The limiting factor in adoption of file virtualization has been, in my opinion, twofold. First is the FUD created by the confusion with block-level virtualization and proprietary vendors wanting to sell you more of their gear – both of which are rapidly disappearing – and second is the unknown element. The simple “how does this set of products improve my environment, save me money, or cut manhours?” Well now this issue is going to rapidly go away also, because you can find out easily enough.

image Those of you who follow my writing know that I was a hard sell for file virtualization services. In fact, until I had a device in my environment and running, giving me a chance to tinker with it, I remained a bit skeptical even after understanding the use cases. The reasons are probably well-known to many in IT… What does file virtualization offer that the independent NAS boxes don’t cover in one way or another. The answer that I came to was something we here at F5 call strategic points of control. The ARX in my environment allowed me to utilize the back-end NAS devices/file servers to the maximum while alleviating quite a bit of “out of disk space” concern. This is simply a case of the ARX seeing across NAS devices and giving the ability to move things to less utilized space without client machines having to even know they moved. This goes a lot further than simple disk space utilization and allows tiering and enhanced automated backup.

image But I digress. My point is that, much like you and I cannot know what it is like to walk in space, I didn’t “get it” until I had my hands on the tool and could toy with it. Oh I conceptually understood the benefits, but wasn’t certain of the ROI for those benefits versus the cost of the device. Having one to configure and implement changes through was what it took for me to fully understand what benefits file virtualization had to offer in my environment.

Today our Data Solutions Group introduced a new version of F5 ARX – F5 ARX VE Trial or ARX Virtual Edition Trial. Yes indeed, now, assuming you have the right environment, can download a copy of ARX and kick the tires, see for yourself what I found in our network – that file management, replication, and tiering are all enabled by the F5 ARX line of products at a level that makes life easier for storage admins, desktop support, security, and systems admins.

Of course, no software exists in a vacuum, so I’ll cover the minimum requirements here, then talk about issues and differences from an ARX appliance.


Image Courtesy of NASA

Requirements are not too strenuous, and shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. First, it is a VM, so you’ll need VMWare. Specifically you’ll need VMWare ESX 4.0 Update 2 or VMWare ESX 4.1. The VMware install must be able to offer the ARX VM one virtual processor, two gigabytes of memory, and forty gigabytes of disk space inn order for it to run. And finally, you’ll need Internet access – either directly from  the VM, or via a management machine. This is so you can get the license key from the F5 license server. You’ll want it to have routes to whatever subnets the storage your trying it out with are on, of course, and clients should have a route to it – or you won’t be doing much with it – but other than that, you’re set.

I know there are a lot of you out there who have wondered at my change of heart vis-a-vis file virtualization… Several of you have written to me about it in fact. But now is your chance to see why I went from wonder that this market exists to an advocate of putting your storage behind such a device. The trial is free, with a few limitations, so lets go over them here. Remember the point of this product is to try out ARX, not to put in a fully functional production VM. More on that later, for now, understand that the following limitations exist and should offer more than enough power for you to check it out: The biggest one, in my opinion, is that you are limited to 32,768 files per system. That means your test environment will have to be carefully selected – you’d be amazed how fast 32K files (not of storage, actual unique files) build up. Next is that you are really only going to have 32 mount points available on the ARX. This is somewhat less of an issue because from a single mount point at root you can get to the entire storage system. The documentation that I have does not mention NFS at all, so presumably it is not supported in the Trial version – but let me caveat that with “Just because I haven’t seen it doesn’t mean it isn’t there”. I’ll be installing and playing with this over the next couple of weeks, and pop back in to let you know what I find.

All in all, you can drop this into a VM, fire it up, and figure out just how much benefit you could get from file virtualization. That should be the point of a Trial version, so I think they hit the nail on the head.

As to upgrading in the future, there are some caveats. What you do in the Trial Edition won’t transfer to a production box for example, you’ll have to reconfigure. But it’s meant for testing only, so that’s not a huge limitation. I know when I first install any unfamiliar infrastructure element there is that first bit of learning time that creates clutter anyway, so losing that clutter shouldn’t be all bad. Unless you’re just better than me anyway :-).