Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V Storage Strategies

This article was written just after the beta of WS2012 was launched.  We now now that the performance of SMB 3.0 is -really- good, e.g. 1 million IOPS from a VM good.

WS2012 is bringing a lot of changes in how we design storage for our Hyper-V hosts.  There’s no one right way, just lots of options, which give you the ability to choose the right one for your business.

There were two basic deployments in Windows Server 2008 R2 Hyper-V, and they’re both sill valid with Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V:

  • Standalone: The host had internal disk or DAS and the VMs that ran on the host were stored on this disk.
  • Clustered: You required a SAN that was either SAS, iSCSI, or FIbre Channel (FC) attached (as below).


And there’s the rub.  Everyone wants VM mobility and fault tolerance.  I’ve talked about some of this in recent posts.  Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V has Live Migration that is independent of Failover Clustering.  Guest clustering is limited to iSCSI in Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V but Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V is adding support for Virtual Fibre Channel.

Failover Clustering is still the ideal.  Whereas Live Migration gives proactive migration (move workloads before a problem, e,g, to patch a host), Failover Clustering provides high availability via reactive migration (move workloads automatically in advance of a problem, e.g. host failure).  The problem here is that a cluster requires shared storage.  And that has always been expensive iSCSI, SAS, or FC attached storage.

Expensive?  To whom?  Well, to everyone.  For most SMEs that buy a cluster, the SAN is probably the biggest IT investment that that company will ever make.  Wouldn’t it suck if they got it wrong, or if they had to upgrade/replace it in 3 years?  What about the enterprise?  They can afford a SAN.  Sure, but their storage requirements keep growing and growing.  Storage is not cheap (don’t dare talk to me about $100 1 TB drives).  Enterprises are sick and tired of being held captive by the SAN companies for 100% of their storage needs.

We’re getting new alternatives from Microsoft in Windows Server 2012.  This is all made possible by a new version of the SMB protocol.

SMB 3.0 (Formerly SMB 2.2)

Windows Server 2012 is bringing us a new version of the SMB protocol.  With the additional ability to do multichannel, where file share data transfer automatically spans multiple NICs with fault tolerance, we are now getting support to store virtual machines on a file server, as long as both client (Hyper-V host) and server (file server) are running Windows Server 2012 or above.

If you’re thinking ahead then you’ve already started to wonder about how you will backup these virtual machines using an agent on the host.  The host no longer has “direct” access to the VMs as it would with internal disk, DAS, or a SAN.  Windows Server 2012 VSS appears to be quite clever, intercepting a backup agents request to VSS snapshot a file server stored VM, and redirecting that to VSS on the file server.  We’re told that this should all be transparent to the backup agent.

Now we get some new storage and host design opportunities.

Shared File Server – No Hyper-V Clustering

In this example a single Windows Server 2012 file server is used to store the Hyper-V virtual machines.  The Hyper-V hosts can use the same file server, and they are not clustered.  With this architecture, you can do Live Migration between the two hosts, even without a cluster.


What about performance?  SMB is going to suck, right?  Not so fast, my friend!  Even with a pair of basic 1 Gbps NICs for SMB 3.0 traffic (instead of a pair of NICs for iSCSI), I’ve been told that you can expect iSCSI-like speeds, and maybe even better.  At 10 Gbps … well Smile The end result is cheaper and easier to configure storage.

With the lack of fault tolerance, this deployment type is probably suitable only for small businesses and lab environments.

Scale Out File Server (SOFS) – No Hyper-V Clustering

Normally we want our storage to be fault tolerant. That’s because all of our VMs are probably on that single SAN (yes, some have the scale and budget for spanning SANs but that’s a whole different breed of organisation).  Normally we would need a SAN made up fault tolerant disk tray$, switche$, controller$, hot $pare disk$, and $o on.   I think you get the point.

Thanks to the innovations of Windows Server 2012, we’re going to get a whole new type of fault tolerant storage called a SOFS.


What we have in a SOFS is an active/active file server cluster.  The hosts that store VMs on the cluster use UNC paths instead of traditional local paths (even for CSV).  The file servers in the SOFS cluster work as a team.  A role in SMB 3.0 called the witness runs on the Hyper-V host (SMB witness client) and file server (SMB witness server).  With some clever redirection the SOFS can handle:

  • Failure of a file server with just a blip in VM I/O (no outage).  The cluster will allow the new host of the VMs to access the files without a 60 second delay you might see in today’s technology.
  • Live Migration of a VM from one host to another with a smooth transition of file handles/locks.

