NetApp eases storage provisioning pain

In the latest version of its OS, NetApp introduces FlexVol and FlexClone, simplifying storage provisioning and capacity planning.

Network Appliance Inc. (NetApp) has unveiled the next version of its operating system, Data ONTAP 7G, which includes two significant new features that improve provisioning and capacity utilization within its filers.

Called FlexVol and FlexClone, the former provides virtualized volume management and the latter can create multiple writable images of FlexVol data with no additional storage overhead. FlexVol comes free as part of Data ONTAP 7G. FlexClone is a separately licensed product and starts at around $6,000. Both are available today.

The most important product is FlexVol, which helps NetApp users break out of the constraints of traditional storage provisioning. "Users are fed up with unmanageable provisioning. We hear stories of it taking anywhere from a couple of days to weeks to allocate storage resources .... NetApp has been known to be one of the simplest storage systems to deploy, but it still has had this static provisioning problem where the disk capacity had to be tied to specific servers and applications," said Stephanie Balaouras, analyst with the Yankee Group.

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To get around this problem, FlexVol creates an abstraction layer between the disks and the volumes of data so that the volumes no longer have to be mapped directly to physical disks. In addition, FlexVol provides a thin provisioning capability that helps to conserve capacity by avoiding over-provisioning.

For example, when provisioning storage for an application, a system administrator might allocate 1 terabyte (TB) of storage capacity. That storage capacity is not committed and cannot be used by any other application. Since it is a new application, there is really only about 100 MB of real data that is being stored on that volume. But because the administrator is anticipating growth, he or she has committed 1 TB. Over the life of that application, it may only use 500 GB -- but it has been allocated 1 TB -- of which 500 GB is left unused.

With FlexVol, a system administrator can allocate 1 TB to a volume, but it is not committed. In other words, the application sees a 1 TB volume but only 100 MB of storage is used. As more data is stored, it just takes from the pool of storage as needed.

The Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) said it believes that thin provisioning is one of the most useful features that storage vendors can implement because it solves two major problems -- storage provisioning, and capacity planning and utilization.

There are a handful of startups that support thin provisioning, including 3Pardata Inc., which pioneered the concept, but NetApp is the first major storage vendor to support this capability. "Many users won't be aware of this functionality. NetApp supporting it raises the game as other leading vendors will have to support it, too," said Tony Asaro, senior analyst with ESG.

For companies with large test environments, such as IT, FlexClone is a way to conserve storage capacity by only storing the changes made to frequently shared files. Think of it like Snapshot, only it makes a read and write clone instead of a read-only version.

FlexVol on NetApp FAS and NearStore systems virtualizes just NetApp storage. The gFiler NAS gateway enables the entire suite (except SnapLock) of NetApp data management tools on third party storage, including the FlexVol (and FlexClone) virtualization capabilities.

In addition to the new features in the OS, NetApp has increased support for third-party storage on its gFiler NAS gateway. It now plugs into Hewlett-Packard Co.'s StorageWorks XP arrays and IBM's DS4000 (FAStT) products, as well as existing Hitachi Data Systems, Sun Microsystems Inc. and IBM 's Shark storage. Suresh Vasudevan, vice president of product marketing at NetApp, said the company is "still working" to get EMC onboard for complete heterogeneous support.

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