DELL PowerEdge VRTX Has Potential Beyond ROBO As a Scale Out File Server Building Block

The PowerEdge VRTX

I went to have a chat with Dell at TechEd 2013 Europe in Madrid. The VRTX was launched during DELL Enterprise Forum early June 2013 this concept packs a punch and I encourage you to go look at the VRTX (pronounced as “Vertex”) in more detail here. It’s a very quite setup which can be hooked up to standard power. Pretty energy efficient when you consider the power of the VRTX. And the entire setup surely packs a lot of punch at an attractive price point.

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It can serve perfectly for Remote Office / Branch Office (ROBO) deployments but has many more use cases as it’s very versatile. In my humble opinion DELL’s latest form factor could be used for some very nice scale out scenarios. It’s near perfect for a Windows Server 2012 Scale Out File Server (SOFS) building block. While smaller ones can be build using 1Gbps the future just needs 10Gbps networking.

10Gbps, RDMA (iWarp, RoCE)

That’s the first thing I missed and the first thing I was told that would arrive very soon. So I’m  very happy with that. With sufficient 10Gbps ports to servers and  iWarp or RoCE RDMA capable NICs (there’s cheap enough compared to ordinary 10Gbps cards not to have to leave that capability out) we have all we need to function as powerful building block for the Scale Out File Server model with Windows Server 2012 (R2) where the CSV network becomes the storage network leveraging redirected IO. For this concept look at this picture from a presentation a year ago. SMB 3.0 Multichannel and RDMA make this possible.


While then I drew the SOFS building blocks out of R720 7 & MD1200  hardware, the VRTX could fit in there perfectly!

Storage Options

Today DELL uses their implementation of Clustered PCI Raid for shared storage which is supported since Windows Server 2012. This is great. For the moment it’s a non redundant setup but a redundant one is in the works I’m told. Nice, but think positive, redirected IO  (block level) over SMB 3.0 would save our storage IO even today. It would be a very wise and great addition to the capabilities of this building block to add the option & support for Storage Spaces. This would make the Scale Out File Server concept shine with the VRTX.

Why? Well I would give us following benefits in the storage layer and the VHDX format in Hyper-V can take benefits :

  • Deduplication
  • Thin Provisioning
  • Management Delegation
  • Write Cache
  • Full benefits of ReFS on storage spaces for data protection
  • Automatic Data Tiering with commodity SSD (ever cheaper & bigger) and SAS disks perhaps even the Near Line ones (less power & cooling, great capacity)
  • Potential for JBOD redundancy

Look at that feature set people, in box, delivered by Windows. Sweet! Combine this with 10Gbps networking and DELL has not only a SOFS building block in their port folio, it also offers significant storage features in this package. I for one would like them to do so and not miss out on this opportunity to offer even more capabilities in an attractive price package. Dell could be the very first OEM to grab this new market opportunity by supporting the scale out approach and out maneuver their competitors

Anything Else?

Combine such a building block as described above with their unmatched logistical force for distribution and support this will be a hit a a prime choice for Windows shops. They already have the 10Gbps networking gear & features (DCB) in the PowerConnect 81XX & Force10 S4810 switches. It could be an unbeatable price / capabilities / feature combo that would sell very well.

If we go for SOFS we might need more storage in a single building block with a 4 node cluster. Extensibility might be nice for this. More not just as in capacity but I need to work out the IOPS the available configurations can give us.

Windows Server 2012 Cluster in a Box as a New Form Factor?

Let’s look at “Cluster in a Box” (CiB)as a building block or a form factor. Let’s say you’ve committed to building a private/hybrid cloud for your organizations but you’re at the end of your hardware life cycle or you just don’t have the capacity right now to build it. What options do you have. Do you want to acquire storage, data connectivity network gear, servers, NICs with etc. or will you just buy CiB blocks to scale out as you go? Perhaps you’ll buy a Hyper-V fast track solution or if you’re really big a one or multiple containers.

I do think that the modular principle throughout the data center is pretty cool. The industry has done a great job at this with servers and smaller components as well as with the modular containers by SUN, HP, DELL.


While I do like and admire the concept of the “shipping container form factor” I do find it a couple of sizes too large to be practical for most of us. After all, let’s face it, we’re not all building public cloud service data centers. This means that between what we have seen today with server & storage modularity and the container form factor we’ve got a void. While some of these voids have been filled for specific applications like Exchange 2010 through custom build solutions by some vendors you cannot call this modular. Is a very application specific solution. The other, more generic, solution that has existed for a while now is the hardware that vendors deliver with the Hyper-V fast track we’ve mentioned already. Whiles these are nice, pre-configured solutions these are, again, not very modular. It’s not a complete unit that just needs to be hooked the network and provisioned with power. The time is ripe with the current state of Microsoft Windows Server 2012 to fill that void using the “Cluster in a Box” form factor. That would mean that in the future we could of the same benefits as the big players but at a size that’s fit for our purposes in the smaller data centers. This opens up a lot of scenarios for better efficiency.

What if the entire unit shipped to a customer contains everything packed away internally. That is servers, networking and storage. You just have to mount it in a rack, connect it to redundant power outlets and to redundant network paths. That’s it. Just power it up, fill out the wizard and be done with it. That’s all it takes to have a functional Hyper-V, Scale Out File System, SQL Server cluster etc. With the capabilities delivered by Windows Server 2012 this could very well be a scenario that might evolve. It’s more than just a business in or a branch office in a box. I can also be more that the Scale Out File Server unit for a private cloud solution. It just might be the first step of a new form factor building block for medium to even some large enterprises. If the economies are too good to be ignored I think this might happen.


