Nimble Storage: Adapt and thrive by virtualising applications - Suresh Vasudevan

As the undulating wave of digitisation surges through the banking sector, it is vital that financial institutions adapt to the increased size and variety of data. Virtualising applications and accessing the cloud can drastically optimise data centre management. Suresh Vasudevan, CEO of Nimble Storage, tells Future Banking about the importance of minimising downtime, being future ready and keeping data green.

When data is complex, storing it shouldn't be.

"We bring radical simplicity to data centre infrastructure," says Suresh Vasudevan, CEO of Nimble Storage. It's this clear vision and focused mandate that has guided the company since its inception in early 2008. It was founded on the belief that the imminent future would bring with it major transformations to data storage and infrastructure in most large enterprises.

To be ready for and help drive this inevitable change, Vasudevan says the company focused on three strategies. First, it foresaw the importance of ground-up-designed flash architecture to replace disk-based storage systems in primary-based applications. "Existing large storage companies did not have architecturally well-suited products to take advantage of the transition," Vasudevan says.

The second strategy concerned data management services where infrastructure began to serve the needs of applications. As focus now shifts to application development to leverage a competitive advantage, data management services such as backup and recovery, encryption and compliance need to be integrated into the applications rather than available at the storage level.

"We wanted to take a different approach to traditional companies in how we delivered application-centric data services," Vasudevan says.

Third, and perhaps most fundamentally, the management of data centre infrastructure was about to shift. Traditionally, customers watched over their own data centre infrastructure. Of course, when something went wrong, they had to call their vendors for support, which consumed time with trouble-shooting, and level-one and two support calls.

"We thought that if we could watch over our customers' infrastructure from the cloud," Vasudevan says, "and use predictive analytics to try and understand what kind of things might break down, and prevent them from happening, we could grow the support function from a reactive to a highly proactive process."

These three core principles or focal points have earned Nimble Storage a solid reputation in the industry, securing a spot in research and advisory firm Gartner's 'Magic Quadrant' last year as a leader in general-purpose storage systems.

"We entered the market in August 2010 - it's been six very strong years for us," Vasudevan says. "We have over 9,000 customers across more than 50 countries. It's a pace of customer acquisition that no storage company in our industry in the past 20 years has been able to match."

The US-based company is particularly proud of its penetration in Europe, which comprises 15-20% of its business and is growing at a faster rate than any other region.

Claiming the vertical

Nimble Storage has proved a powerful business ally for those in the financial sector. "Roughly, in any given quarter," Vasudevan says, "15 to 20% of our business is in that vertical. We have more than 1,000 financial services customers, including Fortune 1000 global banks - corporate, investment and consumer banking - so we have really large banking customers."

The company is not only about large-scale operations; it also optimises data for medium-sized regional banks and hedge funds.

Nimble Storage deploys collaborative applications solutions such as Sharepoint and Exchange, but most frequently, within the financial services sector, it provides virtual desktop and server farms.

One of its large insurance and banking clients has over 30,000 exchange mail boxes deployed with it, over 4,000 database instances including online banking databases and all its virtual desktops. "Virtualisation infrastructure is a key driver of growth in the financial services sector," Vasudevan says. "Within those virtual server environments, databases are very typical workloads of people."

The sheer volume of data that large financial institutions need to manage in order to keep mission-critical applications running is a major challenge that faces IT. However, to avoid stagnation, companies also need to transform and grow their business by developing next-generation applications.

Add to this increasing regulation, cost-effective compliance, and the necessity for secure and private data, and companies face a continued struggle.

Data in the air

Managing data effectively places a significant burden on resources at financial institutions. Consequently, it makes sense that financial institutions are increasingly handing over these needs to data storage experts. After all, it is the data companies that can devote time and money to developing best-in-class products.

"Infosight allows us, in over 90% of the time, to identify support problems and notify customers instead of waiting for them to call us. This is a completely game-changing support experience," Vasudevan says.

The product's flash-based architecture combines all-flash arrays and hybrid-flash arrays in a unified flash fabric - a single operating system. "Our customers are able to accelerate not just their most important applications," Vasudevan says, "but every application to a factor of five or six sets, because of our ability to deploy performance and cost-optimised all-flash arrays and performance, and cost-optimised hybrid arrays with a single operating system."

Nimble Storage has invested in the integration of its storage systems and data management services into OpenStack containers and dockers. "When banks look at how we develop applications using virtual machines," Vasudevan says, "they see we have already integrated the underlying infrastructure and data management services into those environments. This makes their job a lot simpler when they have to make those applications perform well."

Dreaded downtime

The biggest cause of downtime in data centres is the complexity of the underlying infrastructure. Often there are different versions of software running on multiple devices that may or may not be compatible. Changes to one device can cause unintended consequences elsewhere. Add to this a range of inadequate tools to monitor data and the situation looks grimmer.

When understanding downtime, it is important to separate data centre costs into capital expense of equipment and operational costs - such as staff and consulting services. The latter often exceeds the former and is especially important because of the results of operations failing, such as losing customers if applications are offline.

The best way to lower costs is to maintain an always-on data centre environment that is extremely simple to support and manage. "Perhaps more significant than trying to figure out how to save a little bit of costs on the equipment you are deploying," Vasudevan says, "is focusing on how to completely eliminate downtime, how to ensure if something goes wrong that you can figure out what the problem is and stop applications from getting disrupted."

A way to reduce downtime is to shift to the cloud. Much is written about the associated fears of traditional financial making this shift, but Vasudevan says these are exaggerated. There are many applications that they can leverage in the public cloud. For those that cannot, there are private hosted clouds.

More significant a point of discussion is the technology data storage providers can offer banks to protect their data's privacy and confidentiality. The encryption of data is fundamentally important, not just when at rest in the storage system but when replicating it from one data centre to another in the case of disaster recovery.

"Embedded security inside storage systems such as encryption," Vasudevan says, "is the very first thing data storage providers need to maintain customer confidentiality."

A further security feature is multi-tenancy, which means that even within a large bank with multiple internal customers, infrastructure can be segregated according to what group needs to access it. Restricting access to only those who need it adds strength to security protocol.

Cloud is out there

In facilitating cloud migration, Nimble Storage allows customers to not only run applications in its system, but also move those same applications and associated data back and forth between on-premise and cloud infrastructure. This mobility means customers can opt for a hybrid IT environment instead.

To migrate or not can also be influenced by companies looking to lighten their ecological footprint with greener data centres. If companies choose to keep their leverage with an on-premise facility, they need to choose technology with low energy requirements. However, there are environmental badges to pin on chests should financial institutions opt for cloud-based systems.

"One of the reasons flash as a media and storage system is growing at such a rapid pace," Vasudevan says, "is not simply because it allows applications to run faster. Unlike disks, it draws a lot less power so you can deploy storage systems that are dramatically lower in power consumption."

Accessing the cloud is fast becoming the norm. With the added value of predictive analytics, proactive support and increased green credentials, the decision to ditch the immobility of on-premise data centres for the nimbleness of Nimble should be a simple one.

Suresh Vasudevan, CEO of Nimble Storage.