Using RAMDisk To Test Windows Server 2012 Network Performance

I’m testing & playing different Windows Server 2012 & Hyper-V networking scenarios with 10Gbps, Multichannel, RDAM, Converged networking etc. Partially this is to find out what works best for us in regards to speed, reliability, complexity, supportability and cost.

Basically you have for basic resources in IT around which the eternal struggle for the prefect balance finds place. These are:

  • CPU
  • Memory
  • Networking
  • Storage

We need both the correct balance in capabilities, capacities and speed for these in well designed system. For many years now, but especially the last 2 years it very save to say that, while the sky is the limit, it’s become ever easier and cheaper to get what we need when it comes to CPU, Memory. These have become very powerful, fast and affordable relative to the entire cost of a solution.

Networking in the 10Gbps era is also showing it’s potential in quantity (bandwidth), speed (latency) and cost (well it’s getting there) without reducing the CPU or memory to trash thanks to a bunch of modern off load technologies. And basically in this case it’s these qualities we want to put to the test.

The most trouble some resource has been storage and it has been for quite a while. While SSD do wonders for many applications the balance between speed, capacity & cost isn’t that sweet as for our other resources.

In some environments were I’m active they have a need for both capacity and IOPS and as such they are in luck as next to caching a lot of spindles still equate to more IOPS. For testing the boundaries of one resource one needs to make sure non of the others hit theirs. That’s not easy as for performance testing can’t always have a truck load of spindles on a modern high speed SAN available.

RAMDisk to ease the IOPS bottleneck

To see how well the 10Gbps cards with and without Teaming, Multichannel, RDMA are behaving and what these configuration are capable of I wanted to take as much of the disk IOPS bottle neck out of the equation as possible. Apart from buying a Violin system capable of doing +1 million IOPS, which isn’t going to happen for some lab work, you can perhaps get the best possible IOPS by combining some local SSD and RAMDisk. RAMDisk is spare memory used as a virtual disk. It’s very fast and cost effective per IOPS. But capacity wise it’s not the worlds best, let alone most cost effective solution.


I’m using free RAMDisk software provided by StarWind. I chose this as they allow for large sized RAMDisks. I’m using the ones of 54GB right now to speed test copying fixed sized VHDX files. It install flawlessly on Windows Server 2012 and it hasn’t caused me any issues. Throw in some SSDs on the servers for where you need persistence and you’re in business for some very nice lab work.


You also need to be aware it doesn’t persist data when you reboot the system or lose power. This is not an issue if all we are doing is speed testing as we don’t care. Otherwise you’ll need to find a workaround and realize those ‘”flush the data to persistent storage” isn’t full proof or super fast, the SSDs do help here.

You have to register but the good news is that they don’t spam you to death at all, which I find cool. As said the tool is free, works with Windows Server 2012 and allows for larger RAMDisks where other free ones are often way to limited in size.

It has allowed me to do some really nice testing. Perhaps you want to check this out as well. WARNING: The below picture is a lab setup … I’m not a magician and it’s not the kind of IOPS I have all over the datacenters with 4 Cheapo SATA disks I touched my special magic pixie dust.


With #WinServ 2012 storage costs/performance/capacity are the only thing limiting you #SMB3.0 #Multichannel

Some quick tests with a 52GB NTFS RAMDisk formatted with a 64K NTFS Allocation unit size.

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I also tested with another free tool from SoftPerfect ® RAM Disk FREE. It performs well but I don’t get to see the RAMDisk in the Windows Disk Management GUI, at least not on Windows Server 2012. I have not tested with W2K8R2.

NTFS Allocation unit size 4K NTFS Allocation unit size 64K
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HP Discover 2011 in Vienna

I’m off to Vienna (Austria) to attend HP Discover next week. The idea is to go look at their kit and learn a bit more about what’s available and possible. I hope to discuss their offerings with them and I will have storage as my main focus. This is because things are about to get busy in that area for us.  I’ll also provide them with some feedback on our experiences, what we like, don’t like etc. Call it “the good, the bad and the ugly" of free (no I don’t need or want a free Amazon gift card to provide it) customer feedback if you like.

