At Stack Exchange our use case for virtualization is growing. We are not going to run our core QA web servers and database servers using virtualization for performance reasons, but we do host things such as our monitoring system, blogs, domain controllers, and VPN servers.
Our collection of assorted services continues to grow, and with it so does our need to expand our virtualization setup. Currently in our main data center we have 3 VMWare ESX servers. But as we expand, how are we going to handle this growth?
Why Use Virtualization?
Virtualization at its heart is an abstraction layer between the hardware and the operating system. I have always had mixed feelings about this because operating systems, in theory, are supposed to provide all the hardware abstraction and inter service protection you need. However, system administrators have to live in the real world, and this just isn’t the case.
This layer of abstraction, as any abstraction, has performance implications. This in short is why we are not using it for our core QA service. The advantages of this abstraction layer however are tantalizing:
- Live migration (vMotion in VMWare terms)
- Running multiple operating systems (i.e. Windows and Linux) on the same hardware
- Easier to get full utilization of hardware resources by moving VMs around
These advantages and others exist because of this abstraction layer. From a pure systems perspective, the allure of virtualization is to deliver us from many of the hardware constraints when we design systems and go about our day to day tasks. Operating systems become modular to the hardware, and with modularity comes flexibility and agility. Flexibility and agility come from the lifting of constraints and are perhaps some of the most desirable qualities in a system. However, does virtualization deliver on this promise of flexibility?
The Joy of Commodity Hardware
As Wikipedia defines it:
“Commodity computing (or Commodity cluster computing) is to use large numbers of already available computing components for parallel computing … commodity computing done with commodity computers as opposed to high-cost supermicrocomputers or boutique computers.”
Today the commodity computer is your standard x64 computer with some varation of one or a couple cores, SAS or SATA spinning disks or SSDs, and some memory. You can debate where to draw the line in this, for instance some might call servers from Dell “specialized” servers where as boxes built from parts at Newegg are not. However, I consider all this commodity hardware because they are essentially variations on the same design — basically better versions of your home computer. The opposite of this is specialized hardware. With specialized hardware, there are major differences between vendors and they generally their own OS or a specialized variant of an operating system.
So what is the joy of commodity hardware? In my mind it is that it delivers on some of the same ideals that we want virtualization — modularity and flexibility. When you design for commodity hardware your servers are essentially interchangeable parts. They can be reused for other things and easily upgraded or replaced with newer versions as computing evolves. It also generally scales in a linear fashion, when you need more power, you just add more boxes.
Specialized hardware on the other hand has the advantage of being more well suited and optimized for its particular task. With this optimization though comes with the cost of lost modularity. Probably the most common example of specialized hardware in many data centers are SANs. They are the ultimate performers when it comes to storage, but you are likely not going to easily swap out your SAN and it can become a central constraint you design around.
Virtualization and Centralized Storage are Best Friends
With VMWare and many forms of virtualization, many of the features are designed to expect shared storage which generally comes in the form of a SAN. This relationship can be seen on the business side of things as well — EMC, one of the largest players in storage, is also the primary holder of VMWare.
Because the traditional virtualization infrastructure is designed around shared storage, the flexibility provided by virtualization comes in conflict with the flexibility of commodity hardware. That doesn’t mean shared storage can’t provide its own form of flexibility, but in my mind, these two are at odds with the traditional virtualization architecture. One of my main concerns is that over time the specialized hardware will weigh us down.
Virtualized Clusters to the Rescue?
If we can have the best of both worlds, it seems to me that it is going to come in the form of a virtual cluster. I first learned about these from a short presentation I saw by Tom Limoncelli about Ganeti. Ganeti is a console for managing virtual clusters built on top of Xen or KVM that is used at Google for some of their internal systems. The idea essentially is that you have a rack of commodity machines with many VMs per machine and still have the ability to do live migration. Using DRDB (think raid 1 across multiple machines) allows for features like live migration without shared storage.
VMWare also offers an appliance called the VMWare vSphere Storage Appliance (VSA) which seems like it might also deliver some of the features you normally only get with a SAN without the SAN — but this doesn’t seem to be the traditional VMWare design.
Virtualized clusters seem like they will give us a lot of the flexibility we want from virtualization while also allowing us to stick with commodity hardware. Writes across network RAID will be slower because they need to be commited to the mirror, but not all VMs would need to have this enabled, and I don’t think performance is our primary concern when it comes to our use of virtualization.
What Will We Go With?
Like when we tried to figure out what to do about storage, I don’t think this is a choice we can make over night. Virtual clusters are very appealing to me, but we will need to take them for a spin and learn what the limitations are. Centralized storage doesn’t sit well with the ideals and promises of commodity computing, but as I said before, system administrators need to operate in the real world with real constraints — so a SAN might be the best solution for us.