[Step-by-Step] Creating a Windows Server 2012 R2 Failover Cluster using StarWind iSCSI SAN v8

 

If you don’t know StarWind iSCSI SAN product and you currently handling clusters that require a shared storage (not necessarily Windows), I highly recommend to take a look around to this the platform. To summarize, StarWind iSCSI SAN represents a software which allows you to create your own shared storage platform without requiring any additional hardware.

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I created a post a while ago about “Five Easy Steps to Configure Windows Server 2008 R2 Failover Cluster using StarWind iSCSI SAN” to explain how can a Failover Cluster can be easily configured with the help of StarWind iSCSI SAN. Since there has been some changes in the latest releases of Windows Server and StarWind iSCSI SAN has a brand new v8 of its platform, I thought it would be a good idea to create a new article to achieve an easy way to create our own cluster.

As I did, for the previous post, the main idea about this article is to show a simple step-by-step process to get a Windows Server 2012 R2 Failover Cluster up and running, and without requiring to use an expensive shared storage platform to complete it. The steps involved are:

  1. Review and complete pre-requisites for the environment.
  2. Install StarWind iSCSI SAN software.
  3. Configure and create LUNs using StarWind iSCSI SAN.
  4. Install Failover Cluster feature and run cluster validation.
  5. Create Windows Server 2012 R2 Failover Cluster.

1. Review and Complete Pre-Requisites for the Environment

Windows Server 2012 introduced some changes into the Failover Cluster scenarios, even though those are important and improved changes, the basic rules of Failover Cluster has not changed. Here are the requirements for a Windows Server 2012 R2 Failover Cluster.

Requirements for Windows Server 2012 R2 Failover Cluster

Here are the requirements in Windows Server 2012 R2 for Failover Clusters:

  • Two or more compatible servers: You need hardware that is compatible with each other, highly recommended to always use same type of hardware when you are creating a cluster. Microsoft requires for the hardware involved to meet the qualification for the “Certified for Windows Server 2012 logo”, the information can be retrieved from the Windows Server catalog.
  • A shared storage: This is where we can use StarWind iSCSI SAN software.
  • [Optional] Three network cards on each server, one public network (from which we usually access Active Directory), a private for heartbeat between servers and one dedicated to iSCSI storage communication. This is actually an optional requirement since using one network card is possible but not suitable in almost any environment.
  • All hosts must be member from an Active Directory domain. To install and configure a cluster we don’t need a Domain Admin account, but we do need a Domain account which is included in the local Administrators of each host.

Here are some notes about some changes introduced in Windows Server 2012 regarding requirements:

We can implement Failover Cluster on all Windows Server 2012 and Windows Server 2012 R2 editions, including of course Core installations. Previously on Windows Server 2008 R2 the Enterprise or Datacenter Edition were necessary.

Also the concept for “Active Directory-detached cluster” appears in Windows Server 2012, which means that a Failover Cluster does not require a Computer object in Active Directory, the access is performed by a registration in DNS. But, the cluster nodes must still be joined to AD.

Requirements for StarWind iSCSI SAN Software

Here are the requirements for installing the component which will be in charge of receiving the iSCSI connections:

  • Windows Server 2008 R2 or Windows Server 2012
  • Intel Xeon E5620 (or higher)
  • 4 GB of RAM (or higher)
  • 10 GB of disk space for StarWind application data and log files
  • Storage available for iSCSI LUNs: SATA/SAS/SSD drive based arrays supported. Software based arrays are not supported in iSCSI.
  • 1 Gigabit Ethernet or 10 Gigabit Ethernet.
  • iSCSI ports open between hosts and StarWind iSCSI SAN Server. The iSCSI ports are 3260 and 3261 for the management console.
General Recommendations for the Environment

In this scenario, there are several Microsoft and StarWind recommendations we must fulfill in order to get the best supportability and results. Keep in mind that each scenario could require different recommendations.

To mention some of the general recommendations:

  • NIC Teaming for adapters, except iSCSI. Windows Server 2012 improved significantly the performance and of course supportability of network adapters teaming and is highly recommended to use that option for improved performance and high-availability. But we must avoid configure teaming on iSCSI network adapters.

Microsoft offers a very detailed document about handling NIC teaming in Windows Server 2012: “Windows Server 2012 NIC Teaming (LBFO) Deployment and Management” and also check this article “NIC Teaming Overview”.

