NetApp and the Changing Role of Storage Hardware

Arthur Cole
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Changing the Way You Purchase Storage

Ensure that IT has the flexibility to build and efficiently run a shared infrastructure.

The decoupling of hardware and software has ushered in new levels of efficiency and performance in the data center.

I've said in the past that this has had the primary effect of limiting hardware's role in many of these gains. Certainly, more powerful processors and greater storage densities continue to help drive things forward, but the real action these days is on software's ability to cobble together the kinds of resources needed to deliver the truly remarkable achievements in today's data center.

And while this may lead some to conclude that great things will happen primarily on generic, commodity hardware, there are some who argue that the exact opposite might come true. One of them is Storage Switzerland's George Crump, who argues that the ability to migrate previously stand-alone appliances to the virtual layer means enterprises will start to focus more closely on finding the right match between their hardware and software capabilities. Rather than simply hiding average hardware behind exceptional software, Crump says hardware will need to meet some very specific criteria to maintain expected service levels. For example, does a given RAID have enough CPU power and cache memory to generate the kind of write performance required of the new software?

Software companies seem to be coming to this conclusion as well. NetApp, for example, just announced it will pay $480 million for LSI's Engenio storage division. Engenio provides a range of OEM hardware systems to a variety of customers, a tradition that NetApp says it will continue by maintaining its own OEM deals with various hardware companies that serve as platforms for the DataONtap operating system. According to ZDNet, the main purpose behind the deal is to tap into the growing demand for high-storage, high-bandwidth solutions for applications like video surveillance and graphics rendering. Also, an in-house hardware platform will afford greater control over pricing and development.

True enough, says The Register's Chris Mellor, but could there be something of a personal agenda at work here? NetApp, if you recall, is headed by former Engenio executive Tom Georgens, who tried but failed to spin the company away from LSI several years ago. Now that he has control of Engenio again, he will have to contend with some rather uncomfortable business arrangements, such as rival Oracle's use of the Engenio 7900 array or Dell's continued deployment of a variety of Engenio storage systems. OEM deals are certainly beneficial, but not when they deliver cold cash to your direct competitors. There is also the fact that Engenio is a block-based storage system, which will give NetApp greater access to the SAN market, although it makes integration with its own file-based NAS products much more difficult.

And let's not forget traditional competition from arch-rival EMC. That company recently took dead aim at NetApp's cloud aspirations with a new line of SMB storage products called VNX. As a low-cost, unified storage solution based on EMC's higher-end Clarion and Celerra platforms, it combines file, block and object data into a single device. And with the recent addition of Isilon Systems, EMC has the ability to target NetApp's bread-and-butter cluster- and cloud-based storage technologies, according to Seeking Alpha.

Still, NetApp didn't get to where it is today by making foolish decisions. Pursuing new markets like video and graphics, even at the expense of some of its traditional revenue streams makes sense, provided the new markets are robust enough to overcome losses in the old.

In any event, it demonstrates that there are still fortunes to be had, or lost, through targeted hardware development.

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