ReFS Supported Deployment Scenarios Updated

Introduction

Some support statements for ReFS have been updated recently. These reflect well over a year of me, fellow MVPs and others testing and providing feedback to Microsoft. For all practical purposes I’m talking about ReFSv3, which was introduced with Windows Server 2016. Read up on this because that’s what I’m discussing here: Resilient File System (ReFS) overview

As many you know the ReFS supported storage deployment option has “fluctuated a bit. It was t limited ReFS to Storage Spaces and standalone disks only. That meant no RAID controllers, no FC or iSCSI LUNs via a SAN whether that was a high end one or and entry level one that you normally only use for backup purposes.

I was never really satisfied with the reasons why and I kept being a passionate advocate for a decent explanation as tying a files system with the capabilities and potential of ReFS to almost a single storage solution (S2D, and yes that’s a very good HCI offering) isn’t going to help proliferate the goodness of ReFS around the globe.

I was not alone and many others, amongst them fellow MVPs Anton Gostev (Senior Vice President, Product Management at Veaam and an industry heavy weight when it comes to credibility and technical skill), Cars ten Rachfahl and Jan Kappen (both at Rachfahl IT-Solutions) were arguing he case for broader ReFS support. Last week we go the news that the ReFS deployment documentation had been revised. Guest what? Progress! A big thank you to Andrew Hansen for taking the time to hear us plead or case, listen to our testing results and passionate feedback. He picked up the ball, ran with it and delivered! Let’s take a look.

ReFS Storage Deployment Options

Storage Spaces Direct

Deploying ReFS on Storage Spaces Direct is recommended for virtualized workloads or network-attached storage. This is well known and is used for a Hyper Converged Infrastructure and Converged (SOFS) solution (Hyper-V, IIS, SQL, User Profile Disks and even archival or backup targets). You can deploy it with simple, mirrored (2-way or 3-way), parity or Mirror accelerated parity volumes.

Storage Spaces

Storage Spaces supports local non-removable direct-attached via BusTypes SATA, SAS, NVME, or attached via HBA (aka RAID controller in pass-through mode). You can deploy it with simple, mirrored (2-way or 3-way) or parity volumes. Do note that this can be both non-shared as shared storage spaces (Shared SAS enclosures). This is the high available solution with storage spaces we have before Windows Server 2016 added S2D.

Basic disks

Deploying ReFS on basic disks is best suited for applications that implement their own software resiliency and availability solutions. Applications that introduce their own resiliency and availability software solutions can leverage integrity-streams, block-cloning, and the ability to scale and support large data sets. A poster child for this use case is and Exchange DAG.

Now it is important to note that basic disks with ReFS are supported with local non-removable direct-attached disks via BusTypes SATA, SAS, NVME, or RAID. So yes, you can have RAID 1, 5,6,10 and make the storage redundant. Now, be smart, ReFS is great but it is not magic. If your workload requires redundancy and high availability you should provide it. This is not different when you use NTFS. When you have shared PCI RAID controllers (which can be redundant like in a DELL VRTX) this can be uses as well to create high availability deployments with shared storage.

SAN Storage

You can also use ReFS with a SAN over FC or iSCSI, normally those are always configured with some form of storage redundancy. You can consume the ReFS SAN storage on stand alone, member or clustered serves for high availability. As long as you use that storage for supported use cases. For example, it is and remains not support to put knowledge worker data on SOFS shares, not matter what the underlying storage for ReFS or NTFS volumes is. For backups this can leveraged to build some very capable solutions.

What were the concerns that made ReFS Support so limited at a given point in time?

Well one of them was confusion and concerns around how data gets flushed and persisted with non-storage spaces and simple disks. A valid concern but one you have with any file system so any storage array or controller needs to handle this well. As it turns out any decent piece of storage hardware/controller that’s on the Microsoft Hardware Compatibility List and is certified does its job well enough to guarantee this happens correctly. So, any certified OEM SAN, both entry level ones to high end enterprise grade gear is supported. Just like any good (certified) raid controller. Those are backed with battery backed caches that can survive down time for days to many weeks. You just pick the one that fits your needs, use case and budget form the options you have. That can be S2D, a SAN, a raid controller, or even basic directly attached disks.

