Tech ONTAP Articles

Running Microsoft Apps on FlexPod for VMware


Cisco, NetApp, and VMware have introduced the FlexPod™ for VMware® infrastructure solution—a presized, validated, standardized data center architecture design available through select channel partners—to simplify, accelerate, and reduce the risk of deploying a shared IT infrastructure or cloud. A few months ago, a detailed article by Ashok Rajagopalan of Cisco and David Klem of NetApp  described the highlights of the base FlexPod architecture along with some of the use cases. Because that article received more hits than just about any other recent article, Tech OnTap asked me to follow it up with an in depth look at deploying popular Microsoft® applications on FlexPod for VMware and highlighting key enabling capabilities: performance, efficiency, data protection/DR, and the associated best practices.

Advantages for Mixed Microsoft Workloads

The FlexPod for VMware infrastructure solution has unique virtualization features that streamline the deployment and secure separation of Microsoft applications. VMware vCenter™ provides a scalable and extensible management platform that supports workflow automation. Cisco Unified Computing System™ (UCS) Manager provides embedded management of Cisco® components and integration with VMware vCenter. NetApp® OnCommand® Management Suite simplifies storage management and lets you delegate storage management tasks to server or VMware administrators with tight vCenter integration.

Figure 1) FlexPod for VMware components.

You can fine-tune the FlexPod configuration and scale up components within a single FlexPod configuration or scale out with multiple FlexPod configurations to meet your specific workload requirements. Additional components can be added to provide capabilities for application acceleration, load balancing, backup, disaster recovery, and others. For instance:

  • Cisco Application Control Engine (ACE) and Wide Area Application Services (WAAS) can provide enhanced availability, performance, and intra–data center and wide area network optimization for virtualized Microsoft applications.

  • NetApp SnapManager®, SnapMirror®, and VMware Site Recovery Manager (SRM) allow you to meet aggressive recovery time objective (RTO) and recovery point objective (RPO) goals with application-aware backup, granular recovery, and automated disaster recovery (DR).

Virtualizing your Microsoft applications can yield significant benefits for your IT operation as a whole, as well as for application owners, and end users. Deploying your Microsoft apps with FlexPod will allow your IT team to:

  • Host multiple instances of Microsoft applications on a prevalidated, shared infrastructure with centralized management while keeping costs under control

  • Quickly roll out new application instances as needed

  • Meet SLAs with high availability and end-to-end QoS for Microsoft applications

  • Fully automate data protection and disaster recovery

  • Get cooperative support for all FlexPod components to help streamline issue resolution

Application owners see no changes in the way applications have to be managed, but they benefit from enhanced availability, security, and data protection; faster rollout of new applications; and application-aware load balancing. End users, especially branch office and mobile users, will notice better performance and a more optimized experience accessing the applications.

Each element of the FlexPod solution delivers particular advantages for Microsoft applications.

Cisco UCS

The Cisco UCS controls all server attributes in the software layer to make the computing hardware within FlexPod stateless. Cisco UCS completely virtualizes the server hardware, networking ,and storage access with virtual MAC and WWN addresses. Should a server fail, assigning the role of that server to a different blade works seamlessly without any need to reconfigure your VLANs or switches. The Cisco Manager makes it simple to deploy new servers using templates. The overall results are enhanced scalability, availability, and efficiency.

From the perspective of Microsoft applications, the combination of Cisco UCS with VMware server virtualization and NetApp storage virtualization can further optimize Microsoft application deployment in a number of areas:

  • Service profiles and templates speed provisioning of additional virtualized Microsoft Servers. ESX hosts can be provisioned quickly by applying preconfigured service profiles onto new Cisco UCS blades, which can SAN boot a preinstalled ESX host image. Combining this with the rapid cloning capability of the NetApp Virtual Storage Console (VSC), which uses FlexClone® to provision virtual machines, enables you to provision multiple Microsoft application VMs within a few minutes.

  • Cisco’s M81KR Virtual Interface Card (VIC) allows you to configure many additional virtual NICs, so each server can have as many interfaces as needed. For Exchange this can be very helpful when your mailbox servers are in a DAG configuration. A separate VLAN can be used for each traffic type.

  • For networking alone, the Cisco UCS architecture reduces costs by 66% versus traditional approaches.

Cisco Nexus Unified Fabric

Cisco Nexus® 5500 series switches provide a unified, high-speed fabric for connectivity and full redundancy of all network paths.

The networking infrastructure deployed with the first FlexPod configuration provides ports and bandwidth to support up to three FlexPod installations. In other words, you can add two additional FlexPod installations to your infrastructure (for a total of three) before additional networking capacity is needed.

Two networking components are specifically designed to support VMware:

  • Cisco Nexus 1000V virtual supervisor module (VSM) is a software switch that runs within the VMware kernel or on the Cisco Nexus 1010 appliance to provide tight integration between the server and network environment.

  • Cisco Nexus 1010 is a dedicated appliance that supports multiple instances of the Cisco Nexus 1000V VSM to offload the work from individual server blades, improving scalability and performance.