I appreciate a chance to provide feedback to vendors directly and I do think it is important. Not because I have that much to say or have such a big impact but because apart from sales figures it’s the best way to help them and thus us as customers to get good things enhanced and broken stuff fixed.

If there is one thing that a lot of vendors are missing is a better view of the opportunities in the SME market that has a need for enterprise level features but on a smaller budget. That does exist and that market can be tapped more than it is now. Sometimes it seems like the commercial offerings in this market are divided in small & large and the sizes in between are crushed or forgotten between those two markets. I hear this a lot from colleagues & friends as well, so it’s not just me. We’re not the huge budget crowd but make up for that in numbers. We’ll see what HP has to offer that segment of the market in 2012.

Introducing 10Gbps & Integrating It into Your Network Infrastructure (Part 4/4)

This is a 4th post in a series of 4. Here’s a list of all parts:

  1. Introducing 10Gbps Networking In Your Hyper-V Failover Cluster Environment (Part 1/4)
  2. Introducing 10Gbps With A Dedicated CSV & Live Migration Network (Part 2/4)
  3. Introducing 10Gbps & Thoughts On Network High Availability For Hyper-V (Part 3/4)
  4. Introducing 10Gbps & Integrating It Into Your Network Infrastructure (Part 4/4)

In my blog post “Introducing 10Gbps & Thoughts On Network High Availability For Hyper-V (Part 3/4)” in a series of thoughts on 10Gbps and Hyper-V networking a discussion on NIC teaming brought up the subject of 10Gbps for virtual machine networks. This means our switches will probably no longer exist in isolation unless those virtual Machines don’t ever need to talk to anything outside what’s connected to those switches. This is very unlikely. That means we need to start thinking and talking about integrating the 10Gbps switches in our network infrastructure. So we’re entering the network engineers their turf again and we’ll need to address some of their concerns. But this is not bad news as they’ll help us prevent some bad scenarios.

Optimizing the use of your 10Gbps switches

As not everyone runs clusters big enough, or enough smaller clusters, to warrant an isolated network approach for just cluster networking. As a result you might want to put some of the remaining 10Gbps ports to work for virtual machine traffic. We’ve already pointed out that your virtual machines will not only want to talk amongst themselves (it’s a cluster and private/internal networks tend to defeat the purpose of a cluster, it just doesn’t make any sense as than they are limited within a node) but need to talk to other servers on the network, both physical and virtual ones. So you have to hook up your 10Gbps switches from the previous example to the rest of the network. Now there are some scenarios where you can keep the virtual machine networks isolated as well within a cluster. In your POC lab for example where you are running a small 100% virtualized test domain on a cluster in a separate management domain but these are not the predominant use case.

But you don’t only have to have to integrate with the rest of your network, you may very well want to! You’ve seen 10Gbps in action for CSV and Live Migration and you got a taste for 10Gbps now, you’re hooked and dream of moving each and every VM network to 10Gbps as well. And while your add it your management network and such as well. This is nothing different from the time you first got hold of 1Gbps networking kit in a 100 Mbps world. Speed is addictive, once you’re hooked you crave for more Smile

How to achieve this? You could do this by replacing the existing 1Gbps switches. That takes money, no question about it. But think ahead, 10Gbps will be common place in a couple of years time (read prices will drop even more). The servers with 10Gbps LOM cards are here or will be here very soon with any major vendor. For Dell this means that the LOM NICs will be like mezzanine cards and you decide whether to plug in 10Gbps SPF+ or Ethernet jacks. When you opt to replace some current 1Gbps switches with 10gbps ones you don’t have to throw them away. What we did at one location is recuperate the 1Gbps switches for out of band remote access (ILO/DRAC cards) that in today’s servers also run at 1Gbps speeds. Their older 100Mbps switches where taken out of service. No emotional attachment here. You could also use them to give some departments or branch offices 1gbps to the desktop if they don’t have that yet.

When you have ports left over on the now isolated 10Gbps switches and you don’t have any additional hosts arriving in the near future requiring CSV & LM networking you might as well use those free ports. If you still need extra ports you can always add more 10Gbps switches. But whatever the case, this means up linking those cluster network 10Gbps switches to the rest of the network. We already mentioned in a previous post the network people might have some concerns that need to be addressed and rightly so.