My take on things

Why do I like the new supported options? Well because I have been testing them for backup targets, both high available one as non- high available one. I can have the benefits of ReFS that can be leveraged by backup software (Veeam Backup & Replication 9.5 for example) and have better performance, data protection with more type of storage than S2D. I like to have options and choices when designing as solution.

It is important to note one thing when you do not use ReFS in combination with Storage Spaces (S2D, Shared storage Spaces or “stand alone” storage spaces) with any form of data redundancy (2-way or 3-way mirror, parity, mirror accelerate parity). You will not have the built-in capability to repair data corruption than can occur while data sits on disk (bit rot) by leveraging the redundant copies in storage Spaces. That only comes when ReFS is combined with redundant Storage Spaces. Not with Simple Storage Spaces or any other storage array, redundant or not. The combination of ReFS with Storage Spaces offers this capability and is one of its selling points.

Other than that, the above ReFS storage deployment options let you leverage the benefits ReFS has to offer and yes, for some use case that will be preferred over NTFS. But don’t think NTFS should now only be used for the OS and such. That’s not the case. It is and remains very much the dominant file system for Windows. It’s just that now we get to leverage the goodness of ReFS for suitable scenarios with a lot more storage deployment options. This has a reason. For example, if you are going to do Hyper-V with a SAN the supported file system is NTFS, not ReFS. Mind you ReFS works but it’s not supported. I have tested this and while it works one of the concerns is the redirect IO traffic this incurs. With S2D the network fabric to deal with this is there by design: SMB Direct (RDMA) over 10Gbps or better. With a SAN that’s not necessarily so and as a result the network leveraged by CSV traffic might take a beating. The network traffic behavioral patterns are also different with ReFS versus NTFS on SAN based CSV than what you are used to with NFTS when it comes to owner and non-owner nodes. While I can make things work I must consider the benefits versus the risk of being unsupported. On a good SAN with ODX support that’s not worth the risk. Might this ever change? Maybe, but for now that’s it.

That said, when I design my ReFS LUNs and fabric well with a SAN and use them for a supported uses case like backup targets I am supported and I get to leverage the benefits of ReFS as it fits the use case very well (DPM, Veeam).

A side note on mirror accelerated parity

Mirror accelerated parity is only supported with S2D. That’s the only thing that, in regards to backup an archive targets that I want to keep testing (see Hyper-V Amigos Showcast Episode 12 – ReFS and Backup )and asking Microsoft to support at least on non-shared Storage spaces. I know shared storage spaces is being depreciated, no worries. That would make for some great, budget, archival and backup targets due to the fact you get bit rot protection due to the combination ReFS with redundant Storage Spaces. I even have some ideas on how to add tuning capabilities to the mirror / parity movement of data based on data age etc. I can dream right ?

Conclusion

To all the naysayers, the ones that bashed me when I discussed options for and the potential for ReFSv3 outside of S2D, take note, this is where we are today.

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And I like it. I like the options ReFSv3 offers with variety of storage solutions to design and implement backup targets for many different needs and budgets. That’s what I like as I’m convinced that one size fits all solution are an illusion. Even at economies of scale and with commodity materials understanding the context in which to design and implement a solution matters, as it allows you to chose the proper methods for the given needs when you genuinely understand the challenge.

If you need help with this there are quite a number of highly skilled, experienced people with the right mindset to make help you maximize your ROI and TCO in an effective and efficient way. Many of these are MVPs and have their own business or work for IT firms where customers are not milked like cattle but really do provide high value services. Just reach out.

Upgrade the firmware on a Brocade Fibre Channel Switch

NOTE: content available as pdf download here.

