Sunday, July 24, 2016

ESXi PSOD and HeartbeatPanicTimeout

A Purple Screen of Death (PSOD) is a diagnostic screen with white type on a purple background that is displayed when the VMkernel of an ESX/ESXi host experiences a critical error, becomes inoperative and terminates any virtual machines that are running.  For more info look here.

Nobody is happy to see PSOD in ESXi host but it is important to say that it is just another safety mechanism how to protect your server workloads because PSOD is intentionally initiated by ESXi's vmkernel in situations when something really bad happens in low level. It is usually related to hardware, firmware or driver issue. You can find further information in VMware KB article - Interpreting an ESX/ESXi host purple diagnostic screen (1004250).

The main purpose of this blog post is to explain the timing of PSOD for just single type of error message - "Lost heartbeat". If there is no heartbeat in some time interval PSOD looks like screenshot below. 

no heartbeat
There is no doubt that something serious has to happened in ESXi vmkernel, however regardless what exactly happened following two vSphere advanced settings are used to control heartbeat time interval in which heartbeat must be received otherwise PSOD is executed.   
  • ESXi - Misc.HeartbeatPanicTimeout
  • VPXD (aka vCenter) - vpxd.das.heartbeatPanicMaxTimeout
Let's start with ESXi advanced setting Misc.HeartbeatPanicTimeout. It defines interval in seconds after which vmkernel goes to panic if no heartbeat is received. Please, don't mixed this "Panic Heartbeat" with "HA network heartbeat". These two heartbeats are very different. "HA network heartbeat" is heart beating mechanism between HA cluster members (master<-><->sleaves) over ethernet network but "Panic Heartbeat" is heartbeat inside single ESXi host between vmkernel and COS software components. You can see "Panic Heartbeat" settings by issuing following esxcli command
esxcli system  settings advanced list | grep -A10 /Misc/HeartbeatPanicTimeout
 [root@esx01:~] esxcli system settings advanced list | grep -A10 /Misc/HeartbeatPanicTimeout  
   Path: /Misc/HeartbeatPanicTimeout  
   Type: integer  
   Int Value: 14  
   Default Int Value: 14  
   Min Value: 1  
   Max Value: 86400  
   String Value:  
   Default String Value:  
   Valid Characters:  
   Description: Interval in seconds after which to panic if no heartbeats received  

I have tested that  Misc.HeartbeatPanicTimeout has different values in different situations. Default value is always 14 seconds but
  1. if you have single standalone ESXi host not connected to HA Cluster effective value is 900 seconds
  2. if you have ESXi host as a member of vSphere HA Cluster then the value is 14 seconds
So now we know that the value in ESXi host with enabled HA is 14 seconds (panicTimeoutMS = 14000) and it usually works without any problem. However, if you will, from whatever reasons, decide to change this value it is worth to know that in HA enabled ESXi host is in HA code hardcoded cap of 60 seconds on this value. It is a cap so it does not change the value if it is already less than 60. However, if you use for example the value 900 it will be caped to 60 seconds anyway. I did a test in vSphere6/ESXi6 and it works exactly like that and I assume it works in the same way in vSphere5/ESXi5.

Side note: It was very different in vSphere4/ESXi4 because HA cluster was rewritten in vSphere 5 from the scratch but it is already a history and I hope nobody use vSphere4 anymore.

Behavior justification:
Behavior described in paragraph above makes perfect sense if you ask me. If you have standalone ESXi host and you are experiencing some hardware issue it is better to wait 900 seconds (15 minutes) before ESXi goes to PSOD state because virtual machines running on top of this ESXi host cannot be automatically restarted in other ESXi hosts anyway. And guess what, if ESXi host have some significant hardware failure, it has most probably negative impact on virtual machines running on top of this particular ESXi host, right? Unfortunately, if you have just a single ESXi host vSphere cannot do anything for you.

On the other hand, if affected ESXi host is a member of vSphere HA cluster then it is better to wait only 14 seconds (by default) or maximally 60 seconds and put ESXi host into PSOD quicker because HA cluster will restart affected virtual machines automatically and helps to mitigate the risk of unavailable virtual machines and with that application services running inside these virtual machines.

So that's the explanation how ESXi setting /Misc/ HeartbeatPanicTimeout behaves. Now we can look what vpxd.das.heartbeatPanicMaxTimeout setting is. My understanding is that vpxd.das.heartbeatPanicMaxTimeout is vCenter (VPXD) global configuration for ESXi advanced setting Misc.HeartbeatPanicTimeout. But don't forget that HA cluster is capping Misc.HeartbeatPanicTimeout value on ESXi hosts as described above.

You can read further details about vpxd.das.heartbeatPanicMaxTimeout in VMware KB 2033250 but I think that following description is little bit misleading.
"This option impacts how long it takes for a host impacted by a PSOD to release file locks and hence allow HA to restart virtual machines that were running on it. If not specified, 60s is used. HA sets the host Misc.HeartbeatPanicTimeout advanced option to the value of this HA option. The HA option is in seconds."
My understanding is that description should be reworded to something like ...
"This option is in seconds and impacts how long it takes for ESXi host experiencing some critical issue to go into a PSOD. Setting vpxd.das.heartbeatPanicMaxTimeout is a global setting used for vCenter managed ESXi advanced option Misc.HeartbeatPanicTimeout however Misc.HeartbeatPanicTimeout is adjusted automatically in certain situations. 
In standalone ESXi host 900s is used. In vSphere HA Cluster ESXi host it is automatically changed to 14s and capped to maximum of 60s. This setting have indirect impact on time when file locks are released and hence allow HA cluster to restart virtual machines that were running on affected ESXi host."
Potential side effects and impacts
  • ESXi HA Cluster restart of virtual machines - if your Misc.HeartbeatPanicTimeout is set to 60 seconds than HA cluster will most probably try to restart VMs on another ESXi hosts because network heartbeat (also 14 seconds) will not be received. However because it is not in PSOD the file lock still exist and VM restart will be unsuccessful. 
  • ESXi Host Profiles - if you use the same host profile for HA protected and also non-protected ESXi hosts then it can report difference of Misc.HeartbeatPanicTimeout against compliance.
Blog posts in blogosphere covering "no heartbeat" issues:

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