The best of both worlds if you need familiar infrastructure interfaces like iSCSI but you also want the scale, cost savings and off-site accessibility of cloud.
An infrastructure service rather than platform cloud storage; you can’t cross connect to platform services like Azure Files.
From document stores to database applications to backup and disaster recovery to VM sprawl, most businesses are trying to handle more and more storage, and it’s usually split between file servers, network attached storage and storage area networks, disk backups, remote DR sites and even tape.
Adding cloud into the mix doesn’t replace any of those storage tiers so it doesn’t always make things cheaper or less complicated.
Microsoft is trying to take a different approach with its StorSimple arrays. These add cloud storage as an extra tier in the array, so hot data is on SSD, cooler data is on hard drives and deduplicated to save space and cold data is automatically offloaded to Azure to make space. You can use them for primary storage, archives and backups, plus off-site disaster recovery, all ending up in the cloud without extra work.
The two new array models also work with the new Azure management interface and a new StorSimple virtual appliance in Azure that you can use for failover, development and test – or to migrate applications designed to work with a SAN to the cloud.
Cloud scale SAN
The StorSimple arrays are made for Microsoft by Xyratex and they look like a standard storage array; we looked at the 15TB 10Gbps StorSimple 8100, which is a 2U iSCSI box with 800GB of SSD and 200TB of storage on Azure (the 4U StorSimple 8600 has 40TB, 2TB of SSD and 500TB on Azure but is otherwise similar), connected by two 10Gbps controllers. You connect them up like a standard storage array, configuring them to connect to Azure in a very un-cloud-like command line console, and allocating three IP addresses – one for the management interface, one for local connections and one to connect the array to Azure.
This is the first of a few places where the integration between Azure and the StorSimple arrays isn’t quite as integrated as you expect from a cloud system. For example, you have to manually copy the Service Registration Key from Azure to the array before you can start managing it through the Azure StorSimple Manager interface in your browser. And, if you add further arrays, you also have to manually copy the Service Data Encryption Key from the first array to the rest.
Similarly, if you decide to regenerate the keys for your Azure storage accounts (it’s good security practice to do that from time to time), you have to manually tell the StorSimple Manager to update the keys after you change them in the Azure Storage. You don’t have to import the keys though, you’re just clicking a button so it’s not clear why that doesn’t happen seamlessly.
Apart from these few rough edges, though, the Azure StorSimple Manager makes it simple and straightforward to add volume containers and volumes, create backup policies and snapshots, clone volumes and trigger failovers – whether you’re controlling physical StorSimple arrays or virtual versions running on Azure. You can even use the array with your existing Azure Storage account, if you have one.
The dashboard gives you a full overview of both performance and policies, and the tools are step by step wizards that walk you through tasks; our only niggle is that it’s not always clear why some tools are in the main page and others in the toolbar at the bottom of the page though.
There's another note of caution: Azure’s list of running tasks will tell you it’s completed a task, fo example, creating a snapshot; however, you should be warned that this doesn’t mean the snapshot itself is done.
Easy storage management
We expected the upcoming new Azure interface to make things clearer, but even complex tasks, like failing over from a physical array to a virtual array – and back again – are so clear and straightforward that the hardest part is using server tools that connect to the array to mount it as a drive.
If you want to take application backups (locally on the array or directly onto Azure), you can configure those on your server using the StorSimple Snapshot Manager; you could also use a backup tool like Veeam and point it at the StorSimple array.
That’s the beauty of the new StorSimple arrays; you configure and manage them through Azure and they use Azure storage for all but your most frequently accessed files, but to the on-premise systems you already have it looks like familiar infrastructure.
You pay for it more like infrastructure too; although Seagate publishes a list price of $100,000 plus fees for the 8100 array), the actual cost depends on the Azure package you take from Microsoft – remember, this isn’t just hardware you plug in or a cloud service you sign up for, but a three-tier system you’ll be integrating with both Azure and your own infrastructure.
If you have SAN experience, the StorSimple 8100 is blissfully simple compared to the usual complexities of creating LUNs and handling thin provisioning and the automated deduplication and cloud tiering means you never have to worry about buying another hard drive.
Using Azure for snapshots and failover is equally painless, and opens up more possibilities than just backup and disaster recovery. The StorSimple 8100 is fast enough to run second or third tier SQL workloads locally, and you can easily take a cloud snapshot to use for developing and testing new applications in Azure VMs or if you want to analyse your data in the cloud with something like SQL Server Analysis Services or Power BI. If you want a really fast connection to Azure for your StorSimple, you can connect over ExpressRoute as for any other Azure service.
Just don’t expect end to end platform-style storage services with StorSimple; this is cloud storage for the infrastructure world, and it’s a breakthrough alternative for storage admins used to far trickier setup routines.
If you’ve got on-premise infrastructure that you want to integrate cloud storage with seamlessly, the StorSimple arrays are a clever way of avoiding the time and money you’d otherwise spend adding ever more drives to your storage area network, although there are still a couple of rough edges in the cloud integration.
Mary is a freelance business technology journalist who has written for the likes of ITPro, CIO, ZDNet, TechRepublic, The New Stack, The Register, and many other online titles, as well as national publications like the Guardian and Financial Times. She has also held editor positions at AOL’s online technology channel, PC Plus, IT Expert, and Program Now. In her career spanning more than three decades, the Oxford University-educated journalist has seen and covered the development of the technology industry through many of its most significant stages.
Mary has experience in almost all areas of technology but specialises in all things Microsoft and has written two books on Windows 8. She also has extensive expertise in consumer hardware and cloud services - mobile phones to mainframes. Aside from reporting on the latest technology news and trends, and developing whitepapers for a range of industry clients, Mary also writes short technology mysteries and publishes them through Amazon.