NetApp Storage

The NetApp storage components of FlexPod also deliver significant advantages for Microsoft applications. NetApp storage is designed to deliver the performance, availability, and efficiency that these applications require.

Because FlexPod includes the NetApp Complete Bundle software, you have NetApp SnapRestore®, SnapMirror, FlexClone, SnapVault®, and the full SnapManager Suite at your disposal at no additional charge. The SnapManager Suite provides application-aware data protection for Microsoft Exchange, SQL Server®, and SharePoint® as well as several other popular applications. In conjunction with SnapMirror, these components form the basis of DR.

The NetApp unified multiprotocol architecture provides built-in efficiency with dedupe, thin provisioning, and rapid cloning for deploying thousands of virtual machines within minutes to accommodate many instances of virtualized Microsoft applications.

VMware vSphere

FlexPod for VMware includes VMware vSphere™ Enterprise Plus and VMware vCenter. For those that already have a VMware Enterprise license, FlexPod is available without the VMware software components. Large, multicore servers have become the norm, and many applications can’t or don’t take advantage of all the cores in a physical server. Virtualizing with VMware lets you better utilize these cores, and you can isolate various server roles without adding additional hardware. Virtualizing also makes it easier and less expensive to maintain a testing lab for your Microsoft applications.

VMware provides capabilities such as VMotion™, Storage VMotion, and Distributed Resource Scheduler. These technologies make it possible to move application instances and associated resources between servers or locations without disruption and can monitor utilization across a resource pool and intelligently allocate available resources among virtual machines.


Detailed performance studies have been done to validate the use of Microsoft applications in virtualized environments. Extensive Exchange performance testing has been carried out by VMware and NetApp. (Although most of this work was done with Exchange 2007, you can be pretty confident that if performance was acceptable for Exchange 2007 it will be good for Exchange 2010 since Exchange 2010 has significant I/O reduction.)

Figure 2 provides a summary of Exchange on VMware performance. As you can see, virtual performance is always within 5% of physical performance. Even with 4,000 users, CPU load only reached 25%. The number of heavy users scaled linearly with the addition of CPUs in both the physical and virtual cases.

Figure 2) Performance of Exchange in a VMware environment versus physical.

VMware carried out similar studies for Microsoft SharePoint Server 2007 and Microsoft SQL Server. The SharePoint study demonstrated that up to 171,600 people who use SharePoint heavily can be supported by a single physical server running vSphere with separate VMs for various SharePoint roles. A detailed validation study for a 50,000-user SharePoint 2010 environment has been also conducted, and the CVD should be available soon.

Cisco UCS and NetApp storage include several additional features that will help enhance the performance of your Microsoft applications.

On the compute side, FlexPod includes two types of compute blades: the B-Series B200 M2 Blade Server for general workloads and the B250 M2 Extended Memory Blade Server for memory-intensive workloads. Large server memory is important for the performance of big Exchange installations and big SQL Server databases. It can help you reduce physical disk I/O, allowing you, for instance, to place more Exchange mailboxes on a single physical server.

The inclusion of NetApp Flash Cache  modules in each FlexPod configuration decreases read latency, reduces the number of disk spindles necessary to achieve a given level of performance, and can also significantly reduce the effect of boot storms that can occur in virtualized environments when many VMs boot at one time.

In NetApp benchmarking with Microsoft Exchange 2010, the addition of Flash Cache doubled the number of IOPs achieved and increased the supported number of mailboxes by 67%.

Optional Features to Enhance Performance

The Cisco Application Control Engine (ACE) module can be added to a FlexPod for VMware configuration to perform application load balancing, network traffic control, service redundancy, resource management, and application acceleration and optimization. If you need to support remote offices and mobile users, Cisco WAAS provides WAN optimization for faster application delivery to remote users accessing e-mail, uploading/downloading files/folders to SharePoint sites, and so on.

FlexPod can also provide end-to-end quality of service (QoS)—allowing you to prioritize some application workloads over others—when you implement secure multi-tenancy (SMT). Our unique SMT capabilities provide QoS at every infrastructure layer: server, network, and storage. In most implementations, a QoS mechanism is enabled in one layer in the hope that downstream or upstream layers will also be throttled as a result. Different applications have different characteristics—some might be compute intensive, some network intensive, and others I/O intensive. Simply limiting I/O does little or nothing to control the CPU utilization of a CPU-intensive application.

This QoS capability means that you can make sure that your most important workloads always get the resources they need to perform at or above expectations. It also means that you can confidently increase resource utilization—for greater efficiency—without worrying that service levels will suffer.

Greater Efficiency

FlexPod for VMware makes your Microsoft application environment more efficient by letting you get the most from your infrastructure investment while simplifying your operations and taking the burden off IT staff.

Traditional Microsoft application deployments use one physical server for each application role. While database servers or Exchange mailbox servers might fully utilize the physical resource, other server roles leave valuable resources relatively idle. By deploying on FlexPod for VMware, you can consolidate many such server roles onto a single virtualized server and adjust resources as needed. With VMotion, you can take this a step further by moving a VM that becomes busy to different hardware without disruption if needed.