  • Multi-path for iSCSI network adapters. iSCSI network adapters prefer handling MPIO instead of NIC teaming, because in most scenarios the adapter throughput is not improved and moreover there could be some increases in response times. Using MPIO is the recommendation with round-robin.
  • Isolate network traffic on the Failover Cluster. It is almost mandatory that we separate iSCSI traffic from the rest of networks, and highly recommended to isolate the rest of traffic available. For example: Live Migration in Hyper-V clusters, management network, public network, or Hyper-V replica traffic (if the feature is enabled in Windows Server 2012).
  • Drivers and firmware updated: Most of hardware vendors will require prior to start any configuration, like a Failover Cluster, to have all drivers and firmware components updated to the latest version. Keep in mind that having different drivers or firmware between hosts in a Failover Cluster will cause to fail the validation tool and therefore the cluster won’t be supported by Microsoft.
  • Leave one extra LUN empty in the environment for future validations. The Failover Cluster Validation Tool is a great resource to retrieve detailed status about the health of each cluster component, we can run the tool whenever we want and it will not generate any disruption. But, to have a full “Storage Validation” it is required to have at least one LUN available in the cluster but not used for any service or application.

For more information about best practices, review the following link: “StarWind High Availability Best Practices”.

One important new feature introduced by StarWind iSCSI SAN v8 is the use of Log-Structured File System (LSFS). LSFS is a specialized file system that stores multiple files of virtual devices and ensures high performance during writing operations with a random access pattern. This file system resolves the problem of slow disk operation and writes data at the speed that can be achieved by the underlying storage during sequential writes.

At this moment LSFS is experimental in v8, use it carefully and validate your cluster services in a lab scenario if you are planning to deploy LSFS.

2. Install StarWind iSCSI SAN software

After we reviewed and verified the requirements, we can easily start installing StarWind iSCSI SAN software, which can be downloaded in trial-mode. This represents the simplest step in our list, since the installation does not have any complex step.

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In the process, the Microsoft iSCSI service will be required to add to the server and the driver for the software.

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After the installation is complete we can access our console and we will see as a first step necessary is to configure the “Storage pool” necessary.

We must select the path for the hard drive where we are going to store the LUNs to be used in our shared storage scenario.

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3. Configure and create LUNs in StarWind iSCSI SAN

When we have the program installed, we can start managing it from the console and we will see the options are quite intuitive.

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We are going to split the configuration section in two parts: Hosting iSCSI LUNs with StarWind iSCSI SAN and configuring our iSCSI initiator on each Windows Server 2012 R2 host in the cluster.

Hosting iSCSI LUNs with StarWind iSCSI SAN

We are going to review the basic steps to configure the StarWind iSCSI to start hosting LUNs for our cluster; the initial task is to add the host:

3.1 Select the “Connect” option for our local server.

3.2 With the host added, we can start creating the storage that will be published through iSCSI: Right-click the server and select “Add target” and a new wizard will appear.

3.3 Select the “Target alias” from which we’ll identify the LUN we are about to create and then configure to be able to cluster. The name below will show how we can identify this particular target in our iSCSI clients. Click on “Next” and then “Create”.

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3.4 With our target created we can start creating “devices” or LUNs within that target. Click on “Add Device”.

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3.5 Select “Hard Disk Device”.

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3.6 Select “Virtual Disk”. The other two possibilities to use here are “Physical Disk” from which we can select a hard drive and work in a “pass-through” model.

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And “RAM Disk” is a very interesting option from which we can use a block of RAM to be treated as a hard drive or LUN in this case. Because the speed of RAM is much faster than most other types of storage, files on a RAM disk can be accessed more quickly. Also because the storage is actually in RAM, it is volatile memory and will be lost when the computer powers off.

3.7 In the next section we can select the disk location and size. In my case I’m using E:\ drive and 1GB.

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3.8 Since this is a virtual disk, we can select from either thick-provision (space is allocated in advance) or thin-provision (space is allocated as is required). Thick provisioning could represent, for some applications, as a little bit faster than thin provisioning.

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The LSFS options we have available in this case are: “Deduplication enabled” (procedure to save space since only unique data is stored, duplicated data are stored as links) and “Auto defragmentation” (helps to make space reclaim when old data is overwritten or snapshots are deleted).

3.9 In the next section we can select if we are going to use disk caching to improve performance for read and writes in this disk. The first opportunity we have works with the memory cache, from which we can select write-back (asynchronous, with better performance but more risk about inconsistencies), write-through (synchronous, slow performance but no risk about data inconsistency) or no cache at all.

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Using caching can significantly increase the performance of some applications, particularly databases, that perform large amounts of disk I/O. High Speed Caсhing operates on the principle that server memory is faster than disk. The memory cache stores data that is more likely to be required by applications. If a program turns to the disk for data, a search is first made for the relevant block in the cache. If the block is found the program uses it, otherwise the data from the disk is loaded into a new block of memory cache.

3.10 StarWind v8 adds a new layer in the caching concept, using L2 cache. This type of cache is represented in a virtual file intended to be placed in SSD drives, for high-performance. In this section we have the opportunity to create an L2 cache file, from which again we can select to use it as write-back or write-through.

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3.11 Also, we will need to select a path for the L2 cache file.

