vSAN in Industrial Environments

Overview

Data centers get all the attention these days, and for good reason.  Large on-premises environments are more powerful and sophisticated than ever.  With dedicated cooling aisles, meticulously cabled systems, and almost surgical-like cleanliness, a modern data center can be a sight to behold.  Add powerful solutions like VMware Cloud Foundation, and it sets up organizations well in their effort to build and grow a private or hybrid-cloud.  

VMware vSAN has had widespread adoption across a variety of manufacturing environments.  Often overlooked are the thousands of smaller or highly distributed industrial manufacturing and processing facilities that are running vSphere to power their tooling software, inventory control, and ancillary back-office solutions.  From the extremely sophisticated and robust, to the antiquated and fragile; Industrial environments typically need to support a variety of proprietary software that is not a good fit for running in the cloud.
 
At first glance, the needs of industrial environments appear simple, but to those who are in these facilities, their uptime is critical.  Unfortunately, industrial facilities can be subject to environmental conditions not found in a traditional data center.  Server rooms may be nothing more than the hosts and switchgear placed over in a corner of the building.  They are often unsecured, and subject to extreme levels of heat, dust, or other aerosols.  The servers and supporting switchgear sometimes share the same power circuits as the manufacturing equipment and often have little to no power protection.  
 

Topologies to suite any manufacturing environment

Sometimes these manufacturing environments are geographically dispersed enough that it can prove to be challenging to build and maintain the independent on-premises environments in an efficient way.  The flexibility inherent to vSAN can help address these challenges.  

Single site manufacturing facilities

In this type of configuration, a small vSAN cluster could be sized to power all of the needs of the manufacturing and back office environment.  It would remain resilient and agile for potential changes in requirements, and could be easily paired with VMware’s SaaS based VMware Cloud Disaster Recovery to provide full disaster recovery capabilities using the cloud.

vSAN in a single manufacturing facility

For small manufacturing facilities, this would be the most common type of deployment.  Simple in its design, while taking advantage of the cloud to provide potential disaster recovery needs.

Manufacturing environments with two regional facilities

For larger environments that had perhaps two regional manufacturing facilities, one could have independent vSAN clusters, or if there is a desire to ensure availability of service in the event of a site outage, a vSAN stretched cluster could also be used.  If there are three manufacturing facilities, the third site could be used as a target location for VMware Site Recovery Manager to meet any disaster recovery failover requirements.

vSAN in two regional manufacturing facilities

This type of topology could be ideal for a pair of regional facilities that have similar needs, but also want some increased level of availability through site-level resilient.  This type of topology can also use the cloud for an optional DR target for added levels of protection and failover options.

Geographically dispersed manufacturing facilities

For Industrial environments that have perhaps several smaller remote manufacturing facilities with a central office, a vSAN 2-node cluster could be used for an extraordinarily efficient and cost effective architecture.  Each host of a 2-node cluster can be directly connected to each other, eliminate high-speed switching requirements at each site, while using the central office as the location for the virtual witness host appliance.  The central office would also be the location in which all of these 2-node clusters could be managed.

vSAN in geographically dispersed facilities with a central office
For example, Savencia Fromage & Dairy replaced their traditional storage arrays with a simple 2-node vSAN cluster at each manufacturing facility.  For them, ensuring high availability while reducing capital expenses, and operational costs was easy to do in this type of topology.  A vSAN 2-node cluster provided all of the power and resilience necessary, while simplifying the hardware footprint.
 

Practical guidance for vSAN powered clusters in industrial environments

A proper sizing and design exercise should always be applied to the design of any environment, large or small.  The recommendations below offer some general guidance to help improve the simplicity, resilience, and manageability of a vSAN cluster in these types of manufacturing environments.
 

