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vFlash for DRAC

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Introduction

Enterprise version of iDRAC  vFlash media card provides very interesting and useful additional functionality:  vFlash card. This card which can be 8GB or 16GB can be managed through several front-ends: iDRAC GUI, Unified System Console, remote WS-MAN service, and RACADM Command Line Interface (CLI).  Interface is semi-debugged so be very careful with production servers, especially such as R620.  Making changes outside maintenance period can lead to loss of DRAC functionality due to handing/crash of DRAC OS.

The most convenient is to use the iDRAC Web interface.  Please note that you need to be extremely careful. To perform any operations you need first logoff and then login to DRAC.  Timeout during operation often lead to handing of the Drac and "strange" configuration of the card (partitions that are formatted 3% forever", partitions that you can't delete and other strange things.

vFlash provides the USB mass-storage device emulation. It allows the out-of-band iDRAC to share the partition data with the server operating system through the iDRAC built-in USB hub as an external hard disk drive (HDD), an optical drive (CD or DVD), or a flash memory device (FD). The emulated iDRAC USB device goes online when the operator attaches a vFlash partition.

This is the major attraction both as an installation tool (you are limited to 2GB ISO though) or troubleshooting tool. Interface is still primitive and you can's download files to this partition via DRAC interface. Only two operations are supported: creating a partition from an ISO and writing a partition as ISO to server disk. But as you can create you own ISO's this is not a significant limitation.

As Dell blades do not have built-in CDROM they also can be used in this facility, but you need manually copy ISO to the partition after the partition was created.

Some of the applications of vFlash include:

vFlash CD card

Dell vFlash media inserts into the iDRAC enterprise daughter card on  the back of the Dell 11th generation rack and tower servers. and front of  the Dell 12th generation rack and tower servers

Blade servers must be removed from their chassis to access this port. 

 You can use Dell-provided SD cards or your own as long as you have the iDRAC Enterprise license.

The SD card can be up to 16GB. It is accessible from the server front panel. It emulates USB flash storage to the operating system (OS), but unlike regular USB drive its content can be updated remotely through the iDRAC GUI using DRAC network interface. 

Customers can use the space on the vFlash card to create up to 16 partitions in sizes ranging from 1MB to 4GB (4096MB).

Users can expose the partition to the operating system  like a USB flash drive (attach operation), and can even physically move SD card to another supported Dell server.  When the card is removed from the server it can be accessed on any PC. Files can be copied, moved, etc.

vFlash provides a custom deployment environment that allows for the automation of server configuration, scripts, and imaging. Multiple boot media disks are no longer required as you can now have them embedded on vFlash partitions.

Loading ISO into Vflash partition

You can create vFlash partition by loading an ISO image into it. New partion is created, you can't load into existing partition. In this case you do not need neither create new partition or format it. The only significant limitation is the current 2GB limit on ISO size (despite 4GB limit on the size of partition). 

First you need to define the six symbol label of the partition, for example KNOPPI.

After that you can start loading the ISO image. Dialog ask you to point to the ISO and if ISO is of suitable size the process started. It is quite slow.

This vFlash operation can be performed remotely without physical access to the system. This is a great convenience for a data center system administrator when physical access to a system is difficult.

NOTE:

If your download operation was interrupted (for example due to flaky TCP/IP connection from home computer to rempote server) vFlash is completely hosed.  You can't deleted this "aborted" partition (indicator stucks on some number for example 43% forever). You't even reinitialize the card. But resetting DRAC sometimes helps.

Booting from VFASH partition

Vflash partitions can be bootable which makes then  an excellent management tool for customers that have low bandwidth, or high latency, links to the remotely managed server. 

vFASH interface uses the notion of "attached". The latter indicates whether this partition is visible to the operating system as a USB device. Including on boot.

To be able to boot from vFlash partition it needs to be attached. Select this option to attach a partition or clear this option to detach a partition. You can attach or detach multiple partitions at once.

The label of the attached partition will be displayed in the boot menu (accessible via F11 on boot)

If you are attaching or detaching a partition, the USB bus of the system is reset. This may affect applications (like the operating system) that are using vFlash and will disconnect iDRAC Virtual Media sessions.

NOTE: The detached partitions are not displayed in the boot order.

With this option, vFlash provides a convenient bootable media storage space for rescue CD and such readily available on an unconfigured bare-metal system.

On the other hand, vFlash can also serve as an out-of-band storage space for the systems management functions running on the iDRAC.

Because the same vFlash space can be shared by both the in-band and out-of-band applications, the out-of-band systems management can place contents on the vFlash to be shared with the system applications.

The vFlash features are offered on tower, blade and rack servers. Some servers have a built-in vFlash connector, the 12th generation series 600 and above, while others require the iDRAC Enterprise adapter, the 11th generation servers or 12th generation series 500 and below; server licensing is required to fully access vFlash features.

vFlash technology through USB device emulation

The vFlash device is a removable SD card that provides a per-system local storage space.

Blade servers have an internal vFlash card that cannot be removed or inserted without removing the blade from the system chassis. The vFlash device supports most of the generic SD cards. You can use Dell-branded or most off-the-shelf SD cards. The Dell SD card provides better performance.

One of the key enabling technologies of vFlash is the emulation of the out-of-band storage space as in-band USB storage device(s). This allows the content of the emulated USB device to be accessed and prepared remotely. The emulated storage type can be Floppy, CD, or Hard drive. This is critical to a system operator where the physical access to a server system is not possible.

Together with the Autorun capability for some operating systems, like Windows, the system operator can perform automated program execution on the server system by remotely preparing a CD image on the vFlash, and then emulating the image into a USB CD device attached to the server system. The operator can operate on the vFlash partitions regardless of whether the operating system is running or not.

vFlash partition management

The vFlash partition is the basic management unit. vFlash service can then emulate the vFlash partition as a separate USB storage device.

For a new SD card, the operator must initialize the card before its space can be managed by the vFlash system. The initialization procedure reformats the card, erases all existing content, and creates proprietary system files on the card. Though the system files are not hidden, an operator must not alter the files in any manner. As a vFlash security measure, any alteration to the system files will render the card uninitialized. If this occurs, the operator needs to go through another vFlash initialization procedure to erase all existing content on the card.

After initialization, the vFlash storage space can be managed in partitions. An operator can create up to 16 vFlash partitions. Each partition can have a size up to 4GB. When the vFlash SD card is inserted into a Windows workstation, the operator can observe that the partitions are in fact proprietary image files on the SD card and not physical disk partitions.

An operator creates partitions in several different ways. One can create an empty vFlash partition and then format it into FAT, EXT2, or EXT3 file systems. An operator can also upload a partition to vFlash from a remote disk image, for example, CD/DVD ISO images. Conversely, the operator can save the partition data to a remote partition image file.

Summary

The vFlash system supports both graphical user interface and the scriptable command line interfaces. Through these interfaces, a system operator can manage and use the vFlash system remotely. The full scripting ability allows a system operator to tailor and automate the vFlash usage to any systems management applications.

The ability to remotely download an ISO image through the DRAC network interface   to a local storage device is a very powerful feature unique to Dell systems with Enterprise version of DRAC.


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