VMFS Extents – to extend or not to extend, that is the question

Extents allow disk presented to a vSphere system to be added to VMFS datastore to extend the file system, this aggregates multiple disks together and can be useful in a number of scenarios. Recently I saw problems where extents were being used spanning two storage systems; one of the storage systems had a controller failure which caused SCSI reservation issues on one of the LUNs making up the extent and this caused the entire datastore to go offline.

In this article I want to discuss some of the benefits and potential pitfalls in using VMFS extents in vSphere environments. Ultimately this is an available, supported, and sometimes useful feature of vSphere but there are some limitations or weaknesses that using this can bring.

Advantages:

  • Using extents allows you to create datastores up to the maximum supported by vSphere for pre-VMFS-5 datastores. It can be useful to create large datastores for the following reasons:
    • There may be a requirement to natively present a VMDK which is larger than the maximum LUN size available on your storage system. For example, if 2TB is the largest LUN you can present, but you need a 4TB disk for the application your VM is hosting, the aggregation of disks will allow the creation of a VMFS datastore large enough to deliver this without the need to span volumes in the guest OS, or the need to fallback to using something like RDMs which may impinge on other vSphere functionality
    • Datastore management will be simplified with fewer VMFS datastores required. The fewer datastores available, the less an administrator has to keep their eyes on. In addition to this, decisions made in placing VMs is made considerably simpler if there are fewer choices
  • Adding space to a datastore with capacity issues; in a previous role we were constrained by storage space more than any other resource, this meant that on both the storage system (NetApp FAS2050 with a single shelf of storage), and at the VMFS level, the design left little to no room to extend a VMDK should it be required. If we did need to add space to VMDKs, we had to extend the volume and LUN by the required amount on the filer, and add a small extent to the datastore in vSphere

Disadvantages:

  • Introduces a single point of failure; whether you are aggregating disks from one or multiple storage systems, by adding extents to a volume the head extent in the aggregated datastore (the first LUN added to the datastore) becomes a single point of failure, if any of the LUNs should become unavailable then VMs which have any blocks whatsoever on the lost LUN will no longer be available
  • Management from the storage side can become more difficult, given that there may be multiple LUNs, from multiple storage systems now aggregated to form a single datastore, from a storage side it is harder to identify which LUNs relate to which datastores in vSphere, to combat this it is important to document the addition of extents well, and label LUNs accordingly on the storage system
  • If extents are combined which span different storage devices then there may well be a loss in performance

The above is all just based on my experiences, but it seems there are legitimate use cases for choosing to use, or not use extents. My personal preference would be to present a new larger LUN where possible, formatting this in VMFS, and using Storage vMotion to migrate VMs to the new datastore. Given that since VMFS-5 introduced GPT as the partitioning method for LUNs, we can now create single extent datastores up to 64TB in size, the requirement for using extents should be diminished. There are often legitimate reasons, especially in older environments, why this is not practical or possible however, and in these cases using extents is perfectly valid.

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Author: railroadmanuk

Currently working at ANS Group as a FlexPod Engineer, designing and implementing converged infrastructure solutions featuring NetApp storage, Cisco Nexus networking, and UCS compute. Aspiring coder, virtualization aficionado, and automator of things.

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