  • Go with vSAN ReadyNodes, ruggedized platforms, or engineered solutions such as VxRail.  These options will guarantee compatibility with the VMware Compatibility Guide (VCG). A nanoEDGE platform is also another viable alternative.  Some of these OEM server vendors (including Hitachi, Lenovo, Dell, and HPE) already have plugins for the vSphere Lifecycle Manager (vLCM) which is an important part of hypervisor lifecycle management, and will make this aspect of operations easier for you.  While a "build your own" (BYO) approach is supported, we often see the use of unsupported hardware as the underlying cause of a technical support case raised by a customer.  Simplify the experience through a system already pre-approved.
  • Choose a rack-mounted 2U form factor.  A 2U rack-mounted server has proven to be the most flexible and economical form factor for most environments - especially hyperconverged.  A 2U server will allow you to add more storage capacity easily, scaling up the potential capacity in an easy, economical manner.
  • Configure your server's out-of-band management interfaces.  Whether they use IPMI, iDRAC, ILO, or some other approach, this saves a lot of guesswork out of remote management tasks.
  • Use all-flash. Fewer moving parts improve the reliability and performance.  Sometimes these manufacturing environments are running software that does not demand high levels of performance, so SATA flash devices at the capacity tier could be a very economical option.  Sticking with NVMe devices for the caching/buffering tier is recommended.  It has supreme levels of performance, and unlike SAS or SATA flash, it contains its own dedicated, embedded storage controller on the device for a more robust design.
  • For small environments not using a 2-node configuration, use a minimum of four hosts. In smaller industrial environments, when paired with a storage array, it was not uncommon to just see two hosts in a traditional vSphere cluster. This is because the compute demands were minimal. But vSAN relies on hosts for the resilience of storage. While three is the minimum for a vSAN cluster, four hosts will allow you to maintain levels of prescribed resilience in the event of a failure. One may be able to go with single processor hosts to reduce hardware and software costs and remember, with vSAN, there is no storage array to purchase. When paired with a vSAN ROBO license, which is based on total VM count (not processor count), the type of configuration described above can offer tremendous value.
  • For environments using 2-node direct-connect configurations, aim for compute and storage density.  When there is a central location to house a virtual witness host appliance, a 2-node vSAN cluster at each site can be an extremely powerful and economical approach.  In these cases, since the cluster is limited to two hosts for serving data, focus on ensuring that you have plenty of computational and storage capacity available.  Fast network adapter cards for fast directly connected network performance, dual processor systems with an abundance of RAM and flash storage capacity will be ideal for these 2-node direct-connect configurations.
  • If the cluster size is no greater than 4 hosts, stick with storage policies using RAID-1 mirroring.  This will give your data the ability to regain their prescribed levels of resilience should you have a host fail.
  • Install vSphere/vSAN on persistent flash devices such as an SSD, M.2, U.2, or BOSS module.  Using Micro SD cards or USB sticks for the hypervisor was popular at one time, but that trend is fading away fast due to the questionable quality of those devices, and the lack of ability to assign persistent host logging to devices.
  • Specify the hosts with at least two disk groups.  Two or more disk groups on a host allow the host to still continue to provide storage capacity in the event of a disk group failure.  This is especially important in smaller clusters.
  • Use appropriate enterprise-class switchgear.  vSAN relies on reliable switchgear that has the processing, backplane, and buffering capabilities necessary for transacting high levels of packets per second.  Unfortunately, many of the value-based 10Gb switchgear lacks all of those traits.  Ensure you are running a sufficient class of switchgear for your environment.
  • Use two switches for redundancy.  A single switch is a single point of failure for connected environments.  Ensure you have two switches, and they are connected with some variation of a LAG.  Resist using stacking modules.  These are easy to implement and have good cross-switch throughput, but often create a single failure domain for the two switches, which is antithetical to the goal.  
  • Don't neglect updates.  Many times these environments adopt a 'set it and forget it' approach.  This is not an effective strategy for hosts powering business-critical workloads using a hypervisor.  Remember to update vCenter, the host's firmware, drivers, and hypervisor.  The vSphere LifeCycle Manager (vLCM) introduced in vSphere 7 is VMware's all-new approach to host lifecycle management of the hypervisor and the supporting hardware.  Use it if possible, and also be sure to sign up for the vSAN VCG Notification Service.
  • Use an appropriate and sufficient UPS.  Appropriately sized UPS units are neither exciting, nor affordable.  But the alternative may inflict damage on the equipment, compromise the data, and potentially your career.  Also make sure to allocate funds for battery replacements.  UPS units won't provide any help if the batteries are not regularly maintained and replaced.
  • Don't forget to review your data protection and recovery strategies.  Protecting the data, and the software that powers the data is paramount for any environment.  Don't let the simplicity of a small environment distract from the requirements of data protection.  Do you have the tools in place to granularly backup and recover a critical VM and its associated data?  There are several Technology Partners that offer backup applications using VMware APIs for Data Protection (VADP) that can meet these common needs.  And no, configuring backups of data on vSAN to a backup target on the vSAN cluster does not count as a backup. 
  • Plan for the unplanned:  Understand your disaster recovery (DR) requirements.  Planning for DR is about maintaining uptime or continuity in the event of some larger scale outage.  Historically, many types of businesses, including manufacturing did not have the facilities or capabilities to offer up full business continuity.  Now, thanks to VMware Cloud Disaster Recovery, environments like these can easily use this SaaS based solution to provide all of the business continuity necessary.  It is an incredibly easy option.  No need to lease a colocation facility, purchase or manage equipment and software just for disaster recovery failover.  Simply sign up for a pay-as-you-go solution that meets the business requirements immediately.

 

While these are good starting point guidelines for industrial environments, they should not override the specific requirements of an environment.  For example, a maritime manufacturing facility used an extremely powerful just-in-time cost modeling and inventory forecasting software to gain an advantage over their competitors.  They needed these processes as fast as possible. In their case, performance mattered, and the recommendations reflected that additional requirement.  It is not uncommon for these types of environments to be running various OLTP databases that demand high levels of performance, and vSAN has proven to deliver the performance required for those databases and applications.

Aircraft Industries A.S. also echoes a similar sentiment.  Improving performance and security provided tangible benefits almost immediately to their core competency: The design and manufacturing of small aircraft. 

Summary

Manufacturing facilities and other industrial environments may present unique challenges to the design and operation of a vSphere and/or a vSAN powered environment.  With the proper planning and considerations of those manufacturing or processing facilities, vSphere and vSAN are a perfect fit for those environments.  To learn more about other customers who have shared their stories about vSAN powering their manufacturing facilities, see these vSAN customer stories.

About the Author

This content elaborates on the blog post: Running vSAN in Industrial Environments, and shares additional guidance and examples for running vSAN in these types of environments.

Pete Koehler is a Staff Technical Marketing Architect focusing on vSAN at VMware, Inc. He specializes in enterprise architectures, performance, data center analytics, software-defined storage, and hyperconverged Infrastructures. Pete provides more insight into the challenges of the data center at https://core.vmware.com/users/pete-koehler, vmpete.com, and can also be found on twitter at @vmpete.

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