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Enabling Microsoft-based workloads with file storage options on Google Cloud

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Enterprises are rapidly moving Microsoft and Windows-based workloads to the cloud to reduce license spend and embark on modernization strategies to fully leverage the power of cloud-native architecture. Today’s business climate requires agility, elasticity, scale, and cost optimization, all of which are far more difficult to attain by operating out of data centers. Google Cloud offers a top-level enterprise-grade experience for Microsoft-based services and tools. 

Many Windows-based workloads require a Server Message Block (SMB) file service component. For example, highly available SAP application servers running in Windows Server clusters need SMB file servers to store configuration files and logs centrally. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in increased demand for virtual desktop solutions to enable workers to adapt to the sudden necessity of working remotely. Those virtual desktop users often require access to SMB file servers to store documents and to collaborate with coworkers. 

Fortunately, there are numerous options for SMB file services in Google Cloud that meet the varying needs of Microsoft shops. They fall into three categories: fully managed, semi-managed, and self-managed services. In this post, we’ll examine several options across those three buckets. (Note: this is by no means an exhaustive list of SMB file service providers for Google Cloud. Rather, this is a brief review of some of the common ones.)

Fully managed SMB file services

For many enterprises, reducing operational overhead is a key objective of their cloud transformation. Fully managed services provide the capabilities and outcomes, without requiring IT staff to worry about mundane tasks like software installation and configuration, application patching, and backup. These managed SMB file service options let customers get their Windows applications and users to work expeditiously, reducing toil and risk. (Note that these are managed partner-provided services, so make sure to check the region you’ll be using to ensure availability.)

NetApp Cloud Volumes Service

If you work in IT and have ever managed, used, or thought about storage, chances are you’re familiar with NetApp. NetApp has been providing enterprise-grade solutions since 1992. With NetApp Cloud Volumes Service (CVS), you get highly available, cloud-native, managed SMB services that are well-integrated with Google Cloud. Storage volumes can be sized from 1 to 100 TB to meet the demands of large-scale application environments, and the service includes tried-and-true NetApp features like automated snapshots and rapid volume provisioning. It can be deployed right from the Google Cloud Marketplace, managed in the Google Cloud console, supported by Google, and paid for in your Google Cloud bill.

Dell Technologies PowerScale

Dell Technologies is another leader in the enterprise storage market, and have partnered with them to offer PowerScale on Google Cloud. PowerScale leverages an all-flash architecture for blazing fast storage operations. However, it will be backward-compatible, allowing you to choose between PowerScale all-flash nodes and Isilon nodes in all-flash, hybrid, or archive configuration. The OneFS file system boasts a maximum of 50 PB per namespace; this thing scales! And as with NetApp, PowerScale in Google Cloud includes enterprise-grade features like snapshots, replication, and hybrid integration with on-premises storage. It’s tightly integrated with Google Cloud: it can be found in the Google Cloud Marketplace, is integrated with the Google Cloud console, and billed and supported directly by Google.

Both of these managed file storage products support up to SMBv3, making them outstanding options to support Windows workloads, without a lot of management overhead.  

Semi-managed SMB file services

Not everyone wants fully managed SMB services. While managed services take a lot of work off your plate, as a general rule they also reduce the ways in which you can customize the solution to meet your particular requirements. Therefore, some customers prefer to use self-managed (or semi-managed) services, like the storage services below, to tailor the configurations to the exact specifications needed for their Windows workloads.

NetApp Cloud Volumes ONTAP

Like the fully managed NetApp Cloud Volumes Service, NetApp Cloud Volumes ONTAP (CVO) gives you the familiar features and benefits you’re likely used to with NetApp in your data center, including SnapMirror. However, as a semi-managed service, it’s well-suited for customers who need enhanced control and security of their data on Google Cloud. CVO deploys into your Google Cloud virtual private cloud (VPC) on Google Compute Engine instances, all within your own Google Cloud project(s), so you can enforce policies, firewall rules, and user access as you see fit to meet internal or external compliance requirements. You will need to deploy CVO yourself by following NetApp’s step-by-step instructions. In the Marketplace, you get your choice of a number of CVO price plans, each with varying SMB storage capacity (2 TB to 368 TB) and availability. NetApp Cloud Volumes ONTAP is available in all Google Cloud regions.

Panzura Freedom Hybrid Cloud Storage

Panzura Freedom is a born-in-the-cloud, hybrid file service that allows global enterprises to store, collaborate, and back up files. It presents a single, geo-distributed file system called Panzura CloudFS that’s simultaneously accessible from your Google Cloud VPCs, corporate offices, on-premises data centers, and other clouds. The authoritative data is stored in Google Cloud Storage buckets and cached in Panzura Freedom Filers deployed locally, giving your Windows applications and users high-performing access to the file system. Google Cloud’s global fiber network and 100+ points of presence (PoPs) reduce global latency to ensure fast access from anywhere. Panzura can be found in the Google Cloud Marketplace as well.  

Self-managed SMB file services

In some cases, managed services will not meet all the requirements. This is not limited to technical requirements. For example, in your industry you might be subject to a compliance regulation for which none of the managed services are certified. If you consider all of the fully managed and semi-managed SMB file service options, but none of them are just right for your budget and requirements, don’t worry. You still have the option of rolling your own Windows SMB file service on Google Cloud. This approach gives you the most flexibility of all, along with the responsibility of deploying, configuring, securing, and managing it all. Don’t let that scare you, though: These options are likely very familiar to your Microsoft-focused staff.

