Client Access & Windows Server 2016 Site Aware Stretched Clusters

Introduction

There’s more to business continuity than having multiple locations. When it comes to high availability, or perhaps more accurately disaster recovery and business continuity people tend to focus on the good news. Some managers don’t want to be bothered by the details of our incompetency (i.e. reality and laws of physics) and vendors only like to focus on what they can sell with the biggest profit margin. Anything raining on that party falls under annoying details. When such a manager and such a sales man find each other it’s a match made in heaven. You’re the one who’s bringing the rain. It comes under the form of a simple question. How are we going to expose the failed over services internally and externally to the users and customers? What you mean that million-dollar investment in multiple SANs, clusters and consultants isn’t sufficient? Nope!

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One piece of very good news is that in Windows Server 2016 Failover Clustering we can now leverage a cloud witness as well, next to a file share witness. This has the benefits we do not need a 3rd site for the file share witness. Which was not always feasible, sometimes a bit convoluted to achieve in the cloud via IAAS or depended on a rather less dependable server or PC somewhere in a branch office.

What’s the problem?

The problem is that failing over the workload with the services (VMs, SQL, File Servers, …) in a healthy, consistent state is only part of the challenge. The other part is to make sure that your clients (human or machines) can actually access those failed over services. If required or possible without noticing or with the smallest possible interruption possible. Even when you can achieve failover with only seconds of service interruption, some applications just can handle this gracefully or not at all.

The thing is when you have multiple sites that often means distinct separate subnets / networks. So when that VM with IP address of 10.10.100.124 on default untagged VLAN 100 fails over to the other site how will the clients in the various branch offices or on the internet access it services? DNS point to 10.10.100.124 under normal conditions.

Well when the IP address can be updated for the DNS record thanks to “Multi-Subnet Resource Configuration” (SQL Server, File Share) thing will work again, eventually, given enough time.

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Multi-Subnet Resource Configuration works as follows. We have a single network name resource which we make dependent on multiple IP Address resources. In cluster terms that’s a “OR” decency when looking at the validation report. The secret sauce is that only one of the IP address resources of the network name resource is online at any given time. This gets registered in DNS and that’s what the clients use to access the service.

This works but the DNS record need to be upgraded, DNS replication needs to happen, client their DNS cache needs to expire and update etc. You can be looking at half an hour of down time actually.

But what if Multi-Subnet Resource Configuration isn’t an option or we’re in a hurry? What are options and how well and fast do these work? That’s the point at which the storage vendor is already counting the profits, the PM states the job’s done and the boss has already decided the project is a success and the network guys have some questions about YOUR problems. Let’s discuss some of options to deal with accessing services after a site activation.

Note: Hyper-V replica has the ability inject an alternate IP address on failover but we’re talking about a stretched cluster here, where replication happens at the storage level, not at the application level (Hyper-V) for the virtual machines.

Software Defined Networking Aka Network Virtualization.

Using Hyper-V Network Virtualization (HNV) abstract VMs logical subnet boundaries. This gives each virtual network the illusion it is running as a physical network. The typical example for this is multiple tenants that have the same IP space. The fact that it overlays physical network is also very handy when it comes to one and the same tenants in multi-site scenarios. Virtual networks allow VMs to move across different physical networks without re-configuring IP address in guest OS.

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This totally abstracts the networks and it works great for virtual machines (Hyper-V). It doesn’t have to be limited to a single DC or site. Do note that there’s things to discuss around CSVs, Live Migration cluster wise and routing, gateways, DNS, geo load balancing access wise but you get the idea. When it comes to different subnets, different sites in regards to clustering things are not as easy as it seems. For this discussion we’re limiting ourselves to client connectivity to resources that move to another site and don’t dive into the details of network virtualization either.

Network Name Properties

There’s two cluster network name resource property setting you can configure to help reducing downtime after a failover.

RegisterAllProvidersIP cluster network name resource property

Remember our first story of “Multi-Subnet Resource Configuration” with the DNS updates and cache that has to expire? Well this can be enhanced as long as the applications can hand handle it. We can configure the DNS registration behavior via the RegisterAllProvidersIP property of a cluster networks name resource.

Get-ClusterResource MySQLServer |

Set-ClusterParameter RegisterAllProvidersIP 1

By setting this to TRUE all the IP address resources, on line and off line, are registered in DNS. If you have a “enlightened” application that can check for and handle multiple IP addresses and determine which one to use it allows for faster client reconnects. This works great with SQL Server.

HOstRecordTTL cluster network name resource property

This is great but has limited scope as the application has to have the logic to handle multiple registered IP addresses for the same resource and figure out when to use which one. SQL Server can do this, so can Exchange. What about a file server? RegisterAllProvidersIP won’t work but we can reduce the time to live of the DNS record for a cluster network resource IP address on the client from 20 minutes to 5 minutes or lower.