The reason I think that this concept will work is that we have virtual machine mobility now so we no longer need to fear the isolation that silos might create. As a matter of fact this is a key element that might drive this. For the applications that are less suited for virtualization today we see two solutions. One is in the scalability of the Hyper-V platform with Windows Server 2012 and the other is the fact that the shared nothing approach is gaining popularity. It started with Exchange 2010 but is no also available with SQL Server 2012.

These clusters in a box can be made with existing servers (blades or not), storage and switches but I think there will be also new designs that are purpose build and not just existing hardware in a “rackable” box as in my drawings below Smile. Those boxes might have some scale up capability or come in different sizes


But scale out is the way that would make this work in the bigger environments, whatever the size of the Cluster in a Box.


Active-Active File sharing with SMB 2.2 Scale Out in Windows 8 Rocks


Wow. That’s what I have to say. WOW! I configured a two node virtual machines 

cluster running Windows 8 Server Developer Preview to test the SMB2 Scale Out functionality and I smiling. In my previous blog Transparent Failover & Node Fault Tolerance With SMB 2.2 Tested I already tested the transparent failover with a more traditional active-passive file cluster and that was pretty neat. But there are two things to note:

  1. The most important one to me is that the experience with transparent failover isn’t as fluid for the end user as it should be in my opinion. That freeze is a bit to long to be comfortable. Whether that will change remains to be seen. It’s early days yet.
  2. The entire active-passive concept doesn’t scale very well to put it mildly. Whether this is important to you depends on your needs. Today one beefy well, configured server can server up a massive amount of data to a large number of users. So in  a lot of environments this might not be an issue at all (it’s OK not to be running a 300.000 user global file server infrastructure, really Winking smile).

So bring in “File Server For Scale-Out Application Data” which is an active/active cluster. This is intended for use by  applications like SQL server & Hyper.-V for example. It’s high speed and low drag high available file sharing based on SMB 2.2, Clusters Shared Volumes and failover clustering. The thing is, at this moment, it is not aimed at end user file sharing (hence it’s name ““File Server For Scale-Out Application Data”. When I heard that,  I was a going “come on Microsoft, get this thing going for end user data as well”. Now that I have tested this in the lab, I want this only more. Because the experience is much more fluid. So I have to ask Microsoft to please get this setup supported in a production environment for all file sharing purposes! This is so awesome as an experience for both applications AND end users. The other approach that would          work (except perhaps for scaling) is making the transparent failover for an active-passive file cluster more fluid. But again, early days yet.

Setting  Up The Lab

Build a “File Server for scale-out application data” cluster

You need three virtual machines running Windows 8, two to build the cluster and one to use as a client.Once you have the cluster you configure storage to be used as a Clustered Shared Volume (CSV)


You’ll see the progress bar adding the storage to CSV


And voila you have CSV storage configured. Note that you don’t have to enable it any more and that there are no more warnings that this is only supported for Hyper-V data.


Now navigate to Role, right click and select “Configure Roles”


This brings up the High Availability Wizard


Click Next and select “File Server for scale-out application data”


Give the Client Access Point a name


Click Next and on the following wizard page click confirm


And voila you’re done. Do notice the wizards skips the “Configure High Availability” step here.


Get a share up and running for use

Don’t make the mistake of trying to double click on the you see in the Role. Go to the node who’s the owner of the role and navigate to the role “ScaleOut”, right click and select add shared folder.


Select the cluster shared volume on the server “ScalingOut” which is actually the client access point.


I gave the share the name SOFS (Scale Out File Share)


I like Access Based Enumerations so I enable this next to Enable continuous availability that is enabled by default.


Than you get to the permissions settings. Here you have to make sue you set the share permissions to  more than read if you want to do some writing to the share. Nothing new here Winking smile


After that you’re almost done. Confirm your settings & click Commit


Watch the wizard do it’s magic


And it’s all setup


Play Time

We have a third node “Independence” running Windows 8 Server to use as a client. As you can see we can easily navigate  to the “server” via the access point.


And yes that’s about all you have to do. You can see the ease of name space management at work here.

Now let’s copy some data and turn of a one of the cluster nodes, the one that owns the role for example …


I was copying the content of the Windows 8 Server folder from Independence and failed over the node, the client did not notice anything. I turned off the node holding the role and still the client did only notice as short delay (a couple of seconds max). This was a complete transparent experience. I cannot stress enough how much I want this technology for my business customers. You can patch, repair, replace, file server nodes at will at any given moment en no application or user has to notice a thing. People, this is Walhalla. This is is the place where brave file server administrators that have served their customers well over the years against all odds have the right to go. They’ve earned this! Get this technology in their hands and yes even for end user file data. Or at least make the transparent failover for user file sharing as fluid. Make it happen Microsoft! And while I’m asking, will there ever be a SMB 2.2 installable client for Windows 7? In SP2, please?!

Learn more here by watching the sessions from the Build conference at

Noticed bugs

The shares don’t always show up in the share pane, after failover.


This is awesome, this is big, this is a game changer in the file serving business. Listen, file services are not dead, far from it. It wasn’t very sexy and we didn’t get the holey grail of high availability for that role as of yet until now. I have seen the future and it looks great. Set up a lab people and play at will. Take down servers in any way imaginable and see your file activities survive without at hint of disruption. As long a you make sure that you have multiple nodes in the cluster and that if these are virtual machines they always reside on different nodes in a failover cluster it will take a total failure of the entire cluster to bring you file services down. So how do you like them apples?