Protect the Network against Loops & Storms

The last thing you want to do is bring down your entire production network with a loop and a resulting broadcast storm. You also don’t want the otherwise rather useful spanning tree protocol, locking out part of your network ruining your sweet cluster setup or have traffic specifically intended for your 10Gbps network routed over a 1Gbps network instead.

So let us discuss some of the ways in which we can prevent all these bad things from happening. Now mind you, I’m far from an expert network engineer so to all CCIE holders stumbling on to this blog post, please forgive me my prosaic network insights. Also keep in mind that this is not a networking or switch configuration course. That would lead us astray a bit too far and it is very dependent on your exact network layout, needs, brand and model of switches etc.

As discussed in blog post Introducing 10Gbps With A Dedicated CSV & Live Migration Network (Part 2/4) you need a LAG between your switches as the traffic for the VLANs serving heartbeat, CSV, Live Migration, virtual machines but now also perhaps the host management and optional backup network must flow between the switches. As long as you have only two switches that have a LAG between them or that are stacked you have not much risk of creating a loop on the network. Unless you uplink two ports directly with a network cable. Yes, that happens, I once witnessed a loop/broadcast storm caused by someone who was “tidying up” spare CAT5E cables buy plugging all ends up into free port switches. Don’t ask. Lesson learned: disable every switch port not in use.

Now once you uplink those two or more 10Gbps switches to your other switches in a redundant way you have a loop. That’s where the Spanning Tree protocol comes in. Without going into detail this prevents loops by blocking the redundant paths. If the operational path becomes unavailable a new path is established to keep network traffic flowing. There are some variations in STP. One of them is Rapid Spanning Tree Protocol (RSTP) that does the same job as STP but a lot faster. Think a couple of seconds to establish a path versus 30 seconds or so. That’s a nice improvement over the early days. Another one that is very handy is the Multiple Spanning Tree Protocol (MSTP). The sweet thing about the latter is that you have blocking per VLANs and in the case of Hyper-V or storage networks this can come in quite handy.

Think about it. Apart from preventing loops, which are very, very bad, you also like to make sure that the network traffic doesn’t travel along unnecessary long paths or over links that are not suited for its needs. Imagine the Live Migration traffic between two nodes on different 10Gbps switches travelling over the 1Gbps uplinks to the 1Gbps switches because the STP blocked the 10Gbps LAG to prevent a loop. You might be saturating the 1Gbps infrastructure and that’s not good.

I said MSTP could be very handy, let’s address this. You only need the uplink to the rest of the network for the host management and virtual machine traffic. The heartbeat, CSV and Live Migration traffic also stops flowing when the LAG between the two 10Gbps switches is blocked by the RSTP. This is because RSTP works on the LAG level for all VLANs travelling across that LAG and doesn’t discriminate between VLAN. MSTP is smarter and only blocks the required VLANS. In this case the host management and virtual machines VLANS as these are the only ones travelling across the link to the rest of the network.

We’ll illustrate this with some picture based on our previous scenarios. In this example we have the cluster network going to the 10Gbps switches over non teamed NICs. The same goes for the virtual machine traffic but the NICs are teamed, and the host management NICS. Let’s first show the normal situation.


Now look at a situation where RSTP blocks the purple LAG. Please do note that if the other network switches are not 10Gbps that traffic for the virtual machines would be travelling over more hops and at 1Gbps. This should be avoided, but if it does happens, MSTP would prevent an even worse scenario. Now if you would define the VLANS for cluster network traffic on those (orange) uplink LAGs you can use RSTP with a high cost but in the event that RSTP blocks the purple LAG you’d be sending all heartbeat, CSV and Live Migration traffic over those main switches. That could saturate them. It’s your choice.


In the picture below MSTP saves the day providing loop free network connectivity even if spanning tree for some reasons needs to block the LAG between the two 10Gbps switches. MSTP would save your cluster network traffic connectivity as those VLAN are not defined on the orange LAG uplinks and MSTP prevents loops by blocking VLAN IDs in LAGs not by blocking entire LAGs


To conclude I’ll also mention a more “star like” approach in up linking switches. This has a couple of benefits especially when you use stackable switches to link up to. They provide the best bandwidth available for upstream connections and they provide good redundancy because you can uplink the lag to separate switches in the stack. There is no possibility for a loop this way and you have great performance on top. What’s not to like?


