An RDM is a mapping file in a separate VMFS volume that acts as a proxy for a raw physical storage device. The RDM allows a virtual machine to directly access and use the storage device. The RDM contains metadata for managing and redirecting disk access to the physical device.

The file gives you some of the advantages of direct access to a physical device while keeping some advantages of a virtual disk in VMFS. As a result, it merges VMFS manageability with raw device access.

RDMs can be described in terms such as mapping a raw device into a datastore, mapping a system LUN, or mapping a disk file to a physical disk volume. All these terms refer to RDMs.

Figure 1. Raw Device Mapping
A virtual machine has direct access to a LUN on the physical storage using a raw device mapping (RDM) file in a VMFS datastore.

Although VMware recommends that you use VMFS datastores for most virtual disk storage, on certain occasions, you might need to use raw LUNs or logical disks located in a SAN.

For example, you need to use raw LUNs with RDMs in the following situations:

  • When SAN snapshot or other layered applications run in the virtual machine. The RDM better enables scalable backup offloading systems by using features inherent to the SAN.
  • In any MSCS clustering scenario that spans physical hosts — virtual-to-virtual clusters as well as physical-to-virtual clusters. In this case, cluster data and quorum disks should be configured as RDMs rather than as virtual disks on a shared VMFS.

Think of an RDM as a symbolic link from a VMFS volume to a raw LUN. The mapping makes LUNs appear as files in a VMFS volume. The RDM, not the raw LUN, is referenced in the virtual machine configuration. The RDM contains a reference to the raw LUN.

Using RDMs, you can:

  • Use vMotion to migrate virtual machines using raw LUNs.
  • Add raw LUNs to virtual machines using the vSphere Web Client.
  • Use file system features such as distributed file locking, permissions, and naming.

Two compatibility modes are available for RDMs:

  • Virtual compatibility mode allows an RDM to act exactly like a virtual disk file, including the use of snapshots.
  • Physical compatibility mode allows direct access of the SCSI device for those applications that need lower level control.