NetApp's Practical Path To A Future Data Center Infrastructure

Although storage announcements occur all year long, fall appears to be a good time for vendors to mount storage "fashion shows" in order to highlight new solutions and initiatives, and NetApp is no exception to that trend. The company's recent announcement of new products and capabilities gives it a lot of good talking points to share with IT organizations planning for 2011 IT purchases.

David Hill

November 24, 2010

6 Min Read
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Although storage announcements occur all year long, fall appears to be a good time for vendors to mount storage "fashion shows" in order to highlight new solutions and initiatives, and NetApp is no exception to that trend. The company's recent announcement of new products and capabilities gives it a lot of good talking points to share with IT organizations planning for 2011 IT purchases.

New vendor announcements that encompass multiple products and/or services tend to be placed in the context of their long term vision or to emphasize an overall statement of direction. A good vision is one which resonates with customers in the sense that they nod their heads and agree that this is where they and the larger part of the market are going. Products and services that slip comfortably within the context of that vision qualify as valuable current investments that can help build toward a hoped-for future. So it should come as no surprise that NetApp's latest offerings present a "path to a future-ready infrastructure" that is built upon a "shared IT infrastructure."

NetApp points out that the aging, dedicated architectures common in many of today's centers have led to inefficiencies in resource utilization, power, space, and people, which, when coupled with continuing explosive data growth, are leading IT organizations to look at more efficient alternatives, including shared IT infrastructures. Although the traditional approach of application-based silos is not going away anytime soon, a more flexible and efficient IT infrastructure is evolving that contains zones of virtualization, internal clouds and external cloud services where data can be commonly stored and easily accessed.

Critics may say that NetApp is not adding anything new to the shared infrastructure conversation, as that trend has been well underway for some time and its evolution has been well-documented by numerous other vendors. True, but NetApp is being very pragmatic in that its vision is recognizable, realistic, and more likely to be accepted by customers today than visions whose utter newness means it will take more time to effectively communicate to IT organizations and get their willing buy-in of those solutions. Moreover, NetApp's vision is one that can easily accommodate its existing products.

NetApp has three storage system product lines--the high-end FAS6200 series, the mid-range FAS3200 series, and the entry-level FAS2000 series. The company's announcement finds the high-end and mid-range product lines getting total makeovers with three new models: the high-end FAS6280, FAS6240, and FAS6210, and the mid-range FAS3270, FAS3240, and FAS 3210.Note that for each FAS model, an equivalent V-series open storage controller model, such as V6280, was also introduced. The V-series allows clients to incorporate competitors' storage arrays in addition to NetApp storage that is part of a FAS model. According to NetApp, all these new models qualify as unified storage, which means that block-based SANs and file-based NAS can be mixed and matched as necessary.

As usual, in order to keep up with the competitive storage Joneses, NetApp is offering considerably more capacity and performance in these new systems. The high end of the high-end--the FAS6280--can scale up to 2.9 PB with 1440 2TB drives, and even the lowest end mid-range product--the FAS3210--can scale to 480 TB with 240 drives. But that is a little misleading as the next model up in the mid-range line can scale up to 1.2 PB. Big is in, as scalability is increasingly important to customers overwhelmed by continually growing data demands.

The two places where NetApp incorporates flash memory are; 1) in cache, and 2) as replacements for or as solid state disks (SSDs) in the form of complements to existing Winchester disk drives. The company has offered flash memory as a caching option in its Flash Cache for awhile, but for the first time is offering flash memory as NetApp SSDs. NetApp feels that Flash Cache is best used when the workload is random-read intensive, and/or where hot data is dynamic or unknown. In contrast, SSDs are best used as disk drives when a workload is random I/O intensive and every read must be as fast as possible.

These are interesting and potentially valuable solutions but what NetApp needs to consider for future releases is a tool that enables the placement of data in flash memory at either the cache or disk level, as well as at other levels of the storage hierarchy. As a quick note, NetApp is now offering something that it calls Unified Connect -- a one-wire-fits-all approach that allows all Internet protocols -- FCoE, CIFS, NFS, and iSCSI -- to use the same wire. Anyone involved in data center administration can testify to the benefits of reducing cabling and management points so Unified Connect is a good thing!

NetApp is offering a number of new and enhanced solutions on the software front, as well. The company has issued a point release to its Data ONTAP 8 storage operating system with higher efficiency for data compression and non-disruptive operation during services and upgrades (which is always a big deal in a 24x7 world). In addition, NetApp has simplified its software structure, with the result that 30 plus ?? la carte add-on software products have been consolidated and condensed into 7 key products, including FlexClone and SnapVault.This should ease the burden on customers trying to figure out just what storage system and data management features they need, but quite frankly anyone selling NetApp add-on software will probably be thrilled as well, since it is easier than trying to explain how 30 separate products can fit into a customer's environment. Moreover, NetApp has also integrated separate storage management products that performed separate functions, such as provisioning and protection, into one unified product called OnCommand. Having a one-window-to-the-world GUI makes the management of NetApp storage a whole lot easier.

The operative word for NetApp's announcement is practical with an emphasis on storage basics as well as efficiency and flexibility. The vision of a shared IT infrastructure is a practical one that should be congruent with the ongoing thinking of IT organizations. The new models of NetApp storage systems at the high-end and mid-range provides scaling flexibility for the large and mid-size businesses that need those features most. The one-wire-fits-all Unified Connect capability also promotes flexibility, which enterprise customers will find particularly appealing.

The software changes promote simplicity, a key point for both NetApp clients and channel partners. Both flexibility and simplicity are very practical and appealing in organizations that know that they have to continue the evolution to a more shared IT infrastructure but want to do so as non-disruptively and cost efficiently as possible. Overall, this announcement finds NetApp moving in a positive direction, well-aligned with its customers' needs. That should pay off for the company in the short term and provide a foundation for building a more visionary approach to future solutions.

NetApp is a customer of David Hill and the Mesabi Group.

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