NetApp Maps NAS Path

NetApp Maps NAS Path With Spinnaker buy, NetApp charts course for next-gen NAS offerings

November 14, 2003

3 Min Read
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Network Appliance Inc. (Nasdaq: NTAP) knew that at some point, it was going to have to leave behind its Old Reliable the Data OnTap operating system that has powered its NAS systems for going on a decade.

The software, to be sure, has kept NetApp in the top tier of the NAS market. But it has a critical shortcoming: Its file system is unable to span multiple devices. That means individual files must be tied to specific physical NetApp filers, which seriously limits the overall system's scaleability and manageability.

Last week, NetApp took a huge step beyond the legacy of Data OnTap: The company picked up distributed NAS startup Spinnaker Networks Inc. for around $300 million in stock in one of the biggest deals in the storage networking industry this year (see NetApp Annexes Spinnaker).

This was by every measure a technology acquisition, indicative of NetApp's desire to pick up what CEO Dan Warmenhoven called a "world-class engineering team." In fact, to accommodate Spinnaker's Pittsburgh engineering crew, NetApp has decided to leave them exactly where they are. A cardinal rule in these kinds of deals: Don't break up the band!

While NetApp's legacy operating system software will still remain the heart and soul of the company, the Spinnaker technology will be its platform for a new breed of systems that can provide clustered file services for thousands of terabytes (see Spinnaker Shoves Off and Spinnaker's Cluster Burns Rubber).In May of this year, I met with Jeff Hornung, VP of marketing at Spinnaker, and the subject came up of NetApp's lack of a distributed NAS offering. (We were in a stuffy little side room at the Disneyland Hotel, in Anaheim, Calif., where the Storage World Conference 2003 was being held. Not really "The Happiest Place on Earth.")

Hornung pointed out that NetApp would have no choice but to make a clean break with its past, because it would be far too complicated to retrofit it with distributed file system technology. "OnTap is 10 years old," Hornung said at the time. "What's their plan to take customers into the future?"

We now have NetApp's answer – and one imagines Spinnaker's execs at some point have had similar conversations with NetApp. In the near term, NetApp will be able to offer customers their choice of either the traditional or next-generation NAS software: "Eventually we’ll converge into a single hardware [platform], with the customer choosing the Spinnaker OS or Data OnTap," Warmenhoven said last week. Over the next two years, NetApp says, those two operating systems will be integrated together "incrementally."

There are a few interesting questions that arise from the NetApp/Spinnaker deal:

  • How will EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC) decide to respond? EMC has spoken about a meta file system made up of multiple "cells," or mini file systems. But there's been no word out of Hopkinton on where this project stands. It's possible EMC could itself be in the hunt for distributed NAS technology.

  • That leads to the next question: What happens to the remaining startups in this area? Companies that may have a shot to go it alone, if they're not acquired by the likes of EMC, include ONStor Inc., Panasas Inc., and Pillar Data Systems. Meanwhile, high-scale NAS startups that have flamed out this year include Scale8 and Zambeel (see Panasas Powers Up, Scale8 Flatlines, and Zambeel Znuffed Out).

  • What happens to NetApp's reseller deal with NuView Inc.? NuView is a software startup that has developed a metaserver that provides a global file system for existing NAS resources (see NetApp OEMs NuView). For now, this relationship won't change. And in fact, the Spinnaker and NuView approaches are fundamentally different: Spinnaker has reinvented the NAS device, while NuView works with traditional NAS filers. They're not mutually exclusive, and it would make sense for NetApp to continue to offer the NuView software to its large installed base.

— Todd Spangler, US Editor, Byte and SwitchFor more on this topic, see the current Byte and Switch Insider report: NAS Market Update

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