A primer on First Class Disks/Improved Virtual Disks

A First Class Disk (FCD), also referred to as Improved Virtual Disk (IVDs), is one of the more recent features in vSphere that may have escaped your notice. FCDs were created to address a particular gap that we have in vSphere at this time. We are well aware that within a vSphere environment, it is currently very difficult to manage virtual disks unless they are associated with a virtual machine. A simple example would be snapshots. Snapshots work at a per VM basis, and to only snapshot a single VMDK rather than all VMDK attached to a VM involves a lot of configuration and operational overhead. Thus, First Class Disks are designed to give full life-cycle management of virtual machine disk objects, independent of any VMs. For example, we want to be able to create, delete, snapshot/backup, restore and do other life-cycle tasks on VMDK objects without requiring them to be attached to a VM.

Why FCDs/IVDs?

Why would we want or even need to do something like FCDs to do per VMDK granular operations? Well, there are some concrete examples. One example is App Volumes. App Volumes has the ability to separate the operating system from the application and user personas. These exist as stand-alone storage objects, and have facilitated the creation of what can be called Just-In-Time desktops in for products like Horizon, Citrix XenApp and XenDesktop, and RDSH virtual environments. One of the drawbacks has been how to back up these App Volumes. To address this gap, a fling was created which creates a “backup VM” to which the AppStacks and Writeable Volumes can be attached. This is hardly ideal. Similarly, in vSphere Integrated OpenStack (VIO), to enable Cinder (OpenStack Block Storage) to consume VMDKs, a shadow VM had to be inserted into the environment to allow the VMDKs to be instantiated and then consumed by Cinder. For each Cinder volume a shadow VM is created with a VMDK attached. Therefore there will be a lot of powered off VMs just to provide Cinder volumes. I personally had customers tell me how painful this approach is. Again, hardly ideal. Lastly, another use case that we see is when creating persistent volumes for cloud native or next-gen applications. Project Hatchway is an umbrella project which created both a Docker Plugin and a Kubernetes driver (called the vSphere Cloud Provider) to allow us to create persistent volumes for containers on vSphere containers. The persistent volume created for the application is a VMDK that is attached either to the Docker VM or the K8s node/worker VM. Now if we want to do operations such as snapshot and backup that container, we again do not want to be working at the VM granularity, as those VMs may have many other applications and many other persistent volumes associated with them. We need to be able to work at the VMDK granularity. Thus we also need FCDs here.

The story so far

FCD information is held in a catalog on the vCenter database. This stores the UUID and friendly name of the FCD. This UUID is globally unique and the primary identifier for the FCD. The UUID remains valid even if its FCD is relocated or snapshot’ed.

APIs for FCDs first appeared in vSphere 6.5. My good pal William Lam did a good write-up of the available APIs here.  However in that release, there was a limitation for backup of First Class Disk (FCD). The The Virtual Disk Development Kit (VDDK) did not support backing up of a detached FCD. The workaround is to attach the FCD to a dummy VM (which doesn’t even have to have a Guest OS installed). More detail can be found here.

In vSphere 6.7, this limitation was relaxed somewhat in so far as we could support backups for detached first-class disks (FCD). This still had some limitations however. One requirement was that on restoring a backup of a FCD, it had to be restored with the same UUID and onto the same datastore. Of course, this has its own challenges for any restore (other than in place restore).  Another limitation is that there is no API to return the blocks which have changed since the last backup. Thus, we are prevented from doing incremental backups. Further detail on backing up FCDs can be found here.

In vSphere 6.7U1, we introduced some limited support for FCDs on vSAN. This limited support means that there are still interoperability issues with the health service and capacity monitoring.

As you can imagine, what I have outlined here means that there are still some challenges around FCDs, especially for third-party backup vendors. There is still some work to be done. We continue to work with to address outstanding issues to enable them to back up FCDs. At the time of writing, there are still no backup vendors that support detached FCD backups.

Hopefully this has given you a good feel for where we are going with FCDs/IVDs. You will start to see more and more of them going forward as we build out the use cases mentioned at the beginning of this post, and address the limitations mentioned later in the post.

3 comments
  1. Hi Cormac, any chance improved support for media (ISOs in particular) is also planned? I’m sure most of us without Content Library environments set up have rurn into issues migrating VMs with ISOs attached to VMs. I’m also thinking in terms of media handling and vCloud Director, whereby because media doesn’t exist as a first class object, there are a lot of challenges with basic tasks like identification of locations and migrating objects.

    • I’m not aware of anything at present Sam, but I think this is an excellent idea. Leave it with me – let’s see if I can get the thoughts of some others around this.

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