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Which storage protocol should I use for VMware vSphere?

There are several storage protocol options for a VMware vSphere environment. Choosing the best one for your deployment will depend on your resources and performance goals.

Which storage protocol should I use for my VMware vSphere deployment?

It seems I'm asked quite often which storage protocol is best suited for VMware vSphere data stores. While there is really no right or wrong answer, my advice usually starts with, "It depends." The famous answer to all things, right? The reason is, it depends on what your ultimate goal is with your data stores. Now, before we go much further on this subject, let's break down the most common protocols along with pros and cons of each.

Fiber Channel (FC)
Pros:

Cons:

  • Requires a dedicated host bus adapter (HBA)
  • Most expensive because it requires storage-area network (SAN) switches and HBAs
  • Requires more administration (SAN switches, zoning, etc.)

FCOE (Fiber Channel over Ethernet)
Pros:

  • Ability to converge storage and other network traffic on the same network
  • Ability to leverage data center bridging to provide a lossless storage protocol over Ethernet
  • Supports VMFS

Cons:

  • Not as well-known and trusted
  • Requires a minimum of 10 GbE lossless network infrastructure
  • Inability to route
  • Can be extremely difficult to troubleshoot

iSCSI (Internet Small Computer Systems Interface)
Pros:

  • Well known and trusted
  • Cheap
  • Can leverage existing network components
  • Can use native iSCSI software adapter in vSphere
  • Can leverage multipath I/O (MPIO) load balancing
  • Low latency if implemented correctly
  • Supports VMFS

Cons:

  • Can have higher latency due to being an IP-based storage protocol
  • Inability to route when using iSCSI port binding
  • Can introduce higher CPU latency if using software iSCSI adapter
  • Security concerns

NFS (Network File System)
Pros:

  • Well known and trusted
  • Cheap
  • Can leverage existing network components
  • Can utilize native NFS server capabilities like compression and deduplication
  • Easy-to-grow data stores

Cons:

  • Single-session connections, so MPIO load balancing cannot be used
  • Security concerns
  • Does not support VMFS

With all of the information above, how do you decide which protocol to use? Again, it depends on your goal. If your goal is to use VMFS and its native capabilities, then you will need to choose a block-based protocol (FC, FCOE or iSCSI). Otherwise, you can use a file-based protocol (NFS) and leverage the capabilities of the storage vendor. If your goal is to use an IP-based storage approach to minimize the overall costs associated with using an FC-based approach, then your choice will be between iSCSI and NFS. If your goal is a lossless non-IP based storage approach, then your choice will be between FC and FCOE. However, if your environment doesn't currently have an FC infrastructure (SAN switches, FC SAN, FC adapters in servers), and the budget doesn't allow for these expenses, then your best bet will be an IP-based approach using either iSCSI (block) or NFS (file), since you will be able to use your existing network infrastructure.

As you can see, there is no wrong choice. You decision will depend on your needs and your goal, and any one of these protocols can be a solid solution if designed properly.

This was last published in October 2014

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