And VSS works through the above redirection process too.

One gotcha: you might look at this and this this is a great way to replace current file servers.  The SOFS is intended only for large files with little metadata access (few permissions checks, etc).  The currently envisioned scenarios are SQL Server file storage and Hyper-V VM file storage.  End user file shares, on the other hand, feature many small files with lots of metadata access and are not suitable for SOFS.

Why is this?  To make the file servers active/active with smooth VM file handle/lock transition, the storage that the file servers are using consists of 1 or more Cluster Shared Volumes (CSVs).  This uses CSV v2.0, not the version we have in Windows Server 2008 R2.  The big improvements in CSV 2.0 are:

  • Direct I/O for VSS backup
  • Concurrent backup across all nodes using the CSV

Some activity in a CSV does still cause redirected I/O, and an example of that is metadata lookup.  Now you get why this isn’t good for end user data.

When I’ve talked about SOFS many have jumped immediately to think that it was only for small businesses.  Oh you fools!  Never assume!  Yes, SOFS can be for the small business (more later).  But where this really adds value is that larger business that feels like they are held hostage by their SAN vendors.  Organisations are facing a real storage challenge today.  SANs are not getting cheaper, and the storage scale requirements are rocketing.  SOFS offers a new alternative.  For a company that requires certain hardware functions of a SAN (such as replication) then SOFS offers an alternative tier of storage.  For a hosting company where every penny spent is a penny that makes them more expensive in the yes of their customers, SOFS is a fantastic way to provide economic, highly performing, scalable, fault tolerant storage for virtual machine hosting.

The SOFS cluster does require shared storage of some kind.  It can be made up of the traditional SAN technologies such as SAS, iSCSI, or Fibre Channel with the usual RAID suspects.  Another new technology, called PCI RAID, is on the way.  It will allow you to use just a bunch of disks (JBOD) and you can have fault tolerance in the form of mirroring or parity (Windows Server 2012 Storage Spaces and Storage Pools).  It should be noted that if you want to create a CSV on a Storage Space then it must use mirroring, and not parity.

Update: I had previously blogged in this article that I was worried that SOFS was suitable only for smaller deployments.  I was seriously wrong.

Good news for those small deployment: Microsoft is working with hardware partners to create a cluster-in-a-box (CiB) architecture with 2 file servers, JBOD and PCI RAID.  Hopefully it will be economic to acquire/deploy.

Update: And for the big biz that needs big IOPS for LOB apps, there are CiB solutions for you too, based on Infiniband networking, RDMA (SMB Direct), and SSD, e.g. a 5U appliance having the same IOPS are 4 racks of fibre channel disk.

Back to the above architecture, I see this one being useful in a few ways:

  • Hosting companies will like it because every penny of each Hyper-V host is utilised.  Having N+1 or N+2 Hyper-V hosts means you have to add cost to your customer packages and this makes you less competitive.
  • Larger enterprises will want to reduce their every-5 year storage costs and this offers them a different tier of storage for VMs that don’t require those expensive SAN features such as LUN replication.

SOFS – Hyper-V Cluster

This is the next step up from the previous solution.  It is a fully redundant virtualisation and storage infrastructure without the installation of a SAN.  A SOFS (active-active file server cluster) provides the storage.  A Hyper-V cluster provides the virtualisation for HA VMs.


The Hyper-V hosts are clustered.  If they were direct attached to a SAN then they would place their VMs directly on CSVs.  But in this case they store their VMs on a UNC path, just as with the previous SMB 3.0 examples.  VMs are mobile thanks to Live Migration (as before without Hyper-V clusters) and thanks to Failover.  Windows Server 2012 Clustering has had a lot of work done to it; my favourite change being Cluster Aware Updating (easy automated patching of a cluster via Automatic Updates).

The next architectures “up” from this one are Hyper-V clusters that use SAS, iSCSI, or FC.  Certainly SOFS is going to be more scalable than a SAS cluster.  I’d also argue that it could be more scalable than iSCSI or FC purely based on cost.  Quality iSCSI or FC SANs can do things at the hardware layer that a file server cluster cannot, but you can get way more fault tolerant storage per Euro/Dollar/Pound/etc with SOFS.

