In a time when I can freely download all three of the most popular virtualization hypervisors, install them, and run them for a month or so before I make a decision or pay a cent for them, you'd think there would be a better way to evaluate storage. Unfortunately, because SANs are predominately hardware solutions, there isn't. You can't just download a SAN. Or can you?
Software simulator can help -- but just existing customers
Several major storage vendors, including NetApp and EMC, have offered software-only simulators of their products for a few years. A colleague pointed out this recent blog by a NetApp systems engineer that talks up NetApp's Data OnTap Simulator. Data OnTap is the management software that most NetApp storage devices run, and this simulator is essentially a full-featured, hardware-independent version of that same software.
With a bit of know-how, you can get the simulator set up and fully emulate all of the software functionality of a real NetApp storage system. I don't believe the simulator image includes NetApp's Operations Manager -- a centralized management console that is usually a key feature of any significant NetApp deployment -- but it does let you work directly with the SAN's interface and kick it around to your heart's content. As long as you're not trying to gauge performance or use any features that require specialized hardware (FibreChannel, for example), it is a great learning tool.
Before you get too excited, though, this simulator is only available to existing NetApp customers. Which makes some sense, given that it is partially supported and perhaps not particularly easy to get running if you're not familiar with Linux. The simulator's primary goal is to let an existing customer test new software or test advanced software integration features outside of production. That's excellent -- NetApp should be congratulated for spending the extra effort to provide their customers with such a potentially useful tool.
However, that doesn't help you if you're not a customer yet.
Storage vendors need to let customers truly try before they buy
As someone who is often in the position of helping a client choose what storage option will work best for them, I would positively love to be able to fire up a collection of virtual machines that could emulate the software features of all of the major SAN vendors' flagship products: "Are snapshots a key interest of yours? Great -- here's how manage them on these six different products."