Turning a big storage ship

Storage is a funny old part of IT industry and a part of the industry that is going through change much quicker than most.

The rapid move to flash, the need to integrate cloud, issues over management, security and governance all make the storage industry a challenging place for vendors and those architecting and using storage solution alike.

If we add to that a change in how we view our infrastructure, we see technologies that are abstracting much of our infrastructure from end users and developers, we see tech like openstack, Azurestack and even tech like Vmware VVOLS all of which present a single look and feel higher up the technology stack, this move almost sees some parts of the decision making cycle have a view of “we don’t really care about storage”.

With all that in mind how do you make a difference in the storage market?

For me in the answer stands in taking a view of how as a storage vendor you can be smart in addressing the challenges we see as architects, customers, business owners, developers or storage admins we all have a different view of what we need from our storage solutions, so how do you go about addressing all those requirements?

This leads nicely onto a look at how one of those storage players is taking those challenges on. Yesterday (May31st) saw NetApp announce the launch of ONTAP9. Now for me the interesting thing about the announcement was not the cool tech, of which there is much, but more the business messaging that came with it.

What it ONTAP 9


ONTAP is NetApp’s storage operating system, traditionally it has run on NetApp’s own controller hardware as a classic storage array, as you’d expect, but today and actually for some time, ONTAP is much more than that.

Ultimately it’s an operating system and like any OS’s, it can be installed on any suitable platform which opens up a whole range of options and if you are someone making strategic data decisions, then flexibility can be massively useful.

Imagine if your storage operating system could not only be installed on your traditional array, but it could also be installed on hardware of your choice, pick up your whitebox hardware and install your storage OS on it, what if you could install that OS then in AWS and have a cloud version of your storage?

Now it’s not that you can’t do all those things today, but what we are talking about here is doing all of those things with the same operating system, all of the same functions, same management tools, ability to seamlessly move data sets between all of those different repositories all because you have the same OS and capabilities.

Well that is ONTAP, ONTAP 9 installed on bespoke controllers, ONTAP Select on whitebox hardware of your choice and ONTAP Cloud, running as an instance in AWS, all the same technology doing all of the same things in the same way.

Why Version 9?

That’s a good question, to which I don’t have an official answer, but do have a thought! NetApp have taken a lot of criticism over the last few years, some of it valid, some of it not, but one of those criticisms is lack of clarity of message, different platforms, vague numbering of ONTAP versions and of course the drawn out move from traditional ONTAP to the scale out version of ONTAP known as clustered ONTAP.

I’d say there all valid criticisms and personally I think NetApp are now in a position to draw a line under that and ONTAP9 is that line. Gone are the variations of 7-mode and clustered, gone is confusing naming, an attempt at clarity. Everything is now ONTAP and as mentioned it’s variants ONTAP Select and ONTAP cloud. Yes there are still other portfolio solutions, E-Series for cheap, deep fast storage and of course Solidfire for the webscale cloud provider market. However, where general data is concerned, ONTAP is your OS of choice.

Simplification can only be a good thing, just remember ONTAP and then you can look at your requirement and decide where best to deploy it, but wherever you want your data, ONTAP can be there backing it.

Getting flashy

Flash is absolutely changing the storage game for many, it’s spawned new and innovative storage companies, it’s changed the way organisations can mine data, it’s allowed us to deliver data solutions faster and more efficiently and heck, it’s generated debate, when will we just buy flash? do we need to have designed from the ground up for flash? when will flash be cheaper than disk? when will it have the density we need? and so on.

All those questions have probably clouded many a storage debate the last 2-3 years but in the end, most of it doesn’t matter, flash is just another media for storing data.

For me what’s important is can I integrate it seamlessly into my environment and not a special silo living in a corner on its own. The thing with flash is, it’s fast and it is maybe here where it is delivering its true benefit.

One of the most difficult things we do when architecting a solution is getting the performance right, traditionally many metrics, much extrapolation of data and a bit of guesswork have gone into sizing our storage platforms for performance, however flash simplifies that completely, for pretty much all workloads, flash is going to plenty fast enough, you put 20 flash drives in a system churning out ½ million IOPS, that’s going to be lightning fast and we are seeing increasingly people are not just putting their big database workloads on there, it’s the entire stack, it’s VMware, Windows Servers, Exchange, SharePoint, VDI, you name it, people are looking at it and saying, get flash, I don’t have to concern myself with performance.

