EMC is labelling the redesign of its Symmetrix storage array to support heavily virtualised data centres, its most important announcement since the first Symmetrix box was introduced nineteen years ago.

EMC is positioning the Symmetrix V-Max storage system (short for Virtual Matrix), as a second flagship product alongside its DMX-4. EMC claims its new Virtual Matrix architecture will deliver massive scalability, delivering tens of millions of IOPS (input/output operations per second) and the ability to manage storage for hundreds of thousands of virtual machines from a single management system. The system combines flash-based solid-state drives with Fibre Channel and SATA.

The V-Max is EMC's most important announcement since the introduction of the first Symmetrix in 1990, says Bob Wambach, senior director of Symmetrix marketing. V-Max uses Intel Xeon quad-core processors to speed up data access, along with software that automates provisioning of storage to physical and virtual machines. The Virtual Matrix provides massive scalability by connecting and sharing resources, such as I/O ports, CPUs, mirrored global memory, interconnects and a storage operating system, according to EMC.

While server virtualisation makes one server act as many independent virtual machines, storage virtualisation takes 1,000 disparate elements and makes them appear as one, says Steve Duplessie, founder and senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. Server virtualisation by itself isn't as useful as it should be, because when a virtual machine moves from one box to another it might lose access to its data, he says.

EMC's new system ensures that virtual machines maintain access to data even as they move, he says. Moreover, when an enterprise adds more terabytes, the system automatically rearranges itself and redistributes the load. The real key is reducing the amount of manual processes required of a storage administrator.

"Storage today has a million little knobs and buttons and hooks, and you need to have a Ph.D. to get your data sometimes," Duplessie says. "This takes all the tactical, operational elements and lets the machine do it."

There are two easily identifiable drawbacks with EMC's new system, Duplessie notes. It is expensive and raises the spectre of vendor lock-in, particularly because EMC owns VMware, the major server virtualisation company.

V-Max is generally available at a starting price of $250,000 (£168,000), which covers one 42U rack system with about 200TB. Full-featured systems that scale up to many petabytes will cost millions of dollars.