So those are your options … in a single site Smile

What About Hyper-V Cluster Networking? Has It Changed?

In a word: no.

The basic essentials of what you need are still the same:

  1. Parent/management networking
  2. VM connectivity
  3. Live Migration network (this should usually be your first 10 GbE network)
  4. Cluster communications network (heartbeat and redirected IO which does still have a place, even if not for backup)
  5. Storage 1 (iSCSI or SMB 3.0)
  6. Storage 2 (iSCSI or SMB 3.0)

Update: We now have two types of redirected IO that both support SMB Multichannel and SMB Direct.  SMB redirection (high level) is for those short metadata operations, an block level redirect (2x faster) is for sustained redirection IO operations such as a storage path failure.

Maybe you add a dedicated backup network, and maybe you add a 2nd Live Migration network.

How you get these connections is another story.  Thanks to native NIC teaming, DCB, QoS, and a lot of other networking changes/additions, there’s lots of ways to get these 6+ communication paths in Windows Server 2012.  For that, you need to read about converged fabrics.

23 thoughts on “Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V Storage Strategies”

  1. Great article. Nice review of the options and possibilities we’re going to have with Server 8. One of the best things about having a SAN has been simplifying sotrage management. Breaking this apart may offer chepaer storage but it isn’t necessarily going to be as easy to manage as you split it into separate pools. Nice to have more choices though to fit nearly every size company and budget. Thanks for posting this!

    1. You struck on the key thing: choice. The small biz has a choice with Win8. The larger biz/enterprise has a choice of adding SOFS/SMB2.2 into their storage strategy – no one really expect this to 100% replace their EMC/Hitachi/3Par storage.

  2. I have Hyper V R2 running in clusters today with an iSCSI SAN (Equallogic). Its new to us(6 months old) and it was all VMware before exact same hardware, Dell Servers.

    Clustering in Windows is a major pain compared to VMware. There are just way to many steps and no support for NIC teaming from Microsoft makes it even worse when you have to track down all of the drivers from Intel/Broadcom etc…and use their teaming software.

    Failover clustering in Windows 2008 R2 is also rather buggy. I dread when I have to put a node into maintenance mode to patch it as I can un-predictable results from rebooting a host. Lots of FailOver cluster errors as the node goes through its reboot. (CSV volumes going offline for just seconds etc) After many hot fixes plus new HIT kit utility its better….but I dread something like running a cluster validation test on a 8 node cluster. Not only does it take an hour but again tons of little errors that freak you out.

    This new SOFS mode would be a great way to simplify my environment, even with a SAN. I would lose the HA for VM’s, something that I don’t even use today unless a node crashed, and then its just an automatic reboot on another node or ummm crash and then power up on another node.

    Anyhow SOFS would eliminate Failover clustering of the Hyper V hosts and all of that overhead with many node clusters (4 or more), would be gone. Fewer NIC’s on the Hyper V host I would imagine (management, VM’s, dedicated SMB 2.2 NIC’s) 4 vs 6-8 today. Not cluster validation, no FC management tools for the Host. No SAN host utilities to install since its storage is Windows SMB 2.2 for VM’s.

    I would still have at least 1 – 2 node cluster attached to my SAN for the SMB 2.2 cluster, but with 2 nodes, and nothing but a hand full of file shares to cluster (vs hundred of VM’s) it would be a much easier to manage.

    Great article!

    1. Larry,

      A few things:

      1) The vast majority of people who have a Hyper-V cluster are not having any issues. You might need to revisit your network configuration.
      2) You probably should re-read this article. SOFS isn’t an alternative way to make VMs HA. It’s an alternative storage mechanism. We have LM (not failover) with non-clustered Hyper-V hosts. HA VMs (auto failover) is only achievable with clustered Hyper-V hosts.

  3. Everything was making perfect sense until you say:

    “The SOFS cluster does require shared storage of some kind. It can be made up of the traditional SAN technologies such as SAS, iSCSI, or Fibre Channel with the usual RAID suspects”

    Can you clarify how SOFS requires shared storage? I thought the point of SOFS was to eliminate the SAN, use the internal DAS storage in the file servers to present a single unified namespace that could “expand” by adding addt’l nodes to the cluster?

    1. SOFS is a cluster. A cluster requires shared storage. A newer, cheaper option is coming in the form of PCI RAID + JBOD.