Well we’ve shown that each network setup has optimal, preferred network traffic paths. We can enforce these by proper LAG & STP configuration. Other, less optimal, paths can become active to provide resiliency of our network. Such a situation must be addressed as soon as possible and should be considered running on “emergency backup”. You can avoid such events except for the most extreme situations by configuring the RSTP/MSTP costs for the LAG correctly and by using multiple inter switch links in every LAG. This does not only provide for extra bandwidth but also protects against cable or port failure.


And there you have it, over a couple of blog posts I’ve taken you on a journey through considerations about not only using 10Gbps in your Hyper-V cluster environments, but also about cluster networks considerations on a whole. Some notes from the field so to speak. As I told you this was not a deployment or best practices guide. The major aim was to think out loud, share thoughts and ideas. There are many ways to get the job done and it all depends on your needs an existing environment. If you don’t have a network engineer on hand and you can’t do this yourself; you might be ready by now to get one of those business ready configurations for your Hyper-V clustering. Things can get pretty complex quite fast. And we haven’t even touched on storage design, management etc.. The purpose of these blog was to think about how Hyper-V clustering networks function and behave and to investigate what is possible. When you’re new to all this but need to make the jump into virtualization with both feet (and you really do) a lot help is available. Most hardware vendors have fast tracks, reference architectures that have a list of components to order to build a Hyper-V cluster and more often than not they or a partner will come set it all up for you. This reduces both risk and time to production. I hope that if you don’t have a green field scenario but want to start taking advantage of 10Gbps networking; this has given you some food for thought.

I’ll try to share some real life experiences,what improvements we actually see, with 10Gbps speeds in a future blog post.

Introducing 10Gbps & Thoughts On Network High Availability For Hyper-V (Part 3/4)

This is a 3th post in a series of 4. Here’s a list of all parts:

  1. Introducing 10Gbps Networking In Your Hyper-V Failover Cluster Environment (Part 1/4)
  2. Introducing 10Gbps With A Dedicated CSV & Live Migration Network (Part 2/4)
  3. Introducing 10Gbps & Thoughts On Network High Availability For Hyper-V (Part 3/4)
  4. Introducing 10Gbps & Integrating It Into Your Network Infrastructure (Part 4/4)

As you saw in my previous blog post “Introducing 10Gbps With A Dedicated CSV & Live Migration Network (Part 2/4)” we created an isolated network for Hyper-V cluster networking needs, i.e. Heartbeat, Cluster Shared Volume and Live Migration traffic. When you set up failover clustering you’re doing so to achieve some level of high availability. We did this by using 2 switches and setting up redundant paths to them, making use of the fault tolerance the cluster networks offer us. The darks side of high availability is that is always exposes the next single point of failure and when it comes to networking that means you’ll need redundant NICs, NIC ports, cabling and switches. That’s what we’ll discuss in this blog post. All the options below are just that. There is never an obligation to use them everywhere and it might be not needed depending on the type of network and the business needs we’re talking about. But one thing I have learned is to build options into your solutions. You want ways and opportunities to work around issues while you fix them.

Redundant Switches

The first thing you’ll need to address is the loss of a switch. The better ones have redundant power supplies but that’s about it. So you’ll need to have (at least) two switches and make sure you have redundant connections to both switches. That implies both switches can talk to each other as they form one functional unit even when it is an isolated network as in our example.

One of the ways we can achieve this is by setting up a Link Aggregation Group (LAG) over Inter Switch Links (ISL). The LAG makes all the connections available between the switches for the VLANs you define. There are different types of LAG but one of the better ones is a LAG with LACP.

Stacking your switches might also be a solution if they support that. You might need stacking modules for that. Basically this turns two or more switches into one big switch. One switch in the stack acts as the master switch that maintains the entire stack and provides a single configuration and monitoring point. If a switch in the stack fails the remaining switches will bypass the failed switch via the stacking modules. Depending on the quality of your network equipment you can have some disruption during a the failure of the master switch as then another switch needs to take on that role and this can take anything between 3 seconds and a minute depending on vendor, type, firmware, etc. Network people like this. And as each switch contains the entire the stack configuration it’s very easy to replace a dead switch in a stack. Just rip out the dead one, plug in the replacement one and the stack will do the rest.