Windows SMB file servers on a Google Compute Engine instance

This option is quite simple: you deploy a Compute Engine instance running your preferred version of Windows Server, install the File Server role, and you’re off to the races. You’ll have all the native features of Windows at your disposal. If you’ve extended or federated your on-premises Active Directory into Google Cloud or are using the Managed Service for Active Directory, you’ll be able to apply permissions just as you do on-prem.  Persistent Disks add a great deal of flexibility to Windows file servers. You can add or expand Persistent Disks to increase the storage capacity and disk performance of your SMB file servers with no downtime. Although a single SMB file server is a single point of failure, the native protections and redundancies of Compute Engine make it unlikely that a failure will result in extended downtime. If you choose to utilize Regional Persistent Disks, your disks will be continuously replicated to a different Google Cloud zone, adding an additional measure of protection and rapid recoverability in the event of a VM or zone failure.  

Windows clustering

If your requirements dictate that your Windows file services cannot go down, a single Windows file server will not do. Fortunately, there’s a solution: Windows Failover Clustering. With two or more Windows Compute Engine instances and Persistent Disks, you can build a highly available SMB file cluster that can survive the failure of Persistent Disks, VMs, the OS, or even a whole Google Cloud zone with little or no downtime. There are two different flavors of Windows file clusters: File Server Cluster and Scale-out File server (SOFS).  

Windows file server clusters have been around for around 20 years. The basic architecture is two Windows servers in a Windows Failover Cluster, connected to shared storage such as a storage area network (SAN). These clusters are active-passive in nature. At any given time, only one of the servers in the cluster can access the shared storage and provide file services to SMB clients. Clients access the services via a floating IP address, front-ended by an internal load balancer. In the event of a failure of the active node, the passive node will establish read/write access to the shared storage, bind the floating IP address, and launch file services. In a cloud environment, physical shared storage devices cannot be used for cluster storage. Instead, Storage Spaces Direct (S2D) may be used. S2D is a clustered storage system that combines the persistent disks of multiple VMs into a single, highly available, virtual storage pool. You can think of it as a distributed virtual SAN.

Scale-Out File Server (SOFS) is a newer and more capable clustered file service role that also runs in a Windows Failover Cluster. Like Windows File Server Clusters, SOFS makes use of S2D for cluster storage. Unlike a Windows File Server Cluster, SOFS is an active-active file server. Rather than presenting a floating IP address to clients, SOFS creates separate A records in DNS for each node in the SOFS role. Each node has a complete replica of the shared dataset and can serve files to Windows clients, making SOFS both vertically and horizontally scalable. Additionally, SOFS has some newer features that make it more resilient for application servers.  

As mentioned before, both Windows File Server Clusters and SOFS depend on S2D for shared storage. You can see the process of installing S2D on Google Cloud virtual machines hereis described, and the chosen SMB file service role may be installed afterwards. Check out the process of deploying a file server cluster role here, and the process for an SOFS role.  

Scale-Out File Server or File Server Cluster?

File Server Clusters and SOFS are alike in that they provide highly available SMB file shares on S2D. SOFS is a newer technology that provides higher throughput and more scalability than File Server Cluster. However, SOFS is not optimized for the metadata-heavy operations common with end-user file utilization (opening, renaming, editing, copying, etc.). Therefore, in general, choose File Server Clusters for end-user file services and choose SOFS when your application(s) need SMB file services. See this page for a detailed comparison of features between File Server Cluster (referred to there as “General Use File Server Cluster”) and SOFS.

Which option should I choose?

We’ve described several good options for Microsoft shops to provide their Windows workloads and users access to secure, high-performing, and scalable SMB file services. How do you choose which one is best suited for your particular needs? Here are some decision criteria you should consider:

  • Are you looking to simplify your IT operations and offload operational toil? If so, look at the fully managed and semi-managed options.

  • Do you have specialized technical configuration requirements that aren’t met by a managed service? Then consider rolling your own SMB file service solution as a single Windows instance or one of the Windows cluster options.

  • Do you require a multi-zone for fully automated high availability? If so, NetApp Cloud Volumes ONTAP and the single instance Windows file server are off the table. They run in a single Google Cloud zone.

  • Do you have a requirement for a particular Google Cloud region? If so, you’ll need to verify whether NetApp Cloud Volumes Service and NetApp Cloud Volumes ONTAP are available in the region you require. As partner services that require specialized hardware, these two services are available in many, but not all, Google Cloud regions today.

  • Do you require hybrid storage capabilities, spanning on-premises and cloud? If so, all of the managed options have hybrid options.

  • Is your budget tight? If so, and if you’re OK with some manual planning and work to minimize the downtime that’s possible with any single point of failure, then a single Windows Compute Engine instance file server will do fine. 

  • Do you require geo-diverse disaster recovery? You’re in luck—every option described here offers a path to DR.

What next?  

This post serves as a brief overview of several options for Windows file services in Google Cloud. Take a closer look at the ones that interest you. Once you’ve narrowed it down to the top candidates, you can go through the Marketplace pages (for the managed services) to get more info or start the process of launching the service. The self-managed options above include links to Google Cloud-specific instructions to get you started, then general Microsoft documentation to deploy your chosen cluster option.

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