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3.12 Click on “Finish” and the device will be ready to be used.

3.13 In my case I’ve also created a second device in the same target.

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Configure Windows Server 2012 R2 iSCSI Initiator

Each host must have access to the file we’ve just created in order to be able to create our Failover Cluster. On each host, execute the following:

3.14 Access “Administrative Tools”, “iSCSI Initiator”.

We will also receive a notification about “The Microsoft iSCSI service is not running”, click “Yes” to start the service.

3.15 In the “Target” pane, type in the IP address used for the target host, our iSCSI server, to receive the connections. Remember to use the IP address dedicated to iSCSI connections, if the StarWind iSCSI SAN server also has a public connection we can also use it, but the traffic will be directed using that network adapter.

3.16 Click on “Quick Connect” to be authorized by the host to use these files.

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Once we’ve connected to the files, access “Disk Management” to verify we can now use these files as storage attached to the operating system.

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3.17 And as a final step, just using the first host in the cluster, put “Online” the storage file and select also “Initialize Disk”. Since these are treated as normal hard disks, the process for initializing a LUN is no different than initializing a physical and local hard drive in the server.

Now, let’s take a look about the Failover Cluster feature.

4. Install Failover Cluster feature and Run Cluster Validation

Prior to configure the cluster, we need to enable the “Failover Cluster” feature on all hosts in the cluster and we’ll also run the verification tool provided by Microsoft to validate the consistency and compatibility of our scenario.

4.1 In “Server Manager”, access the option “Add Roles and Features”.

4.2 Start the wizard, do not add any role in “Server Roles”. And in “Features” enable the “Failover Clustering” option.

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4.3 Once installed, access the console from “Administrative Tools”. Within the console, the option we are interested in this stage is “Validate a Configuration”.

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4.4 In the new wizard, we are going to add the hosts that will represent the Failover Cluster in order to validate the configuration. Type in the server’s FQDN names or browse for their names; click on “Next”.

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4.5 Select “Run all tests (recommended)” and click on “Next”.

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4.6 In the following screen we can see a detailed list about all the tests that will be executed, take note that the storage tests take some time; click on “Next”.

If we’ve fulfilled the requirements reviewed earlier then the test will be completed successfully. In my case the report generated a warning, but the configuration is supported for clustering.

Accessing the report we can get a detailed information, in this scenario the “Network” section generated a warning for “Node <1> is reachable from Node <2> by only one pair of network interfaces. It is possible that this network path is a single point of failure for communication within the cluster. Please verify that this single path is highly available, or consider adding additional networks to the cluster”. This is not a critical error and can easily be solved by adding at least one new adapter in the cluster configuration.

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4.7 Leaving the option “Create the cluster now using the validated nodes” enabled will start the “Create Cluster” as soon as we click “Finish”.

5. Create Windows Server 2012 R2 Failover Cluster

At this stage, we’ve completed all the requirements and validated our configuration successfully. In the next following steps, we are going to see the simple procedure to configure our Windows Server 2012 R2 Failover Cluster.

5.1 In the “Failover Cluster” console, select the option for “Create a cluster”.

5.2 A similar wizard will appear as in the validation tool. The first thing to do is add the servers we would like to cluster; click on “Next”.

5.3 In the next screen we have to select the cluster name and the IP address assigned. Remember that in a cluster, all machines are represented by one name and one IP.

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5.4 In the summary page click on “Next”.

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After a few seconds the cluster will be created and we can also review the report for the process.

Now in our Failover Cluster console, we’ll get the complete picture about the cluster we’ve created: Nodes involved, storage associated to the cluster, networks and the events related to cluster.

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The default option for a two-node cluster is to use a disk as a witness to manage cluster quorum. This is usually a disk we assign the letter “Q:\” and does not store a large amount of data. The quorum disk stores a very small information containing the cluster configuration, its main purpose is for cluster voting.

To perform a backup for the Failover Cluster configuration we only need to backup the Q:\ drive. This, of course, does not backup the services configured in the Failover Cluster.

Cluster voting is used to determine, in case of a disconnection, which nodes and services will be online. For example, if a node is disconnected from the cluster and shared storage, the remaining node with one vote and the quorum disk with also one vote decides that the cluster and its services will remain online.

This voting is used as a default option but can be modified in the Failover Cluster console. Modifying it depends and is recommended in various scenarios: Having an odd number of nodes, this case will be required to use as a “Node Majority” quorum; or a cluster stretched in different geographically locations will be recommended to use an even number of nodes but using a file share as a witness in a third site.

For more information about quorums in Windows Failover clusters, review the following Microsoft TechNet article: “Configure and Manage the Quorum in a Windows Server 2012 Failover Cluster”.

More Resources

To review more information about Windows Server 2012 R2 clusters and StarWind iSCSI SAN review the following links and articles:

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