Review: Tintri datastore in a box

The Tintri VMstore storage appliance operates at the VM level for snapshots, clones, and replication. Derek Schauland takes an in-depth look at what it offers.

Managing storage in a virtual environment can be quite a challenge; with constantly growing and shrinking LUNs, you have to ensure that everything in your environment is just right. Then you have to connect your ESX hosts and build datastores to hold any number of virtual machines your environment requires. Whew. That seems to be quite a bit of work just to get things prepared to function.

Fortunately, another storage vendor has taken a different approach to the management of the virtual environment. The company is Tintri, and the approach to storage is focused on the datastore. The VMstore appliance is a datastore-in-a-box that aims to streamline the management of any VMware-based virtualization environment.

Getting started

Once the unit is installed in the rack, configuration requires little more than powering on the device and assigning an IP address. ESX hosts will use the assigned IP address to connect to the Tintri appliance. From here, a datastore can be created in vCenter against the Tintri VMstore appliance. Once this is up and running, your virtual machines can be moved into (or created against) the Tintri VMstore appliance.

Note: For the purposes of this review, I was granted access to the Tintri’s Partner “Lightning Lab” to get a feel for the appliance and how it is managed.

The management interface is also all web-based, removing the need for the installation of additional software.

Figure A

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Tintri Dashboard

From the dashboard the visibility of information and operations available for virtual machines in the datastore is huge. Because of the integration available between Tintri and vSphere using VAAI (vStorage APIs for Array Integration), many actions available for the guest systems, especially cloning of guest systems, is greatly improved.

The most noticeable feature available in the application is overall reporting and management. Almost every aspect of your environment is visible in just a few clicks; we will look at the details of these features as we move forward.

The dashboard displays overall performance of the datastore, covering the following items:

  • IOPS – the number of input/output operations per second for the entire datastore
  • Throughput – the total throughput for the datastore
  • Latency – the overall latency experienced for the datastore
  • Flash hit ratio – the percent of used flash storage

Figure B

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Top level details for the datastore and latency information

When you mouse over a portion of the overall information, the details that make up the collective are displayed in a tool tip. In the demos I saw with Tintri and during the time I was able to use the lab, this feature seemed to be one that made the most sense to me. Being able to see which portions of an environment, guest, host, or network may be the root cause of a problem without having to visit these pieces individually is an enormous time saver.

In addition to the overall datastore information displayed, Tintri looks at performance reserves and available space which presents a complete picture of an environment. This is available in other storage platforms as well, but only the truly usable storage is displayed. Within the Tintri appliance, the actual resource usage for each VM is known and the real performance data is displayed. This allows organizations to make honest decisions about growing their storage to best suit their needs, avoiding the need to make guesses without much consideration for the performance of the array, only the disk space remaining.

Figure C

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Performance and space

Have you ever wanted to know which VMs in your environment are changing to consume more resources in terms of storage space consumed or performance data? Because Tintri captures this information, they are able to break this out by VM. Clicking on a listed VM (or using the Search VMs feature) will show specific details about that workload.

When a virtual machine is selected, its individual performance data (IOPS, latency, throughput, replication status) is displayed along with information about the number of snapshots that exist for the workload. The table shows the current information, and the graph shown at the bottom of the page displays an ongoing collection of data. The graph can have the timeframe modified by right-clicking the display and selecting an option from 4 hours to 7 days.

The graph can also display loads of other information by selecting the drop down arrow at the top to bring up different views. By selecting CPU and Resource usage, for example, you can see time snapshots as the mouse is moved over the graph.

Virtual hardware visibility

When looking at a virtual machine, you can also drill into the virtual disks used by the VM to detect any issues with the disks used by a workload, such as the overuse of a swap file. Features like these can help troubleshoot your virtualization environment without requiring you to log into vCenter to investigate.

What about cloning and snapshots?