Upgrade the firmware on a Brocade Fibre Channel Switch

In order to maintain a secure, well-functioning fibre channel fabric over the years you’ll need to perform a firmware upgrade now and again. Brocade fibre channel switches are expensive but they do deliver a very solid experience. This experience is also obvious in the firmware upgrade process. We’ll walk through this as a guide on how to upgrade the firmware on a Brocade fibre channel switch environment.

Have a FTP/SFTP/SCP server in place

If you have some switches in your environment you’re probably already running a TFTP or FTP server for upgrading those. For TFTP I use the free but simple and good one provided by Solarwinds. They also offer a free SCP/SFTP solution. For FTP it depends either we have IIS with FTP (and FTPS) set up or we use FileZilla FTP Server which also offers SFTP and FTPS. In any case this is not a blog about these solutions. If you’re responsible for keeping network gear in tip top shape you should this little piece of infrastructure set up for both downloads and uploads of configurations (backup/restore), firmware and boot code. If you don’t have this, it’s about time you set one up sport! A virtual machine will do just fine and we back it up as well as we store our firmware and backups on that VM as well. For mobile scenarios I just keep TFTP & FilleZilla Server installed and ready to go on my laptop in a stopped state until I need ‘m.

Getting the correct Fabric OS firmware

It’s up to your SAN & switch vendors to inform you about support for firmware releases. Some OEMs will publish those on their own support sites some will coordinate with Brocade to deliver them as download for specific models sold and supported by them. Dell does this. To get it select your switch version on the dell support site and under downloads you’ll find a link.

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That link takes you to the Brocade download page for DELL customers.

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Make sure you download the correct firmware for your switch. Read the release notes and make sure you’re the hardware you use is supported. Do your homework, go through the Brocade Fabric OS (FOS) 7.x Compatibility Matrix. There is no reason to shoot yourself in the foot when this can be avoided. I always contact DELL Compellent CoPilot support to verify the version is support with the Compellent Storage Center firmware.

When you have downloaded the firmware for your operating system (I’m on Windows) unzip it and place the content of the resulting folder in your FTP root or desired folder. I tend to put the active firmware under the root and archive older one as they get replaced. So that root looks like this. You can copy it there over RDP or via a FTP client. If the FTP server is running your laptop, it’s just a local copy.

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The upgrade process

A word on upgrading the firmware

I you move from a single major level/version to the next or upgrade within a single major level/version you can do non-disruptive upgrades with a High Availability (HA) reboot meaning that while the switch reloads it will not impact the data flow, the FC ports stay online. Everything keeps running, bar that you lose connectivity to the switch console for a short time.

Some non-disruptive upgrade examples:

V6.3.2e to V6.4.3g

V7.4.0a to v7.4.0b

V7.3.0c to v7.4.0b

Note that this way you can step from and old version to a new one step by step without ever needing downtime. I have always found this a really cool capability.

You can find Brocades recommendations on what the desired version of a major release is in https://www.brocade.com/content/dam/common/documents/content-types/target-path-selection-guide/brocade-fos-target-path.pdf

I tend to way a bit with the latest as the newer ones need some wrinkles taken care of as we can see now switch 7.4.1 which is susceptible to memory leaks.

Some disruptive upgrade examples (FC ports go down):

7.1.2b to 7.4.0a

6.4.3.h to 7.4.0b

Our upgrade here from 7.4.0a to 7.4.0b is non-disruptive as was the upgrade from to 7.3.0c to 7.4.0a. You can jump between version more than one version but it will require a reboot that takes the switch out of action. Not a huge issue if you have (and you should) to redundant fabrics but it can be avoided by moving between versions one at the time. IT takes longer but it’s totally non-disruptive which I consider a good thing in production. I reserve disruptive upgrades for green field scenarios or new switches that will be added to the fabric after I’m done upgrading.

Prior to the upgrade

There is no need to run a copy run or write memory on a brocade FC switch. It persists what you do and you have to save and activate your zoning configuration anyway when you configure those (cfgsave). All other changes are persisted automatically. So in that regards you should be all good to go.

