reasons for doing this.  Most of the time people ask for more storage than they really need…and if it goes through several “layers” of decision makers, that might amplify greatly.  Most of the time people don’t need all of the storage they asked for right off the bat.  Sometimes people ask for storage and either never use it or wait a long time to use it.  The important thing to never forget is that from the sysadmin’s perspective, that is space you guaranteed them!  Every last byte.

Oversubscription is a powerful tool, but you must be careful about it.  Essentially this is a risk-reward proposition: the more people you promise storage to, the more you can leverage your storage array, but the more you risk that they will actually use it.  If you’ve given out 200% of your available storage, that may be a scary situation when a couple of your users decide to make good on the promise of space you made to them.  I’ve seen environments with as much as 400% oversubscription.  That’s a very dangerous gamble.

Thin provisioning itself doesn’t provide much benefit unless you choose to oversubscribe.  You should make a decision on how much you feel comfortable oversubscribing.  Maybe you don’t feel comfortable at all (if so, are you better off thick?).  Maybe 125% is good for you.  Maybe 150%.  Nobody can make this decision for you because it hinges on too many internal factors.  The important thing here is to establish boundaries up front.  What is that magic number?  What happens if you approach it?

Monitoring goes hand in hand with this.  If you monitor your environment by waiting for users to email that systems are down, oversubscribing is probably not for you.  You need to have a firm understanding of how much you’ve handed out and how much is being used.  Again, establish thresholds, establish an action plan for exceeding them, and monitor them.

Establishing and sticking with thresholds like this really helps speed up and simplify decision making, and makes it very easy to measure success.  You can always re-evaluate the thresholds if you feel like they are too low or too high.

Also make sure your sysadmins are aware of whether you are oversubscribed or not, and what that means to them.  If they are planning on a massive expansion of data, maybe they can check with you first.  Maybe they requested storage for a project and waited 6 months for it to get off the ground – again they can check with you to make sure all is well before they start in on it.  These situations are not about dictating terms, but more about education.  Many other resources in your environment are likely oversubscribed.  Your network is probably oversubscribed.  If a sysadmin in the data center decided to suddenly multicast an image to a ton of servers on a main network line, you’d probably have some serious problems.  You probably didn’t design your network to handle that kind of network traffic (and if you did you probably wasted a lot of money).  Your sysadmins likely understand the potential DDoS effect this would generate, and will avoid it.  Nobody likes pain.

“Runway” to Purchase New Storage

Remember with thin provisioning you are generally overallocating and then monitoring (you are monitoring, aren’t you?) usage.  At some point you may need to buy more storage.

If you wait till you are out of storage, that’s no good right?  You have a 100% consumed pool, with a bunch of attached hosts that are thinking they have a lot more storage to run through.  If you have oversubscribed a pool of storage and it hits 100%, it is going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day for you and everyone around you.  At a minimum new writes to anything in that pool will be denied, effectively turning your storage read-only.  At a maximum, the entire pool (and everything in it) may go offline, or you may experience a variety of fun data corruptions.

So, you don’t want that.  Instead you need to figure out when you will order new storage.  This will depend on things like:

  • How fast is your storage use growing?
  • How many new projects are you implementing?
  • How long does it take you to purchase new storage?

The last point is sometimes not considered before it is too late.  When you need more storage you have to first figure out exactly what you need, then you need to spec it, then you need a quote, the quote needs approval, then purchasing, then shipping, then it needs to be racked/stacked, then implemented.  How long does this process last for your organization?  Again nobody can answer this but you.  If your organization has a fast turn around time, maybe you can afford to wait till 80% full or more.  But if you are very sluggish, you might need to start that process at 60% or less.

Another thing to consider is if you are a sluggish organization, you may save money by thick provisioning.  Consider that you may need 15TB of storage in 2 years.  Instead you buy 10TB of storage right off the bat with a 50% threshold.  As soon as you hit 5TB of storage used you buy another 10TB to put you at 20.  Then when you hit 10 you buy another 10TB to put you at 30.  Finally at 15TB you purchase again and hit 40TB.  If you had bought 20 to begin with and gone thick, you would have never needed to buy anything else.  This situation is probably uncommon but I wanted to mention it as a thought exercise.  Think about how the purchasing process will impact the benefit you are trying to leverage from thin provisioning.

Performance Implications

Simply – ask your vendor whether thin storage has any performance difference over thick.  The answer with most storage arrays (where you have an actual choice between thick and thin) is yes.  Most of the time this is a negligible difference, and sometimes the difference is only in the initial allocation – that is to say, the first write to a particular LBA/block/extent/whatever.  But again, ask.  And test to make sure your apps are happy on thin LUNs.

Feature Implications

Thin provisioning may have feature implications on your storage system.

Sometimes thin provisioning enables features.  On a VMAX, thin provisioning enables pooling of a large number of disks.  On a VNX thin provisioning is required for deduplication and VNX Snapshots.

And sometimes thin provisioning either disables or is not recommended with certain features.  On a VNX thin LUNs are not recommended for use as File OE LUNs, though you can still do thin file systems on top of thick LUNs.

Ask what impact thin vs thick will have on array features – even ones you may not be planning to use at this very second.

Thin on Thin

Finally, in virtualized environments, in general you will want to avoid “thin on thin.”  This is a thin datastore created on a thin LUN.  The reason is that you tend to lose a static point of reference for how much capacity you are overprovisioning.  And if your virtualization team doesn’t communicate too well with the storage team, they could be unknowingly crafting a time bomb in your environment.

Your storage team might have decided they are comfortable with a 200% oversubscription level, and your virt team may have made this same decision.  This will potentially overallocate your storage by 400%!  Each team is sticking to their game plan, but without knowing and monitoring the other folks they will never see the train coming.

You can get away with thin on thin if you have excellent monitoring, or if your storage and virt admins are one and the same (which is common these days).  But my recommendation still continues to be thick VMs on thin datastores.  You can create as many thin datastores as you want, up to system limits, and then create lazy zeroed thick VMs on top of them.

Edit: this recommendation assumes that you are either required or compelled to use thin storage.  Thin VMs on thick storage are just as effective, but sometimes you won’t have a choice in this matter.  The real point is keeping one side or the other thick gives you a better point of reference for the amount of overprovisioning.


Hopefully this provided some value in the form of thought processes around thin provisioning.  Again, I am not anti-thin; I think it has great potential in some environments.  However, I do think it needs to be carefully considered and thought through when it sometimes seems to be sold as a “just thin provision, it will save you money” concept.  It really needs to be fleshed out differently for every organization, and if you take the time to do this you will not only better leverage your investment, but you can avoid some potentially serious pain in the future.