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Dell MD Storage Array Plugin for vCenter July 21, 2011

Posted by audiomatron in Virtualization.
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One of the most important elements in a virtualized environment is the shared storage that is shared among the host hypervisors. Each storage vendor has its own tools with which to configure their storage arrays, some of which integrate tightly with VMWare vCenter. I have had the array that I use in my production environment, the Dell MD3000i, up and running for nearly a year now, and it has been working quite well. I configured my storage array using the provided Modular Disk Storage Manager Client – a very feature rich tool, but a tool that runs separately from the vSphere client. As I continue my virtualization journey, and I read and hear about other storage systems and storage features in vSphere, I begin to wonder what else my current solution is capable of. I Googled numerous times with no luck trying to find a plugin that would give me more visibility into my storage array from within the vSphere client. I had nearly given up. Then, while reading the vSphere Design book by Scott Lowe, Forbes Guthrie, and Maish Saidel-Keesing, I saw them refer to such a solution as a “storage plugin”. I stopped reading, and Googled “Dell Storage Plugin for vCenter”, instead of whatever crazy thing I had been Googling previously, and there I found it – the Dell MD Storage Array vCenter Plugin.

The Dell MD Storage Array vCenter plugin is actually a server that serves as a go-between between your vCenter server and your Dell MDxxxx storage array that, on the front end, manifests itself as a plugin in your vSphere client. The Plugin provides statistics on your MD storage array, as well as some basic configuration options such as virtual disk provisioning, host to virtual disk mappings, configuration backups, and array level snapshotting. I wasn’t able to use all of the features such as creating new disks since this is, after all, my production environment. As stated before, my array is already fully configured. However, I do plan on rebuilding this array to take advantage of the new features of VMFS, so I may get to use some of the provisioning features yet. For the purposes of this article, I’ll concentrate on installation, what I liked, and what I didn’t like.

Installation

The installation was not too difficult, although not nearly as simple as some other plugins/add-ons I’ve installed for vCenter. That said, the instructions provided in the user guide by Dell were straightforward and easy to follow. Basically, you install the plugin on a server somewhere, then point it at your vCenter server. Once it is installed, you have to assign the proper permissions for the user who is logged into the vSphere client to be able to use the plugin. Afterwards, all that is left is to point the plugin at your array. There are some other steps involved, but that is the gist of it.

What I Liked/Didn’t Like

I have already mentioned some of the features of the plugin. I think that when it comes time to rebuild my array, this tool will be an immeasurable help since I won’t have to bounce between two different tools to configure my storage. I found it particularly interesting that the plugin allows you to right click one of your hosts in the vSphere client and configure your ESXi Host to Storage Array mappings. At the end of this article, I have linked to a video demonstrating the use of these features.

My biggest complaint (and it is really not a very big one at all), is that there doesn’t seem to be a way to change the iSCSI preferred path settings. A few times, as I performed my daily physical checks of my server equipment I have noticed the orange alarm light active on my MD3000i. The first time this happened, I became concerned, but now I don’t because upon further inspection, it is simply that, for whatever reason, the iSCSI on the array is no longer taking the preferred path to the hosts. This is very easily fixed from the Modular Disk Storage Manager Client, and I would liked to have seen this functionality in the vCenter plugin.

My only other complaint is that it has to run on a Windows server, and the user guide recommends that you do not place it on the same server as vCenter (but provides workarounds if you want to). The main goal in my virtual environment is to segregate server roles as much as possible – this includes not running web servers on the same server as another app. For purposes of testing, I created a new Windows VM to run the plugin’s server. I’d like to see this either in a Linux version, or a Linux-based virtual appliance, as is quite common for these types of things.

Conclusion/Other Thoughts

The Dell MDxxxx arrays are, in my opinion, the best value around for SMBs wanting robust shared storage for their virtual environments. I am pleased to find that Dell provides tools like this for their equipment. I can’t wait to really put the screws to this tool if/when I decide to rebuild my array – perhaps I’ll have a part two of this article 🙂

Links

The Dell MD Storage Array vCenter Plugin

User Guide for the Dell MD Storage Array vCenter Plugin

Below is a video of Dennis Smith from the Dell Tech Center Demonstrating the plugin

By the way, thanks go out to Dennis Smith for corresponding with me on this and some other questions I had about my array!

Fin.

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