We note that more people have access to switches that can handle LAGs versus those who have stackable ones. The reason for this is that the latter tend to be more pricy.

Redundant Network Cards & Ports

Now whether you’re using LAGs or stacking the idea is that you connect your NICs to different switches for redundancy. The question is do we need to do something with the NIC configuration or not to benefit from this? Do we have redundancy in via a cluster wide virtual switch or not? If not can we use NIC teaming? Is NIC teaming always needed or a good idea? Ok, let’s address some of these questions.

First of all, Hyper-V in the current Windows Server 2008 SP1 version has no cluster wide virtual switch that can provide redundancy for your virtual machine network(s). But please allow me to dream about Hyper-V 3.0. To achieve redundancy for the virtual machine networks you’ll need to turn to NIC teaming. NIC teaming has various possible configurations depending on vendor and the capabilities of the switches in use. You might be familiar with terminology like Switch Fault Tolerance (SFT), Adaptive Fault Tolerance (AFT), Link Aggregation Control protocol (LACP), VM etc. Apart from all that the biggest thing to remember is that NIC teaming support has to come from the hardware vendor(s). Microsoft doesn’t support it directly for Hyper-V and Hyper-V gets assess to a NIC team NIC via the Windows operating system.

On NIC Teaming

I’m going to make a controversial statement. NIC teaming can be and is often a cause of issues and it can expensive in time to both set up and fix if it fails. Apart from a lot of misconceptions and terminology confusion with all the possible configurations we have another issue. NIC teaming introduces complexity with drivers & software that is at least a hundred fold more likely to cause failures than today’s high quality network cards. On top of that sometimes people forget about the proper switch configuration. Ouch!

Do a search on Hyper-V and NIC teaming and you’ll see the headaches it causes so many people. Do you need to stay away from it? Is it evil? No, I’m not saying that. Far from that, NIC teaming is great. You need to decide carefully where and when to use it and in what form. Remember when you can handle & manage the complexity need to achieve high availability, generally speaking you’re good to go. If complexity becomes a risk in itself, you’re on the wrong track.

Where do I stand on NIC teaming? Use it when it really provides the benefits you seek. Make sure you have the proper NICs, Switches and software/drivers for what you’re planning to do. Do your research and test. I’ve done NIC Teaming that went so smooth I never would have realized the headaches it can give people. I’ve done NIC teaming where buggy software and drivers drove me crazy.

I’d like to mention security here. Some people tend to do a lot of funky, tedious configurations with VLANS in an attempt to enhance security. VLANS are not security mechanisms. They can be used in a secure implementation but by themselves they achieve nothing. If you’re doing this via NIC teaming/VLANS I’d like to note that once someone has access to your Hyper-V management console and /or the switches you’re toast. Logical and physical security cannot be replaced or ignored.

NIC Teaming To Enhance Throughput

You can use NIC teaming enhance bandwidth/throughput. If this is you major or only goal, you might not even be worried about using multiple switches. Now NIC teaming does help to provide better bandwidth but, sure but nothing beats buying 10Gbps switches & NICs. Really, switches with LAGs or stack and NIC Teaming are great but bigger pipes are always better for raw throughput. If you need twice or quadruple the ports only for extra bandwidth this gets expensive very fast. And if, on top of that, you need consultants because you don’t have a network engineer to set it all up just for that purpose, save your money and invest it in hardware.

NIC Teaming For Redundancy

Do you use NIC teaming for redundancy? Yes, this is a very good reason when it fits the needs. Do you do this for all networks? No, it depends. Just for heartbeat, CSV & Live migration traffic it might be overkill. The nature of these networks in a Hyper-V Cluster is such that you don’t really need it as they can mutually provide redundancy for each other. But what if a NIC port fails when I’m doing a live migration? Won’t that mean the live migration will fail? Yes. But once the NIC is out of the picture Live Migration will just work over the CSV network if you set it up that way. And you’re back in business while you fix the issue. Have I seen live migration fail? Yes, sure. But it never left the VM messed up, that kept running. So you fix the issue and Live Migrate it again.