NetApp have maybe been lucky when it comes to flash, or maybe it’s great foresight, however not many of the long standing vendors had an OS that could move to flash just so easily, ONTAP was built with flash in mind, before people had flash in mind! None of this built for flash stuff, ONTAP just delivers, it was already optimised in writing to flash and a couple of tweaks to the read path and suddenly ONTAP looks like it was always built for flash.

Oh and if you’re not sure if you’ll get benefit, commercially NetApp are backing that with a guaranteed 3 times performance improvement guarantee.

There are other benefits too, ONTAP9 makes NetApp the first of the enterprise vendors to support 15TB flash drives, yep 15TB on a flash drive, tie that with a guaranteed 4:1 storage efficiency your 15Tb flash drive is effectively a 60Tb drive all lightning fast. Why should supporting 15TB drives be a big deal? But it is, the fact ONTAP just treats flash as another media should not be underplayed, because it means, while some flash vendors are struggling to support flash drives bigger than 3TB NetApp are already looking are already looking ahead to 32Tb next year and 128TB in the not too distant. No major changes to ONTAP, it’s just another bigger drive, great investment protection.

Squeeze it in

This move to flash is a big deal for many and the benefit of removing the performance concern is worth it’s weight in gold, but how to do you make this more affordable? Flash drives are still not quite as cheap as their rotating equivalents (not a million miles off, but) and let’s not kid anyone that a 15TB flash drive is going to be anything but pricey, so one way to tackle this is, efficiency.

NetApp has always delivered great efficiency and ONTAP9 just builds on that, alongside the normal data efficiency techniques you’d expect (in-line compression, dedupe, efficient snapshots, clones etc.) data compaction is added (Check out Adam Berghs excellent ONTAP9 blog here for more detail on data compaction) NetApp are also financially backing that as mentioned with a 4:1 efficiency guarantee, not the minimum NetApp say they ll get, but they’ll financially back it if you don’t get at least that. So as a buyer, I’m buying less physical storage and potentially squeezing al my data in flash and if that doesn’t work NetApp will give you some disks!

netapp efficiency

The improvements in the management interface In ONTAP9 mean you can also see the effectiveness of each of the efficiency technologies and if you feel for some reason one of those efficiencies isn’t for you or your specific workload, that’s fine.. turn it off.

So is that ship turning?

There is some neat stuff technically in ONTAP9 no question and I’ll point you in direction of some blog posts that go into a bit of detail, but what interests me is the strategic thinking, if we look at what is going on in the storage market, it’s changing greatly, from where we place our data, to what we as users want from our storage in a modern environment.

ONTAP makes great strides in addressing many strategic concerns, flexibility that allows me to place ONTAP on bespoke hardware, my own hardware or spin it up in the cloud and the ability to move data between any of those platforms as and when I need it. Strategically this is significant.

Commercial simplification is important, buying storage can’t be commercially difficult and should take the risks from our storage purchase. The newly announced guarantees around performance and efficiency are a big helpful step toward that.

NetApp have been criticised over the last few years and as I said earlier, some of it justified, some not, is ONTAP9 the answer to all the issues NetApp may have, perceived or otherwise? no of course not, however my belief is it’s a step in the right direction and having spent some time over in their Sunnyvale HQ a couple of weeks ago, what I can tell you is it doesn’t stop here, they have a leadership who understands where the company needs to go and are trying to tackle all those things head on, with smart tech and some neat commercial thinking.

Buy why not go find out yourself I’ve attached some resources below that are worth a look and of course feel free to comment here, or on twitter @techstringy or find me on LinkedIn.

Thanks for reading. Ships Ahoy!

Some resources for you

NetApp resources

Hear from Lee Caswell on the NetApp podcast

NetApp ONTAP9 product pages


Independent resources

Dave Brown – NetApp ONTAP 9 Announcement

Chris Maki – ONTAP 9.0 is here

Dave Morera – First Look at ONTAP 9

Adam Bergh – NetApp Announces ONTAP 9

Press resources

Press Interview from CRN with John Woodall

3 thoughts on “Turning a big storage ship

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