Get-ClusterResource MyFileShare |

Set-ClusterParameter HostRecordTTL 300

This is not an option for Hyper-V, there network virtualization works better or we use other options. Read on!

Stretch your VLANs

Here the VLAN(s) stretch across the sites. This means that the IP address of the service (VMs, SQL Servers, File Shares, …) never changes making it very easy to have the clients reconnect very fast.

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Easy for the apps and the system administrators. Well sort of, chances are that the networks admins will chip in and put a kill contract out on you with some assassins. Just saying. In a perfect world this would be a good idea. In reality layer 2 and spanning tree are making sure you’ll sort of regret it or at least deal with the drawback and fall out. Choose wisely.

Abstract the network devices

This is a network vendors provided solution and I don’t see it very much in the wild. In this approach the network devices use a 3rd IP address that get registered in DNS for use by the clients. The fact that the workload switches between subnets when failing over between sites is irrelevant to the clients.

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Cisco has this in a couple of solutions where NAT or a VIP is used to achieve this. As this is network appliance/ hardware based it works with any workload.

SLA your way out

Some people “mitigate” the prolonged down time by having a separate SLA for local failover versus site failover. Cool, but if I was cynical I could state that this is just lawyer behavior. You create fine print and “cover your ass” for that scenario. It’s not really solving anything but accepting longer down time and having all involved parties recognize and accept that fact. This is a valid approach.

Be creative & drive towards maximum portability

In an ideal world you can provision apps & services so fast you only need to protect and failover the persistent data. A world of micro services, containers where servers and virtual machines are cattle. But many of us will have to deal with servers being holey cows for now.

The above approaches are the most common options. There are more variations to these. One of those could be bases around the use of a dedicated management domain on both sites. It’s a concept I’ve used a couple of time where and when allowed.

It has some drawbacks or at least some complexities to deal with and one such example might be when configuring host based backups that need access to the guest VMs. This requires some extra firewall configuration. Nothing that would prevent you from doing so with good backup products like Veeam and it’s something you’re probably used to doing already for monitoring and backups across domains anyway.

But it also has serious benefits as the actual business domains are completely separate from the management domain and potentially 100% virtualized but that’s not a hard requirement as long as you keep the remaining physical servers in their own site dependent subnet which routes, these don’t move anyway, and they should have workloads that are distributed anyway like AD, Exchange DAGs, etc. The big benefits compared to a stretched cluster is that you can have the same subnet(s) on both sides of the stretched cluster for your virtual machines and you change the routing and endpoints for your public and private access to the services. Instead of making the changes to the cluster resources you do so higher up at the stack. It’s a bit like moving your data center to new location “as is” and directing the clients to the new location. This removes the need for stretched VLAN, or implementing network virtualization, at the cost of a bit more down time & work to “switch”. It’s worth considering.

It helps to leveraging DNS and geo load balancing technologies in this but the core infrastructure (the site ware stretched cluster) can run in a fully routed / Layer 3 fashion.

Sure you’ll still need to make sure the traffic from the offices goes to the correct data center now and it really rocks if you have your internet presence geo-load balanced in some way but let’s face it. But you needed to have that in order for any approach anyway.

Closing thoughts

There is a lot more detail and complexity to all of this than I covered in this short article. This is meant an eye opener, a point from where to start the discussion with the business demanding 24/7, 99.999% a zero cost and effort. Like Amazon or Azure but then better, cheaper and on premises. Ouch! As you might expect, this can’t be dealt with in just a few pages. Getting a solid, working disaster avoidance, recovery and business continuity plan & process is going to take some effort to create and maintain.

Fully failing over without any work or a second of downtime is a very expensive illusion and you might be better off with 15 to 20 minutes of down time for 90% of the workload and 30 to 60 minutes for the remaining 10% that trying to chase the ultimate perfection of 100% zero downtime ever for all services. Chances are you’ll go broke trying and pretending, which means failing. Remember that when your primary data center was just taken down or worse, burnt down, dealing with a couple of hours of down time to get you secondary site up and running 100 % isn’t actually as bad as it seems when discussing 2 or 3 hours of down time in a management meeting. Somehow it always seems a bigger deal when not faced with the alternative of the business being wiped out.

One final note, don’t forget to tell your bosses you’re going to have to practices this a couple of times per year. Doing it for real count’s a practice only if it’s the 3rd time you do it. Good luck!