The same goes for the other networks. CSV should not give you worries. That traffic gets queued and send to the next available network available for CSV. Heart beat is also not an issue. You can afford the little “down time” until it is sent over the next available network for cluster communication. Really a properly set up cluster doesn’t go down when a cluster networks fails if you have multiple of them.

But NIC teaming could/would prevent even this ever so slight interruption you say. It can, yes, depending on how you set this up, so not always by definition. But it’s not needed. You’re preventing something benign at great cost. Have you tested it? Is it always a lossless, complete transparent failover? No a single packet dropped? Not one ping failed? If so, well done! At what cost and for what profit did you do it? How often do your NICs and switch ports fail? Not very often. Also remember the extra complexity and the risk of (human) configuration errors. As always, trust but verify, testing is your friend.

Paranoia Is Your Friend

If you set up NIC teaming without separate NIC cards (not ports) and the PCIe slot goes bad NIC teaming won’t save you. So you need multiple network cards. On top of that, if you decide to run all networks over that team you put all your eggs in that one basket. So perhaps you might need 2 teams distributed over multiple NIC cards. Oh boy redundancy and high availability do make for expensive setups.

Combine NIC Teaming & VLANS Work Around Limited NIC Ports

This can be a good idea. As you’ll be pushing multiple networks (VLANs) over the same pipe you want redundancy. So NIC teaming here can definitely help out. You’ll need to consider the amount of network traffic in this case as well. If you use load balancing NIC teaming you can get some extra bandwidth, but don’t expect miracles. Think about the potential for bottle necks, QoS and try to separate bandwidth hogs on separate teams. And remember, bigger pipes are always better, so consider 10Gbps when you are in a bandwidth crunch.

Don’t Forget About The Switches

As a friendly reminder about what we already mentioned above, don’t forget to use different switches for up linking the NIC ports. If you do forget your switch is the single point of failure (SPOF). Welcome to high availability: always hitting the net SPOF and figuring out how big the risk is versus the cost in money and complexity to deal with it J. Switches don’t often fail but I’ve seen sys admins pull out the wrong PDU cables. Yes human error lures in all corners in all possible variations. I know this would never happen to you, and certainly not twice, but other people are not so skillful. And for those who’d rather be lucky than good I have bad news. Luck runs out. Inevitably bad things happen to all of our systems.

Some Closings Thoughts

One rule of thumb I have is not to use NIC teaming to save money by reducing NIC Cards, NIC ports, number of switches or switch ports. Use it when it serves your needs and procure adequate hardware to achieve your goals. You should do it because you have a real need to provide the absolute best availability and then you put down the money to achieve it. If you talk the talk, you need to walk the walk. And while not the subject of this post, your Active Directory or other core infrastructure services are not single points of failure , are they? Winking smile

If you do want to use it to save money or work around a lack of NIC ports, there is nothing wrong with that, but say so and accept the risk. It’s a valid decision when you have you have your needs covered and are happy with what that solution provides.

When you take all of this option into consideration, where do you end with NIC teaming and network solutions for Hyper-V clusters? You end up with the “Business ready” or “reference architecture” offered by DELL or HP. They weigh all pros and cons against each other and make a choice based on providing the best possible solution for the largest number of customers at acceptable costs. Is this the best for you? That could very well be. It all depends. They make pretty good configurations.

I tend to use NIC teaming only for the Virtual Machine networks. That’s where the biggest potential service interruption exists. I have in certain environments when NIC teaming was something that was not chosen mediated that risk by providing 2 or 3 single NIC for 2 or 3 virtual networks in Hyper-V. That reduced the impact to 1/3 of the virtual machines. And a fix for a broken NIC is easy; just attach the VMs to a different virtual network. You can do this while the virtual machines are running so no shutdown is required. As an added benefit you balance the network traffic over multiple NICs.

10Gbps with NIC teaming and VLANs provide for some very nice scenarios. This is especially true especially if you have bandwidth hungry applications running in boatload of VMs. This all means that we need to start thinking and talking about integrating the 10Gbps switches in our network infrastructure. So that means we’re entering the network engineers their turf and we’ll need to address some of their concerns. But this is not bad news as they’ll help us prevent some bad scenarios. But that will be discussed in a next blog post.