What is a Virtual Storage Array and why should you care?

IT organisations want more choice when it comes to buying Storage. Not only as traditional packaged storage arrays, but as part of a converged infrastructure offering, direct from a choice of hardware suppliers or as a part of a Cloud service. While there will be many arguments about which is best, there is an increasing realisation that intelligent software to manage your data across various hardware platforms should be the key to any enterprise storage strategy or purchase decision.


What is a Virtual Storage Array or VSA?

I’m assuming most people reading this would know what a Storage Array is (NetApp FAS, EMC VNX/VMax, etc.). And that you have some idea of the reasons we’ve seen such impressive growth in Converged Infrastructure (FlexPod, vShape, vBlock, etc.). But maybe not so much about Virtual Storage Arrays (VSA) and why they would be useful. What is a VSA? Basically a software version of a Storage Array, that can run independent of dedicated hardware, in a virtual machine or cloud service. A VSA approach is interesting because of the choice it offers to customers and service provider partners alike. Maybe you have a small site that doesn’t warrant a full blown storage array. Or would like to do some testing before buying one. Maybe you’d like to extend your storage infrastructure into a Cloud service provider, but want to keep control of your data and connect it back to your own data centre. Maybe you’d like to buy your own choice of storage hardware, but need a proven set of data management capabilities, efficiency technologies and data protection tools. Maybe you want to run workloads as a service in a cloud provider, but can’t be sure of performance characteristics and don’t like the costs associated with a lack of storage efficiency tools. Maybe in the future you want an architecture, built on a Universal Data Platform, that means you could move a Virtual Storage Array between cloud services and your own data centre as an when the need arises. In turn those Virtual Storage Arrays could host multiple Virtual Storage Machines. Very much virtual and different to the way most people think about physical storage arrays today.


The Virtual Storage Array, according to NetApp

Perhaps my most memorable day working for NetApp was at our Analyst Summit in 2009. An event we now hold every year at our HQ in Sunnyvale, California. We invite the biggest brains in the worldwide analyst community to come and see what we’re up to. This was my first. And I was paired with our then CTO, Brian ‘Beepy’ Pawlowski* for an afternoon of briefings. Still feels like I probably learnt more in that afternoon, than the rest of my 10 years in the Storage industry put together.


Why am I telling you that? Because one of the things we discussed was the potential of running our core Data ONTAP software inside a Virtual Machine, so customers would have the choice whether or not to buy hardware from NetApp at some point in the future. And, to my surprise, he told me that we already did that. Why I asked him? Because we could. He told me then that we had been using ONTAP in a Solaris, then Linux virtual environment for development ever since 1992, when NetApp was founded. And would experiment over the coming years around the right business model to bring it to market as customer demand required. Customers always find more interesting ways to use our innovation than we do, however hard we try. Which is exactly how things turned out. A Storage Array operating system, running in a Virtual Machine. Since 2009. And our ONTAP simulator has been available for customer use even before that, since June 18th 2003 it turns out, built on essentially the same technology. More recently, our first public announcement last year with Verizon on their plans to support our VSA in their cloud.


Over the last few weeks I have heard a lot on this topic from several of our competitors, including EMC and HDS, indicating this is a future direction for them. This morning a couple of my colleagues reminded me of this quote, attributed to the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer - “All truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed; Second, it is violently opposed; Third, it is accepted as self-evident.” Once again, seems appropriate when it come to the Virtual Storage Array. Watch out later this year for more news on this topic from NetApp.


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*Thankfully he’s still with the company, now leading a team working hard on our future Flash strategy