Shared VHDX In Windows 2016: VHDS and the backing storage file

Introduction into the VHD Set

I have talked about the VHD Set with a VHDS file and a AVHDX backing storage file in Windows Server 2016 in a previous blog post A first look at shared virtual disks in Windows Server 2016. One of the questions I saw pass by a couple of times is whether this is still a “normal VHDX” or a new type of virtual disk. Well the VHDS files is northing but a small file containing some metadata to coordinate disk actions amongst the guest cluster nodes accessing the shared virtual disk. The avhdx file associated with that VHDS file is an automatically managed dynamically expanding or fixed virtual disk. How do I know this? Well I tested it.

There is nothing that preventing you from copying or moving the avhdx file of a VHD Set that not in use. You can rename the extension from avhdx to vhdx. You can attach it to another VM or mount it in the host and get to the data. In essence this is a vhdx file. The “a” in avhdx stands for automatic. The meaning of this is that an vhdx is under control of the hypervisor and you’re not supposed to be manipulating it but let the hypervisor handle this for you. But as you can see for yourself if you try the above you can get to the data if that’s the only option left. Normally you should just leave it alone. It does however serve as proof that the VHD Set uses an standard virtuak disk (VHDX) file.

I’ll demonstrate this with an example below.

Fun with a backing storage file in a VHD Set

Shut down all the nodes of the guest cluster so that the VHD Set files are not in use. We then rename the virtual disk’s extension avhdx to vhdx.

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You can then mount it on the host.

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And after mounting the VHDX we can see the content of the virtual disk we put there when it was a CSV in that guest cluster.

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We add some files while this vhdx is mounted on the host

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Rename the virtual disk back to a avhdx extension.

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We boot the nodes of the guest cluster and have a look at the data on the CSV. Bingo!

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I’m NOT advocating you do this as a standard operation procedure. This is a demo to show you that the backing storage files are normal VHDX files that are managed by the hypervisor and as such get the avhdx extension (automatic vhdx) to indicate that you should not manipulate it under normal circumstances. But in a pinch, it a normal virtual disk so you can get to it with all options and tools at your disposal if needed.

WEBINAR: Troubleshooting Microsoft Hyper-V – 4 Tales from the Trenches

I’ve teamed up with Altaro as a guest in one of their Hyper-V webinars to discuss trouble shooting Microsoft Hyper-V. I’ll be joining my fellow Microsoft Cloud and Datacenter Management  Andy Syrewicze for this in a virtual cross Atlantic team

WEBINAR: Troubleshooting Microsoft Hyper-V - 4 Tales from the Trenches

We’ll give you some pointers on good practices and where to start when things go south. We’ll also add some real world examples to the mix to spice things up. As you can imagine these issues are often a lot more fun after the facts and after having solved them. If you work in IT long enough you know that one day (or night) trouble will come knocking and that the stress related with that can be gut wrenching.

The good news is that it isn’t the end of the world. In well designed and managed environment you can minimize downtime and you do not have to suffer through unrecoverable losses as long as you’re well prepared. We hope this webinar will help the attendees prevent those problems in their environment. If not, it will provide you with some insight on how to prepare for and handle them.

The webinar is on February 25th, 2016 at 4pm CET / 10am EST!

The time has been chosen to make it feasible for as many many people across all time zones to attend. So, go on, register, it’s free and both Andy and I are looking forward to sharing our trouble shooting tales from the trenches.

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Windows Server 2016 TPv4 Hyper-V brings virtual machine configuration version 7

When building a Windows Server  2016 TPv4 Hyper-V cluster this weekend I noticed that we now have a new version of the virtual machine configuration.

When we migrate (rolling cluster upgrade, move to new cluster or host, import on new cluster or host) virtual machines to  Windows Server 2016 Hyper-V from Windows Server 2012 R2, the virtual machine’s configuration file isn’t automatically upgraded. In the past it was, which blocked moving back to a previous edition of Hyper-V. Now we can do this until we manually update the virtual machine configuration version.  This block going back but it enables our new virtual machine features. Version 5.0 is the one that’s compatible with Windows Server 2012 (R2) Windows Server 2016. Version 6.2 was what we had in TPv3 and could only run on Windows Server 2016. Windows Server 2016 TPv4 Hyper-V brings virtual machine configuration version 7.

When you have virtual machines that come from  Technical Preview v3 and you had updated the virtual machine configuration of your virtual machines or created brand new ones these would be at version 6.2. Since I do not consider it wise to keep testing these on a version of a previous preview I updated them all to version 7.

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The code below grabs all VMs on all cluster nodes (even the none clustered VMs), shuts them down, updates the configuration version and starts them again. It’s just a quick example.

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Now do NOT do this to virtual machines with configuration version 5 that you might want to move back / import to a Windows Server 2012 R2 Hyper-V host. But if you know you’ll be testing with the new features, have a blast, like me here on the TPv4 lab cluster.

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I’m still looking for the features version 7.0 enables, probably nested virtualization is one of those features I’m guessing. Happy testing!