Two years ago I was very negative about NetApp. The company was perceived as a sort of dead man walking, stuck with this idea of ONTAP everywhere. End users and partners were bored (couldn’t blame them). All attempts made in the past to build a broader product line-up had failed or, at least, were not as successful as expected. But then something changed.

From “ONTAP only” to “Data Fabric only”

I have to say that the first time I heard about Data Fabric I was curious, although skeptical. The idea of building a data mobility layer which connected all different NetApp products and the cloud was quite compelling but, quite frankly, not very credible.

The company proved me wrong and, in fact, they started working very hard on all their products, including the ones put in the corner for reasons that were more political than technical (they simply were not based on ONTAP!). In the last 18 months I’ve been updated many times on the evolution of Data Fabric and the roadmaps about additional application and services to move data transparently on different platforms. I am, for example, impressed by the advancements in StorageGRID, a product on which I based a white paper, and all the S3-based solutions that are now part of a very interesting ecosystem.

The same goes for all-flash storage. FlashRay never saw the light but the Solidfire acquisition and a more than decent AFF product line are making users, as well as partners, quite happy. The differentiation between All-Flash arrays is minimal today (exceptions are very few) but with such a broad set of solutions covering all possible scenarios, and with the promise of enabling them to communicate with each other through replication and data copy/management tools, the differentiators become inter-operability and data mobility.

A cloud enabling company

As already mentioned, Data Fabric is not only about NetApp storage systems. Some of the tools are specifically designed to move data transparently between on-premises and cloud infrastructures.

Tools like CloudSync, for example, allow to maintain a local file share in sync with an S3-based object store. It is as simple as it is clever. I love it and it could be used in several different cases, also as a bridge to maintain a common data layer accessed by legacy and cloud applications simultaneously.

Another thing I liked is that most of these tools don’t need an end-to-end NetApp environment to work, leaving the end users with freedom of choice and, as a result, making their life easier.

The missing piece

Even though the FAS/AFF based FlexPods are good products, and will be soon joined by a Solidfire version, many end users are now looking with growing interest towards hyperconverged infrastructures. And NetApp doesn’t have an HCI solution.

The Cisco Partnership has worked out very well and, probably, for NetApp there is no reason to start selling its own boxes. They could just integrate their software on CISCO (or Fujitsu?) boxes…… but which software?

Rumors talk about an internally developed product (based on Solidfire technology maybe?) but I also think that another viable option could be an acquisition (Simplivity maybe?). A solidfire based HCI could have the great advantage of compatibility, but Simplivity has a boatload of additional functionalities, as well as being very mature. I see pros and cons in both scenarios.

Closing the circle

I’ve defintely changed my mind about NetApp. They had my curiosity… but now they have my attention (just to close with the meme of the title). Their differentiation now is not in the single product but in their vision and approach as a whole . Much more data-focused than just storage. They are not the only one, HDS has been experiencing a similar transition for years now, but it is interesting to note how different the approach is compared to companies like Dell-EMC or HP. One stop shop or specialist? Where would you bet your money?

Even though NetApp has to demonstrate that it is able of executing its vision now, the end users and partners I’ve met in the last months confirm my thoughts and are giving NetApp some credit for their will to change and renovated enthusiasm. Only time will tell if it pays off to become more data-centric or infrastructure generalist!

If you want to learn more I think you’ll find the Tech Field Day and vBrownBag
videos recorded during the last NetApp Insight, very useful.

If you are interested in these topics, I’ll be presenting at next TECHunplugged conference in Amsterdam on 6/10/16 and in Chicago on 27/10/16. A one day event focused on cloud computing and IT infrastructure with an innovative formula combines a group of independent, insightful and well-recognized bloggers with disruptive technology vendors and end users who manage rich technology environments. Join us!

Disclaimer: I was invited to NetApp Insight by NetApp and they paid for travel and accommodation, I have not been compensated for my time and am not obliged to blog. Furthermore, the content is not reviewed, approved or edited by any other person than the Juku team.