Get Thin Provisioning working for you in vSphere

Going Thin and not looking back.

thinYes, I am slowly losing my hair like many other aging men out there, but it wouldn’t be virtual insanity if I were blogging about my personal male pattern baldness issues.  With the latest release of VMware vSphere comes a lot of new features and functionality that can be leveraged to make our lives easier.  One of these features, that I personally have been looking forward to for a while, is Thin Provisioning.  If you aren’t familiar with this technology, jump over to Gestalt IT for a great explanation of what it is and how it works.

One of the exciting promises of thin provisioning, is getting more “bang for your buck” out of the expensive enterprise storage you have been investing in for your ESX environment.  But, as Bret Michael’s once said, “Every rose has its thorn” and there are some things to look out for and considerations to make, before implementing thin disk technologies.

Efficiencies are great if they work right and don’t over

complicate the environment.

Do your homework and make sure you understand the characteristics of the virtual machine that you are considering migrating into a thin disk configuration.  The last thing you want to do is convert every VM to thin disk, and four months down the road all of your data stores are filling up and you’re scrambling for a storage CAPEX.  Some people are of the opinion to do thin provisioning either on the host side (VMware) or on the storage array side, but not both.  Take a gander at Chad Sakac’s blog that discusses thin on thin and some thoughts around each of these approaches.  I’m not going to go into all of the pluses and minuses of thin provisioning but rather focus on how to make it work for you.

Coffee Talk


So now that we have some of the basics out of the way, I wanted to share my thoughts on thin provisioning.  Like many organizations, we get requests from our customers that err on the side of caution.  They want to plan for the worse case and ensure that their project and/or application isn’t setup for failure.  I don’t blame them really, I do it myself all the time when I make coffee at home.  I always end up making more coffee than I typically drink, just in case I might need that extra charge.  The best way to do that is pad it, request more than what you might really need, just in case something comes up down the road.  Virtual machine disk storage in some cases fits this same profile.  If my coffee maker granted me access to hot coffee on demand, I would stop making extra coffee.  Thin disks can give your end users that capacity on demand so you can gain control of the padding effect that typically takes place in most corporate organizations.

Take it back…

So now you have done your research, you’re starting to get a feel for what this thin stuff is and how it might play out in your shop.  It’s go time.  If you’re a smaller VMware customer, you probably already have an idea of what are good target disks to convert.  If you’re a larger environment, it might be a little more difficult to gauge where the bloated pigs are hiding.

I worked at GE for a couple of years and was exposed to some of the Six Sigma methodologies they preach as well as practice.  Sounds boring, right?  Not really.  You can really leverage DMAIC for a lot of IT related problems/issues/projects.  You don’t have to take it to the extreme, use the framework to help guide you on your quest:


The DMAIC project methodology has five phases:

  • Define high-level project goals and the current process.
  • Measure key aspects of the current process and collect relevant data.
  • Analyze the data to verify cause-and-effect relationships. Determine what the relationships are and attempt to ensure that all factors have been considered.
  • Improve or optimize the process based upon data analysis using techniques like Design of experiments.
  • Control to ensure that any deviations from target are corrected before they result in defects. Set up pilot runs to establish process capability, move on to production, set up control mechanisms and continuously monitor the process.

We have already defined our project goals and what we are trying to accomplish.  We need a good “Measure” tool to really find where we might benefit from thin provisioning.  Powershell is a great tool that most VMware administrators use, or have at least heard of.  So this was the first place I turned to for assistance.

Alan Renouf of “Virtu-AL” gave me a hand in writing the powershell script needed.  (Thanks again, Alan!).  Alan already had a one liner script to produce a list of vm’s, their disks assigned, and how much data each disk was consuming.  I needed the ability to see this data outside a powershell window and be able to analyze it in a better format.  We have a decent-sized VMware environment and exporting this out to a .csv for analysis is extremely helpful.  Here is the script!


# Set the Filename for the exported data
$Filename = “C:\VMDisks.csv”

Connect-VIServer MYVIServer

$AllVMs = Get-View -ViewType VirtualMachine
$SortedVMs = $AllVMs | Select *, @{N=”NumDisks”;E={@($_.Guest.Disk.Length)}} | Sort NumDisks -Descending

$VMDisks = @()
ForEach ($VM in $SortedVMs){
$Details = New-object PSObject
$Details | Add-Member -Name Name -Value $ -Membertype NoteProperty
$DiskNum = 0
Foreach ($disk in $VM.Guest.Disk){
$Details | Add-Member -Name “Disk$($DiskNum)path” -MemberType NoteProperty -Value $Disk.DiskPath
$Details | Add-Member -Name “Disk$($DiskNum)Capacity(MB)” -MemberType NoteProperty -Value ([math]::Round($disk.Capacity/ 1MB))
$Details | Add-Member -Name “Disk$($DiskNum)FreeSpace(MB)” -MemberType NoteProperty -Value ([math]::Round($disk.FreeSpace / 1MB))
$VMDisks += $Details
Remove-Variable Details
$VMDisks | Export-Csv -NoTypeInformation $Filename


So now that you have this great spreadsheet, you can do all sorts of crazy sorting and reporting, within Excel.  Take some time on phase 3, “Analyze” what you’re seeing.  Talk to your VM stakeholders to see how things might be changing from their perspective.  Try to plan for the surprises and position yourself accordingly.

Next is the “Improve” phase of DMAIC (see it’s easy!).  This is the part where you actually do the work.  It’s time to start leveraging the storage VMotion API’s, and reclaim some of that unused disk.

  1. Select the target VM in the VC client.
  2. Right click on the VM and select the option “Migrate”.
  3. Select the option “Change Datastore”.
  4. Select the destination, or click advanced if you are targeting one particular disk.
  5. Select “Thin provisioned format”.
  6. Select Finish.

Rinse and Repeat for the rest of that spreadsheet you have worked so hard on.

The last phase of DMAIC is “Control”.  This is one of the most important pieces to thin provisioning in my opinion.  At the minimum you need to setup Virtual Center alerts to monitor when your datastores are approaching critical levels.  You can’t implement thin disks in your vSphere environment and walk away.  The smart people over at VMware have given us the ability to monitor datastore disk space usage and over-allocation with the latest release of Virtual Center.  Setup your monitors so you are e-mailed when some of these thin disks begin to grow and you need to take some action.


Eric Gray of VMware takes this to the next level, check out his blog post on utilizing powershell to prevent datastore emergencies.  My personal approach to this concept is to setup a “hotspare” datastore for your environment.  A good practice to implement here would be to try reclaiming enough storage from your migrations to thin disks to free-up a “hot spare datastore”.  Implementing an automated recovery solution like Eric’s will help you sleep easier at night.  Worried about what might happen if your script doesn’t work or you do hit the perfect storm and end up with a full VMFS volume?  Intelligence has been built into vSphere to automatically pause the virtual machines, impressive.  Check out Eric’s video:

Wrapping it all up

Thin disk provisioning is a great feature that you should consider leveraging in your environment.  With some forward thinking and best practices you can achieve higher ROI for your ESX storage.  VMware vSphere offers the ability for you to migrate from thick to think with no downtime, so you can begin reclaiming storage on the fly.  Keep it simple, start out with a high level analysis of your infrastructure.  Identify the candidates that are a good fit and worth focusing on.  Setup your alerts on the datastores as soon as you migrate your first virtual machine so you are protecting yourself from problems down the road.  Consider taking automated actions if your datastores are reaching critical thresholds.

I hope you found this article helpful, good luck!

Scott Sauer

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