Make a backup copy of your configuration as is. This gives you a way out if the shit hits the fan and you need to restore to a switch you had to reset or so. Don’t forget to do this for the switches in both fabrics, which normally you have in production!

You log on switch with your username and password over telnet or ssh (I use putty or kitty)

MySwitchName:admin> configupload

Hit ENTER

Select the protocol of the backup target server you are using

Protocol (scp, ftp, sftp, local) [ftp]: ftp

Hit ENTER

Server Name or IP Address [host]: 10.1.1.12

HIT ENTER

Enter the user, here I’m using anonymous

User Name [user]: anonymous

Hit ENTER

Give the backup file a clear and identifying name

Path/Filename [<home dir>/config.txt]: MySwitchNameConfig20151208.txt

Hit ENTER

Select all (default)

Section (all|chassis|switch [all]): all

configUpload complete: All selected config parameters are uploaded

That’s it. You can verify you have a readable backup file on your FTP server now.

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The Upgrade

A production environment normally has 2 fabrics for redundancy. Each fabric exists out of 1 or more switches. It’s wise to start with one fabric and complete the upgrade there. Only after all is proven well there should you move on to the second fabric. To avoid any impact on production I tend plan these early or late in the day also avoiding any backup activity. Depending on your environment you could see some connectivity drops on any FC-IP links (remote SAN replication FC to IP ó IP to FC) but when you work one fabric at the time you can mitigate this during production hours via redundancy.

Log on to first brocade fabric switch with your username and password over telnet or ssh (I use putty or kitty). At the console prompt type

firmwaredownload

This is the command for the non-disruptive upgrade. If you need or want to do a disruptive one, you’ll need to use firmwaredownload –s.

Hit Enter

Enter the IP address of the FTP server (of the name if you have name resolution set up and working)

Server Name or IP address: 10.1.1.12

User name: I fill out anonymous as this gives me the best results. Leaving it blank doesn’t always work depending on your FTP server.

User Name: anonymous

Enter the path to the firmware, I placed the firmware folder in the root of the FTP server so that is

Path: /v7.4.0b

Hit enter

At the password prompt leave the password empty. Anonymous FTP doesn’t need one.

Password:

Hit enter, the upgrade process preparation starts. After the checks have passed you’ll be asked if you want to continue. We enter Y for yes and hit Enter. The firmware download starts and you’ll see lost of packages being downloaded. Just let it run.

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This goes on for a while. At one point you’ll see the prom update happening.clip_image011

When it’s done it starts removing unneeded files and when done it will inform you that the download is done and the HA rebooting starts. HA stands for high availability. Basically it fails over to the next CP (Control Processor, see http://www.brocade.com/content/html/en/software-upgrade-guide/FOS_740_UPGRADE/GUID-20EC78ED-FA91-4CA6-9044-E6700F4A5DA1.html) while the other one reboots and loads the new firmware. All this happens while data traffic keeps flowing through the switch. Pretty neat.

When you keep a continuous ping to the FC switch running during the HA reboot you’ll see a short drop in connectivity.

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But do realize that since this is a HA reboot the data traffic is not interrupted at all. When you get connectivity back you SSH to switch and verify the reported version, which here is now 7.4.0b.

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That’s it. Move on to the switch in the same fabric until you’re done. But stop there before you move on to your second fabric (failure domain). It pays to go slow with firmware upgrades in an existing environment.

This doesn’t just mean waiting a while before installing the very latest firmware to see whether any issues pop up in the forums. It also means you should upgrade one fabric at the time and evaluate the effects. If no problems arise, you can move on with the second fabric. By doing so you will always have a functional fabric even if you need to bring down the other one in order to resolve an issue.

On the other hand, don’t leave fabrics unattended for years. Even if you have no functional issues, bugs are getting fixed and perhaps more importantly security issues are addressed as well as browser and Java issues for GUI management. I do wish that the 6.4.x series of the firmware got an update in order for it to work well with Java 8.x.

