Talking to NetApp about storage is like entering a holiday village where everything is well-ordered, well-run, efficient and clear-cut. The world outside can be messy and confusing, but inside the holiday village gates the lawns are mowed, the pavements clean, everything is signposted clearly and it's all consistent. Why would you ever want to leave?
It's a kind of Disney World approach which looks weird from outside but which is perfectly logical inside. In fact the insiders think outside is weird - why on earth would you want all those different pieces of incompatible storage kit? Those EMC Clariions, DMX, Celerras, Centeras, whatever.
Just say no to all that and choose NetApp storage. It can be whatever you want it to be. Stick a NAS skin on it, an iSCSI block-access skin, a Fibre Channel access skin, have it function as a layer two storage NearStore. Have your primary storage de-duplicate with ASIS while every other supplier restricts de-dupe to secondary storage. Have it replicate, snapshot, thin-provision. Have it virtualise other suppliers' storage in its V-Series form. It's all NetApp storage arrays or controllers and it's all running ONTAP, NetApp's operating system with date stored using WAFL. Sounds like WAFFLE; how American is that?
Even NetApp's employees adore it. The firm has just been voted the best place in the US to work by Fortune magazine which ranked US companies. What's not to love?
But look a little closer and gaps appear. ONTAP comes in two versions; 7G, the mainstream version, and GX, the clustered version. Then the VTL (Virtual Tape Library) product doesn't run ONTAP at all.
Talk to Dan Warmenhoven, NetApp's CEO, and clarity returns, the gaps are explained: "We don't think every single function can be delivered with ONTAP... I don't think they (VTL and ONTAP range) should be integrated fully." He can't see the business sense as "a VTL is virtual tape". It stores tape-reel data and is not a standard file system.
There'll be some integration but not that much. "I think you'll see more of a shared code space (with) FCoE and management interfaces shared between them."
Earthshaking ONTAP 8
What about 7G and GX? They are coming together in ONTAP 8. GX is based on code acquired with Spinnaker in 2003, and the idea is to cluster multiple NetApp systems together. Combining n-way clustering with NetApp's mainstream technology and its replication and snapshot technology and existing high-availability clustered pairs has not been easy.
Warmenhoven said: "It's been a hard challenge but we'll be ready to ship in about six months from now. It's the culmination of five years of very complicated engineering, a lot harder than we anticipated when we acquired Spinnaker."
"I think it will be earth-shaking. It will be as innovative in the storage world as DNS was. Today you have to know what physical device data is on, the LUN, the system. If you move data about you have to change all the apps that point to it."
DNS, the Domain Name System, translates website names into actual IP addresses, the dotted quads, four bytes in a sequence such as 188.8.131.52, which, in IPV4 defines the actual IP address for a website. This means website names can stay the same even though its host computer can move, and we website users don't have to know or care where a website is physically located.
It's different with storage. On your PC you have to go find a file on the C: drive or another one. If you don't know the device and directory you're in a bit of a bind. On a storage area network you have to know the volume or LUN details and accessing stored data on a host or across a network generally means you have to know pretty much which physical device it's on. That goes away with ONTAP 8.
"Now we'll have a unified name space over the whole file system and no one will have to hold (physical addresses)," Warmenhoven said. "This is not about scaling out for performance; it's scaling out for manageability. It's virtualisation of data locality... present the name of the object and we'll go and find the volume."
It's not that NetApp customers can't get this global name space feature already. Isilon for example offers it but that's outside the NetApp stockade. ONTAP 8 will bring it inside the fence.
It was 20 years ago today
Warmenhoven thinks storage is now at the stage networking was 20 years ago, when "you probably had purpose-built switches for Ethernet (and the other different interfaces). Along came the router and the different interfaces became line cards. The core of data management and data storage is not dissimilar to the router."
Just as a unified router dissolved the need for switches purpose-built for different network applications, so unified storage can dissolve the reasons for having different storage technologies for separate storage apps.
"We do believe that the right solution is to move away from purpose-built products for each storage application and move to a single model."
EMC's coming Celerra update embodies this approach - to an extent. It offers a NAS interface alongside its iSCSI and Fibre Channel SAN interfaces and it can deduplicate data and function as an archive. Thus it overlaps Symmetrix and Clariion arrays and Centera archive storage - but those other product lines won't go away.
Still, NetApp believes they should, that the same core product technology should operate within the various storage personalities, that you have your fairground ride, your enchanted castle, your canoe flume ride, all operating together and integrated.
It's all about continuity. Buy one NetApp product and get to know it. Buy another and it works and is managed pretty much the same way. Buy another and you don't have to learn much new at all as NetApp continuity wraps you inside its warm blanket. Filers or block access devices, primary storage or secondary storage - all just different personalities, skins around the same constant NetApp onion.
The continuity even extends to Warmenhoven's own future. He's starting his 15th year as NetApp CEO and says: "I'm older than the hills (he's 58) and I do not expect to be the CEO of this company when I'm 60... There's a point at which a new leader is needed." Tom Georgens, president and chief operating officer, is identified as the probable next CEO, "as long as he continues the executive leadership". Can you detect the whip held by the velvet glove there?
In fact, NetApp is even better than Disney World; it has a plan for what happens when the top man goes - which Disney didn't. ®