Andy Watson, VP for Strategic Technology, Network Appliance

"IBM doesn't have a product with technology merit today, but it's on the horizon and we are keeping an eye on them."

January 19, 2002

11 Min Read
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Andy Watson, vice president for strategic technology at Network Appliance Inc. (Nasdaq: NTAP), took time out of his vacation at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah to talk to Byte and Switch about the future of the network attached storage (NAS) market and NetApp's role in it.

Watson, a film major who by his own admission "got derailed into physics," has the critical job of spotting emerging technologies relevant to NetApp's products and future plans and making sure the company is heading in the right direction.

Prior to joining Network Appliance in July 1995, he worked in various roles for several computer system vendors, including Auspex Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: ASPX) and Data General (bought by EMC Corp. [NYSE: EMC]).

As a customer selecting and deploying computer industry products in the 1980s, Andy was an early adopter of Unix workstations and servers, "right-sizing" engineering environments by porting mainframe-based application software to desktops, midrange servers, and Cray Inc. supercomputer platforms. This also involved early adoption of IP networking, putting in thick- and thin-Ethernet LANs and setting up WAN links in the "early days" of internetworking.

Most importantly, Andy was able to tell us what's going down at Sundance. Click on the links below to read about:

  • Andy's Film Picks for 2002Byte and Switch: So what about this Lord of the Rings thing you've got going on?

    Watson: Every image from the film had to be scanned and stored for manipulation, and with a single frame representing anything up to 12 megabytes – we are talking about a lot of storage [see NetApp Joins Fellowship].

    [Ed note: Hang on a second. How fortuitous was that? We were actually talking about his sideburns. Check them out: He is Bilbo Baggins in The Fellowship of the Ring.]

    Byte and Switch: That’s amazing. Anyway, so why didn’t the film company go for an EMC refrigerator-sized system if all they needed was lots of capacity?

    Watson: Weta Digital, the production company, considered other options, namely a SAN, but SANs can prove to be too complex and too pricey for a small-scale operation like this one.Byte and Switch: Right. But as it turns out, EMC is making a concerted effort to gain market share in the NAS space, at NetApp's expense [see Dell and EMC Do a Deal]. Is it true they have already overtaken Network Appliance on NAS revenues, as some reports have said recently?

    Watson: No, it isn’t true. EMC counts every dollar of revenue from a sale that includes a NAS product and actually admitted on a financial call that it does “double count.”

    Byte and Switch: So the numbers it reports for NAS are not just NAS revenues, but they could be Symmetrix sales or SRDF sales with a NAS box thrown in?

    Watson: Exactly. The question is how many NAS units have they shipped, and EMC has never given a clear answer to this. Network Appliance is still the market leader in this space with around 60 percent market share.

    [Ed. note: When asked to comment, an EMC representative told us: "We have never reported unit shipments on any storage products, because revenue is what counts in tracking market share. We have always shipped higher-capacity systems than our competitors, who often point to units as a way of misleading the market as to how successful they are. This would be like Pepsi selling its drinks in 4-ounce cans and proclaiming that it outships Coke because it sells more units." So there.]Byte and Switch: One of the limitations of Network Appliance's network-attached storage is that it doesn’t support block data, limiting its use for heavyweight storage applications like databases.

    There are lots of startups making this happen – Lefthand Networks, for example, is already shipping a unit that supports both block and file access from the same device. EMC says it also supports both. Is there any reason why NetApp can’t?

    Watson: No. And it’s coming this summer in the next major release of the software. We’ve taken a bit longer to engineer this so that the system will support both block and file access simultaneously. With EMC, you have to physically tinker with the hardware each time you want to switch between block or file.

    Byte and Switch: Does this mean the NetApp device will support Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) Exchange? We know Microsoft has been making things difficult for you on that front lately [see NetApp on Red Alert].

    Watson: It will be a more generally acceptable block solution... a vanilla solution rather the proprietary iSCSI method we are using now. It will support CIFS [Common Internet File System] and NFS [Network File System] on the file side and Fibre Channel/SCSI for block-based storage.Byte and Switch: Is Network Appliance moving toward Fibre Channel – as this is the accepted SAN technology, and Ethernet hasn't been built from the ground up for this environment?

    Watson: Running a database on Solaris over Ethernet is going to run into latency issues today, because of the TCP/IP processing overhead. But several companies are working on gigabit Ethernet NICs [network interface cards] that offload the TCP/IP stack from the server and onto a card. These look exactly like a Fibre Channel HBA [host bus adapter] and will enable the system to run at wire speed. At this point, there will be little to differentiate between a Fibre Channel-based SAN and an Ethernet-based SAN [see Trebia Breaks Silence].

    Byte and Switch: Does this spell the end for Fibre Channel?

    Watson: No, because the disk drives will keep using Fibre Channel. It just means users will have a richer choice for designing their network and will be able to combine the technologies.

    Byte and Switch: OK. So what else is coming in the next release of your software?Watson: Version 1.0 of the DAFS Collaborative's new file system, which has been a huge initiative for us and Intel Corp. [Nasdaq: INTC], is complete and will be supported in the new release [see DAFS Debuts].

    Byte and Switch: Ah, yes, the DAFS Collaborative, a hip-hop trio of cloned comic-strip ducks, no?

    Watson: [Laughs] That’s them.

    Byte and Switch: No, seriously, are they a political group?