      1. “Implementing Scale-Out File Servers requires all application data shares be hosted on Cluster Shared Volumes v2 (CSVv2)”.
        This is from “Understand and Troubleshoot Scale-Out File Servers in Windows Server “8” Beta” document.
        I guess Cluster Shared Volumes v2 requirement leads to SAN usage.
        How would you recommend to avoid SAN usage for CSVs in 4 nodes SoFS?

  4. Nice article. Can you write detailed about: “there’s lots of ways to get these 6+ communication paths”?
    How I can make 6-8 NICs from servers with only 2-4 NICs?

    1. There’s a new concept called converged fabrics that was introduced at Build. I don’t know the step-by-steps on it yet, but it leverages DCB and QoS.

  5. I’m not quite understanding the value of SOFS. If you still need Shared storage (SAN) behind the nodes of the SOFS, then why not just directly use that shared storage for your Hyper-V hosts? Aren’t you just putting another layer in the middle?

    In a small company I could see that you could use a single node server as your SMB 3.0 File Server for a HV cluster, but then that becomes a single point of failure anyway. And besides, there are lots of iSCSI targets freely available including from MS that make this a possibility.

    I know this all sounds really compelling and cool, so there has to be something that I am just not quite getting about the value prop for this.

    1. Re-read the post. You can use an SAS/iSCSI/FC SAN for the SOFS, but you won’t. You’ll use a cheaper JBOD with SAS Expander connections, possibly bought as a kit called a Cluster in a Box (CiB). That can be a fraction of the cost of a SAN if the h/w vendors want it to be.

  6. Would it be possible to cluster some nodes with SoFS and Hyper-V (all connected to a shared SAS storage), then use Windows Storage Spaces to pool disk drives and create volumes and finally use this as CSV (local per node: C:ClusterStorage) for the VMs? You would not need to use UNC paths, so there would be no loop-back construction. If this works (including LiveMigration) and you could manage the Hyper-V cluster and the storage below using VMM2012 SP1, there would be no more need for a SAN in small to medium implementations (well, perhaps for guest clustering).

  7. At our company we’re looking to get a SOFS – Hyper-V cluster (your last example). What is troubling us is the SAS-expanders in the SOFS, what exactly do we need in order to get SMB failover?
    Is one SAS-expander (with 2 ports) in each node enough, and how do you connect it?
    Can you even give an example of a SAS-expander where this is made possible?
    As there are very few hardware vendors delivering this as a CiB we are forced to make the purschase ourself, which means we need all information we can get. 🙂

    I would gladly appreciate if you shed some light over this as there seems to be very little expertise help to get, and we’re actually looking to implement this early 2013.

  8. Good read.. we are in the process of switching from ESXi 4 to Hyper-V 3.0. I am just having trouble deciding on the storage piece. 🙂

  9. A little confused with the SOFA active-active cluster example. Without a SAN, is the data replicated to each node ? So if one node goes down, all the data has been replicated on the 2nd node (or 3rd node) ? Not sure how this happens, other than the hyper-v replication… which I’m sure is not suitable for data.

    1. The JBOD acts as economic shared storage and the nodes provide the disk fault tolerance (storage spaces) and multipath controller functionality of a SAN. There is no replication required because it’s shared storage.

      1. If I am correct the JBOD becomes a single point of failure ?
        Even worse, if one of the disk in the JBOD fails, the storage pool containing this disk goes down ?
        Am I correct if you can connect the nodes to 2 JBOD’s en mirror the storage pools ?

        1. If I am correct the JBOD becomes a single point of failure ?

          The disks are mirrored in the tray so disk failure is supported. The tray is a point of failure, just like a tray would be in a SAN.

          Even worse, if one of the disk in the JBOD fails, the storage pool containing this disk goes down ?

          No. See Storage Spaces.

          Am I correct if you can connect the nodes to 2 JBOD’s en mirror the storage pools ?

          No. The 2 nodes are connected to a single JBOD, just like the 2 nodes would be connected to a single SAN.

  10. I want to know how much is it reliable to Use Hyper-V Cluster with CSV … What if my Hyper-V Cluster fails how will I access my VM’s which are located on CSV and its Critical Production Environment.

    1. CSV is fault tolerant. I used it in a mission critical hosting environment in W2008 R2 without issues. Easily 66% of Hyper-V customers (that’s the approx number using clusters) have CSV deployed.

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