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NetApp's Operating System Goes Virtual

Network Appliance has dolled up its Data Ontap operating system with new virtualization capabilities that pool storage devices and prepare changes to storage demand on the fly.

Data Ontap 7G, which runs on the vendor's file systems, features FlexVol, a software feature that helps provision storage for applications. FlexVol creates virtualized data containers that eliminate performance and utilization bottlenecks.

NetApp Vice President of Product Marketing, Suresh Vasudevan, said FlexVol changes the dynamic of storage volumes, making it so the volumes don't have to be tied to physical or logical disks.

FlexVol sets up storage volumes of any size, from gigabytes to terabytes , with one command. It may also "shrink" volume size with one command, a unique feature in the storage space.

With such a feature, storage administrators no longer have to figure out how to carve up terabytes of data for distribution. FlexVol does this automatically, saving businesses time. FlexVol manages data via point-in-time data imaging and replication for each application. Free as part of Data Ontap 7G, FlexVol also enables a utility storage model based on capacity.

Vasudevan said no NetApp rival, including EMC , IBM , HP or HDS , or smaller vendors like Candera, offers such a storage-centric virtualization tool that functions like FlexVol. It's also much faster than current virtualization products, he claimed.

"The current approach to provisioning storage requires several hours to create a volume and make it available to an application or an end user," Vasudevan told internetnews.com. "No mainstream storage vendor has anything close to FlexVol in terms of simply provisioning storage and being able to shrink volumes in one command."

Virtualization technologies have been all the rage in storage, as vendors have been looking for unique ways to help clients aggregate, manage and move data with greater efficiency. IBM makes San Volume Controller and San File System for virtualization, while HDS makes the TagmaStore Universal Storage Platform. EMC has planned a Storage Router for 2005.

Analysts acknowledge a multi-billion-dollar opportunity for vendors who make storage management software.

To complement FlexVol, NetApp has also created a new data cloning technology that competes with EMC's TimeFinder software. Called FlexClone, Vasudevan said this replication technology promises the creation of multiple images of FlexVol data sets with no storage overhead. It goes beyond traditional snapshots -- read only data -- but being read or write.

Vasudevan said cloned data can be tested without affecting the initial data set, preserving data integrity. Competitive approaches for copying data, such as TimeFinder, copy the entire volume and take hours instead of minutes. FlexClone is a separately licensed product and starts at around $6,000.

In related news, the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based NetApp said its gFiler storage gateway, which bundles DAS , NAS , and SAN into one storage pool, now supports the HP StorageWorks XP Disk Array family and the IBM TotalStorage DS4000 series.

GFiler had previously supported only NAS and iSCSI for HDS, Sun StorEdge 9900 and IBM Enterprise Storage Server disk arrays. Now gFiler supports Fibre Channel, NAS and iSCSI for these vendors' products. EMC provides gateways to its own storage.

Support for multiple vendors' products will help storage vendors stand out to customers with heterogeneous infrastructure in their data centers. By supporting its rivals products, NetApp is showing its priority lies with the customer.