    Watson: That’s closer. The idea of DAFS [Direct Access File System] was to create one standard network file system protocol rather than all the proprietary ones out there and for it to work at least as well as block-based approaches such as Fibre Channel.It works by taking advantage of standard memory-to-memory interconnect technologies such as VI [the Virtual Interface architecture] and InfiniBand in clustered data-center environments. DAFS is the language the applications use to access network interface hardware without operating system intervention, and to carry out bulk data transfers directly to or from application buffers with minimal CPU overhead.

    The end result is a significant increase in application server CPU cycles available for application processing, coupled with low-latency, shared file access among application servers and storage systems, all connected by either Fibre Channel, gigabit Ethernet, or InfiniBand networks.

    Byte and Switch: Wow, sounds great. But is anyone else supporting it?

    Watson: About 80 companies have signed up – check out the Website.

    [Ed note: Signing up to a Website is still a long ways off form developing real products. Also, it’s worth noting that Microsoft is not participating in DAFS.]Byte and Switch: Will it do anything to help your declining revenue problem? [See NetApp Takes a Nap.]

    Watson: Eventually, yes. There will be a delay while the market gets used to the idea of DAFS, so it won’t be a large component of our revenues this year, but ultimately it takes us into the high-end data-center market where we don’t traditionally play.

    Byte and Switch: Looking ahead a couple of years, who is your biggest competitive threat from a technology standpoint?

    Watson: IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) has a lot of R&D investment in producing good technology in storage, but IBM Global Services recommends Network Appliance, so we’ll have to see how this will evolve over time. IBM doesn’t have a product with technology merit today, but it’s on the horizon and we are keeping any eye on them.

    Byte and Switch: Anyone else?Watson: Veritas Software Corp. (Nasdaq: VRTS) is a great technology provider with ambitions to unify the SAN space. But we will soon be able to plug into their Volume Manager product via a Fibre Channel SAN.

    Byte and Switch: How about the startups? There are at least 20 all claiming to offer some form of next-generation NAS architecture. BlueArc Corp. issues a press release every time it wins an account away from Network Appliance.

    Watson: Huh, that’s interesting. Our win/loss rate against BlueArc is miniscule. We don’t see them as a significant threat in the field. But you can’t blame people for wanting to be well informed of their alternatives.

    Byte and Switch: Right. And BlueArc is aggressively spreading the word that its servers offer a tenfold increase in performance over the NetApp filers, with benchmarks to prove it.

    Watson: BlueArc built custom ASICs [application specific integrated circuits] to do all the protocol processing that we do in software, and I salute them for that, as it’s hard to do. But they built a lot of chips – one to process RAID subsystem management instructions, another for FTP/HTTP, another for CIFS and NFS, etc. – and there is a latency inherent in this approach, too, as the data moves through each chip. The benchmarks they cite were carried out by [Intel's] Iometer and measure how fast the I/O moves in and out of the chip. We are as fast as they are on application throughput performance, which is the important metric. What BlueArc needs to do is collapse all its ASICs into one piece of hardware – this is the real challenge.Byte and Switch: So if all NetApp’s strengths are in its software, why don’t you just sell that? Why the hardware, which is just a generic server with a bit of tweaking?

    Watson: The reason we sell the hardware is that way we can guarantee performance, as we can test and debug the software on the platform before it goes out. The end result is 99.9 percent data availability. Veritas has to support a hundred different platforms and operating systems, and they are at the mercy of the OS vendor. When Sun Microsystems Inc. (Nasdaq: SUNW) adds a new patch to Solaris, suddenly Veritas has to worry about whether its software will still work properly on that platform.

    Byte and Switch: Many Wall Street analysts say NetApp needs to get the cost of its product down, in some cases by an order of magnitude. Wouldn't selling just software licenses help this?

    Watson: Some of them don’t correctly understand what we do. We are not a general-purpose operating system like Solaris. We have written a real-time microkernel with deliberately collapsed protocol stacks into one location in memory so there is no reading and rewriting. This is supported by the tweaking in the hardware. Yes, we make our money on software licenses – these have very high margins – which makes life difficult for newcomers.

    Byte and Switch: Why did you introduce the NearStore product, which is a stripped-down version of the standard filer, but at a lower price point? [See NetApp's Backup Plan.] Won’t this cannibalize your own revenues?Watson: No, it is lower performance, but the software has been tweaked for a specific application. It offers a larger number of snapshots [duplication and backup functions] per filer than the standard system and is targeted specifically at disaster-recovery applications where there might be a large population of filers that all need to be backed up. The NearStore would be the box driving this backup process.

    Byte and Switch: So, on a different note, have you seen anything good at Sundance?

    Watson: Yes, actually. Human Nature with Tim Robbins and Patricia Arquette, who absolutely carries this movie – it’s well made and a great story.

    Byte and Switch: That’s the one about a woman who’s in love with a man in love with another woman and all three are in love with a young man raised as an ape, right? Great tip... I think. Thanks!

    Watson: Sure.Byte and Switch: So which film is going to win it?

    Watson: Oh, I couldn’t say. Last year I predicted that Nobody’s Baby, a Gary Oldman film, would be huge, and I don’t even think it got a distributor.

    Byte and Switch: Oh, really. [Eyes widen as we secretly wonder if Andy’s storage trend-spotting skills are any better!]

    [Andy informs us that the next film is about to start and that if he wants to catch it he must run now.]

    Byte and Switch: Happy film-going. Bye!— Jo Maitland, Senior Editor, Byte and Switch

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