Hyper-V UNMAP Does Work With SAN Snapshots And Checkpoints But Not Always As You First Expect

Recently I was asked to take a look at why UNMAP was not working predictably  in a Windows Server 2012 R2 Hyper-V environment. No, this is not a horror story about bugs or bad storage solutions. Fortunately, once the horror option was of the table I had a pretty good idea what might be the cause.

San snapshots are in play

As it turned out everything was indeed working just fine. The unexpected behavior that made it seem that UNMAP wasn’t working well or at least at moments they didn’t expected it was caused by the SAN snapshots. Once you know how this works you’ll find that UNMAP does indeed work predictably.

Snapshots on SANs are used for automatic data tiering, data protection and various other use cases. As long as those snapshots live, and as such the data in them, UNMAP/Trim will not free up space on the SAN with thinly provisioned LUNs. This is logical, as the data is still stored on the SAN for those snapshots, hard deleting it form the VM or host has no impact on the storage the SAN uses until those snapshots are deleted or expire. Only what happens in the active portion is directly impacted.

An example

  • Take a VM with a dynamically expanding VHDX that’s empty and mapped to drive letter D. Note the file size of the VHDX and the space consumed on the thinly provisioned SAN LUN where it resides.
  • Create 30GB of data in that dynamically expanding  virtual hard disk of the virtual machine
  • Create a SAN snapshot
  • Shift + Delete that 30GB of data from the dynamically expanding virtual hard disk in the virtual machine. Watch the dynamically expanding VHDX  grow in size, just like the space consumed on the SAN
  • Run Optimize-Volume D –retrim to force UNMAP and watch the space consumed of the Size of the LUN on the SAN: it remains +/- the same.
  • Shut down the VM and look at the size of the dynamic VHDX file. It shrinks to the size before you copied the data into it.
  • Boot the VM again and copy 30GB of data to the dynamically expanding VHDX in the VM again.
  • See the size of the VHDX grow and notice that the space consumed on the SAN for that LUN goes up as well.
  • Shift + Delete that 30GB of data from the dynamically expanding  virtual hard disk in the virtual machine
  • Run Optimize-Volume D –retrim to force UNMAP and watch the space consumed of the Size of the LUN on the SAN: It drops, as the data you delete is in the active part of your LUN (the second 30GB you copied), but it will not drop any more than this as the data kept safe in the frozen snapshot of the LUN is remains there (the first 30GB you copied)
  • When you expire/delete that snapshot on the SAN  we’ll see the size on the thinly provisioned SAN LUN  drop to the initial size of this exercise.

I hope this example gave you some insights into the behavior

Conclusion

So people who have snapshot based automatic data tiering, data protection etc. active in their Hyper-V environment and don’t see any results at all should check those snapshot schedules & live times. When you take them into consideration you’ll see that UNMAP does work predictably, all be it in a “delayed” fashion Smile.

The same goes for Hyper-V checkpoints (formerly known as snapshots). When you create a checkpoint the VHDX is kept and you are writing to a avhdx (differencing disk) meaning that any UNMAP activity will only reflect on data in the active avhdx file and not in the “frozen” parent file.

ODX Speed Up VHDX Creation Times On Windows Server 2012 (R2)

Some technlogies you just need to see in action instead of reading about it. I have posted a video on Vimeo that shows ODX in action on Windows Server 2012 R2 and a DELL Compellent SAN running Storage Center 6.3.10 firmware that supports UNMAP & ODX. Watch the video here or on Vimeo itself for a better experience. It’s a rerun of the demo scripts used in my TechNet Belux Live Meeting of this week.

We demonstrate the amazing speeds at which we can create VHDX files on both a traditional clustered disk and a Cluster Shared Volume. If you have ever tried to create a lot of fixed VHD/VHDX files, especially larger one, then you really need to check out ODX and its potential. If you have a SAN or think about acquiring one make sure you get this feature and be sure that it works as advertised.

I hope you enjoy it and inspires you to look where you can leverage this technology in your own environments.