VMware takes snapshots of VM workloads to help with backup and recovery of the application. Tintri has considered this as well with two types of snapshots:

  • Crash consistent – able to recover to a previous snapshot of a workload
  • VM consistent – uses the VMware tools to "quiesce" the workload when the snapshot is taken, that is, stop any running processes to make sure the VM version is stable

When Tintri takes a VM-consistent snap, a call is made to vSphere and the VMware snapshot utilities are used to create the original snapshot; then a Tintri snapshot of that is taken, and the original VMware snapshot is deleted, leaving a compressed and storage-optimized snapshot remaining. In addition, no resources other than a small amount of space to hold the snapshot metadata are consumed. When a VM is cloned from the Tintri UI, a snapshot is taken and the clone is based on that snapshot – not consuming any space beyond a negligible amount of metadata, and the cloned VM added to vSphere inventory. Up to 500 VMs can be cloned in a single operation in a matter of minutes.

Additionally, through the use of a VAAI plugin, a clone can be created and added to VCenter inventory immediately with no additional work required. With this integration, clones created within vCenter are managed in the same way, with the work being offloaded to the storage array for most efficient processing – and only taking a few seconds to clone an entire VM.

Snapshots are great, but can Tintri go offsite?

Replication is based again on snapshots; whenever a snapshot is taken on a VM configured to replicate, the array replicates the snapshot to a partnered Tintri array. After initial replication, only the changes to workloads are replicated (which are globally deduped and compressed), either on a schedule or on demand. Most arrays are able to replicate a LUN or set of LUNs to another location, sending any information they contain to the other side. Tintri works differently, at the VM level, allowing a single workload to be replicated to another Tintri appliance on its own protection schedule.

Figure D

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Replication configuration

When working with replication, configuration is very quick (and on a per VM level). Simply checking a box to enable protection and providing a schedule of replication operations is all the work that needs to get done. As you will see below, there are some licensing costs for replication. In addition, if you are splitting your environment into VLANs to segregate data and want to use a distinct VLAN for replication, you may need to discuss additional adapters with Tintri. These are not required out-of-the-box for replication to work, but something your organization may need to consider down the road.

Because the Tintri appliance almost completely takes over the management of VMs within its datastore, the tools and reporting will be hugely useful to storage administrators and virtualization administrators alike. The device also makes available hardware diagnostics and a method to bundle information and diagnostics for Tintri support. This information is shown in Figure E.

Figure E

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Diagnostics for support

Tintri storage appliances are very useful in virtualization environments because they simplify the management of both storage and hosts by bringing it to a central point of administration. By allowing the storage to handle cloning and snapshots for the virtualization environment, the execution time for creating these items is reduced greatly. In my testing, creating both snapshots and clones of workloads using the Tintri management tools took only seconds to create.

Models and pricing

As of this writing, the available Tintri appliances are (prices in US dollars):

  • Model T540 – Dual Controller: 13.5TB, $90,000 (10Gbe Copper NICs) or $95,000 (10Gbe SFP + 10Gbe Copper NICs)
  • T445 – Single Controller: 8.5 TB, $65,000 (10Gbe NIC or SFP available for additional cost)

Replication is a licensed software feature that comes in addition to the cost of the appliance with licensing for adapters as well:

  • Model T540: $16,500
  • Model T445: $11,700

At first glance, the pricing might seem prohibitive for some organizations. However, there are other considerations. If your organization is growing their virtualization environment and the storage it should live on, Tintri is an appliance to consider for storage, performance, and ease of management reasons. While the cost per gigabyte or terabyte might not be as small as your organization would like, the performance gains and ease of management might be factors to put Tintri back on the table.

Looking at the pricing above and seeing a bunch of big numbers in terms of overall cost can be a bit misleading, not to say that the bottom line cost isn’t something to consider, but looking at the cost per workload may be a better way. When this is taken into consideration, the cost can be very competitive with other vendors. In research for this article, I worked to determine an approximate cost per VM in my own environment - approximately 30 VMs - (which does not run on Tintri) and found it to be about 75$/VM. That is not a terribly huge cost at all. In addition, in working with Tintri to lab test this solution, they mentioned that they have a customer running 1000 VM workloads on one single Tintri device, which brings the cost per workload down significantly. Looking at other factors, like administrative costs to manage storage and virtualization environments should also be worked into the calculation of cost and cost savings. If the device takes less time and effort to manage, it might just save money in the long run.

My hope is for Tintri to release a class of appliance that is geared toward the SMB market, allowing more organizations to consider Tintri for virtualization.