Because FlexPod provides two types of server blades, you can put VMs on the type of blade that makes the most sense. The Cisco memory expansion capability as implemented in the B250 M2 Extended Memory Blade Server means that you can achieve very high VM density and/or support VMs with large memory requirements.

NetApp supports the VMware vStorage APIs for array integration (VAAI) so that important data-related tasks such as provisioning can be offloaded from servers to storage. NetApp and VMware integration through the Virtual Storage Console (VSC) lets VMware admins working from vCenter take full advantage of underlying NetApp capabilities to achieve great efficiency.

The provisioning and cloning capability of VSC includes the ability to efficiently clone new virtual machines from a baseline using NetApp FlexClone technology (a new chapter of Back to Basics  in this issue of Tech OnTap provides more details on FlexClone) as well as manage and secure storage paths, configure deduplication and thin provisioning for storage efficiency, and resize datastores. Provisioning with FlexClone significantly reduces the amount of storage needed to deploy VMs because clones only consume additional storage as changes are made. Enabling NetApp thin provisioning  and deduplication can further decrease the amount of storage needed.

In 2009, I was involved in a project to validate the deployment of a mixed workload of Microsoft applications on VMware, Cisco, and NetApp technologies.  Overall, we saw a 92% reduction in the amount of storage required for VM system drives hosting the OS and Microsoft application binaries when using the combination of provisioning using FlexClone, thin provisioning, and deduplication.

Figure 3) Storage savings from combining clone-based provisioning, thin provisioning, and deduplication.

Simplified Data Protection and Disaster Recovery

FlexPod also includes a number of technologies to simplify data protection for Exchange, SQL Server, and SharePoint. Because it includes the NetApp Virtual Storage Console and SnapManager suite, you have everything you need to perform space-efficient on-disk backups of your VMs and application-aware backups of the Microsoft applications running in those VMs. Application backups can be automatically replicated to a DR site using NetApp SnapMirror. If you run NetApp deduplication (a free Data ONTAP® feature), the resulting space savings are automatically inherited in backups and replication targets. The storage savings resulting from deduplication can actually help finance a DR environment.

The addition of Cisco WAAS to this scenario provides additional WAN optimization to minimize the time and bandwidth needed for replication operations to complete. Adding VMware Site Recovery Manager (SRM) provides fully automated recovery of virtualized Microsoft applications at your DR site.

Figure 4) Elements of a complete DR solution for Microsoft applications.

Best Practices for Microsoft Apps on FlexPod

A final advantage of deploying Microsoft apps on FlexPod is the time that Cisco, NetApp, and VMware have invested to test and completely document all aspects of FlexPod deployment. Rather than try to describe best practices here, I’ll simply point you to the resources that I believe will be the most helpful.

A recently released Cisco Validated Design (CVD), "FlexPod for VMware Deployment Model,"  describes the basic architecture of FlexPod for VMware as well as the general procedures for deploying a base FlexPod for VMware configuration.

FlexPod for VMware was tested to support 1,500 users running a mixed workload consisting of VMware View 4.5 (VDI), Microsoft Exchange 2010, Microsoft SharePoint 2010, and Microsoft SQL Server 2008R2. TR-3884: FlexPod for VMware Solutions Guide  gives general guidelines for deploying these and a number of additional applications and solutions on FlexPod. TR-3785: Microsoft Exchange Server, SQL Server, and SharePoint Server Mixed Workload Solutions Guide  predates FlexPod, but it might also provide valuable insights for deploying Microsoft applications, as will TR-3822: Disaster Recovery of Microsoft Applications Using VMware, NetApp, and Cisco Solutions.

For the specifics of Exchange deployment, another recent CVD, Microsoft Exchange 2010 with VMware vSphere on Cisco Unified Computing System with NetApp Storage,  describes best practices in exhaustive detail. Many more application-focused CVDs are in the pipeline, so keep a lookout for links to those in coming issues of Tech OnTap.


With streamlined performance, big improvements in efficiency, and simplified data protection and DR, FlexPod for VMware provides a cost-effective and highly capable platform for virtualizing Microsoft applications. Joint efforts to validate the best practices for running these Microsoft applications on FlexPod along with coordinated support when you need it means that you can deploy FlexPod for VMware with confidence.

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Abhinav Joshi
Solutions Architect
Abhinav is focused on developing and evangelizing Cisco and partner solutions for business applications in the cloud. He has over 11 years of industry experience with over 9 years focused on data center consolidation, virtualization, and cloud.

Before joining Cisco, Abhinav worked as a virtualization and cloud solutions architect at NetApp, where he played a key role in the development of end-to-end solutions, GTM activities, positioning/messaging, and future integration strategies.

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This Microsoft  SharePoint 2010 Enterprise on FlexPod for VMware guide just became  available.  The guide provides a functional review and analysis for application deployment within the  Cisco Unified network architecture. The test areas include scalability,  optimization, availability, and load balancing of a VMware virtualized  SharePoint 2010 environment with a 50,000 user maximum workload scenario  simulating enterprise use cases.

Check out this great FlexPod resource.