How to Create an Inexpensive iSCSI SAN for VMware ESX

Many of the features of VMware ESX Server and VMware Virtual Infrastructure depend on having a storage area network (SAN). That applies to all the “cool” features like vMotion and VMHA. With a SAN, you have two choices, FC or iSCSI. A fiber channel (FC) SAN can easily cost as much as a small house and enterprise iSCSI equipment may cost half that. Still, what if you just want a test or demonstration iSCSI SAN? No one wants to have to buy one of these expensive options if you want to just test a couple of ESX Servers and Virtual Center. What are your options?

Why use iSCSI?

Before the die-hard SAN users out there send me an email, let me tell you why I want to use iSCSI:

  • If done right, with the right equipment, and proper level of investment in equipment, iSCSI can be, dare I say, just as reliable and almost as high of performance as Fibre Channel. Still, I am not recommending anyone invest in enterprise iSCSI equipment in this article. That’s not what it is about.
  • For testing and development systems, I don’t want to spend a lot of money. iSCSI is an excellent choice for these because it can be done at low cost and you still get almost every ESX Server feature out of it.
  • What if I want to run VMware ESX server inside a virtual machine like VMware Workstation? Yes, it can be done with Workstation 6 but what if I also want Virtual Center and want to demo all of those enterprise features like VMotion and such? Well, why not run a “virtual” SAN inside your virtual network? (yes, I am talking about ESX, Virtual Center, and an iSCSI SAN, all running inside VMware Workstation)

Those are my driving factors. Before you say “it will never work”, please read on…

Virtual iSCSI Server Options

To create this virtual iSCSI SAN, or to just take a server an make it into an iSCSI server (known as an iSCSI Target), I have found a couple of applications. Still, I suspect there are more options out there. If you know of more options, please drop me a post in our VMware Forums.

Option #1 – OpenFiler

The first option I have found is OpenFiler. This is an open-source “storage management operating system”. In fact, Openfiler takes the Linux OS and makes it into a SAN controller. It can all be configured with a web browser and, even better, it is a free download. It takes about 10 minutes to install (probably much longer to actually configure). In fact, you can even download a working VMware virtual disk image of OpenFiler. It is  promoted on the VMware Virtual Appliance Marketplace but you can also download it from

Here is my Openfiler Web management interface:

SAN Melody Lite – Option #2

A company called Datacore creates a number of storage server products that create, what they call, “Server Virtualization”. Their SANMelody software can turn a Windows Server into both a Fibre Channel (FC) and iSCSI SAN Server. SANMelody is very cool but doesn’t fit the low cost needs I had for testing of ESX Server. What Datacore does offer is scaled down version called SANMelofy Lite. The Lite version doesn’t’ do FC SAN but does create an iSCSI target. This product runs for $199 and has some limits. However, for testing, those limits don’t hamper anything. In fact, SANMelody Lite has a 128MB disk cache to accelerate iSCSI performance. What also makes it appealing for ease of setup is that it runs on the Windows Server OS. Note that there is a free 30 day trial of SANMelody Lite.
Here is my SANMelody Lite management interface:
I do want to offer a word of caution on both of these products. To create an iSCSI target, configure your iSCSI SAN server, and manage this “virtual SAN”, can be a challenge. iSCSI (and FC) SAN configuration is not for the novice user. For example, even though SANMelody Lite does run on Windows, there is a lot of “educated clicking” that needs to be done to get your SAN working and communicating with your VMware ESX Servers.
In the end, I was able to create my virtual VMware ESX Server farm and my virtual SAN, all running inside VMware Workstation. For those with a powerful PC, this is a great options to test the virtualization features. Or, you could spread this load across multiple physical machines that were capable of running VMware ESX. Either way, The ability to test, evaluate, and demo the full functionality of VMware Infrastructure & VMware ESX Server, and all the optional features, all in a small space, and all for little or no cost (for the iSCSI SAN at least) is a very powerful option! What do you think?
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