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March 29, 2005

NetApp joins the v-word lobotomizers

Network Appliance yesterday followed Hitachi and IBM into the third-party storage virtualization ring, increasing the momentum of a technology that looks set to commoditize expensive disk arrays.

By CBR Staff Writer

The NAS and combined block-level storage giant has re-branded its GFiler SAN gateways as V-Series devices, and has promised that within weeks it will step up the certification of third-party arrays that those gateways can take control of, allowing far more mixing and matching of different brands and array models.

The renaming emphasizes the virtualization abilities that the gateways gained last November when NetApp released its OnTap 7G operating system. Back then NetApp said nothing about virtualizing third-party hardware. Yesterday one analyst suggested that this was because it did not want to damage its relationships with other suppliers.

But NetApp has changed it position, and was possibly influenced by IBM’s announcement in December that it had chalked up over 800 customers for its SVC virtualizaton product, and the launch last Fall of Hitachi’s virtualizing Tagmastore array.

The 7G software gave NetApp’s hardware the same ability of those two and other products to virtualize or pool the capacity of third party disk arrays, together with a sophisticated thin provisioning ability not yet offered by any other major vendor.

Basically you lobotomize the other vendors’ disk arrays, and take them over, said IDC analyst Brad Nisbet. The new breed of virtualization products allows capacity to be pooled across multiple arrays and so eases the use of storage tiers, and allows data to be replicated between cross-vendor arrays, eliminating the need to use expensive brand and model-specific array-based replication software.

The quality of NetApp’s own brand storage management software is widely rated, and the company said the Vseries will allow 95% of those tools to be used with third party arrays.

EMC last year criticized IBM’s SVC appliance when the SVC was certified to work with EMC hardware, accusing it of commoditizing third-party hardware. Currently EMC is the only company whose hardware NetApp is not yet planning to certify for use with its gateways.

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One of our requirements is two-way support. We’ve tried unsuccessfully to get such a deal with EMC, said NetApp vice president Jeff Hornung. We’ll see how long they hold out. When they start to lose business, they’ll come back to us, he added.

EMC, which also happens to be NetApp’s only major rival in the NAS market, said: We’ve seen little or no demand. To qualify our storage behind NetApp gateways, we’d have to divert resources from other projects.

Very few of NetApp’s vanilla nonvirtualizing gateways are attached to thirdparty arrays, but Asaro said that this may be because NetApp prefers to sell its own arrays for that purpose.

EMC has most to lose in a virtualized storage world. The company argues that replication functions are best completed on the array, but is hedging its bet with a promise to ship next quarter its own virtualization tool although that product will initially be limited to migration rather than full blooded DR-style cross-vendor replication.

Tony Asaro, analyst at ESG said: Nobody knows what’s going to happen. There seems to be some value in putting intelligence into the network [with virtualization products] and by our research we see that customers definitely want that.

NetApp’s virtualization is almost unique in that it can handle both file and block level data. The others can’t do this, not within the same platform, and not with the same level of integration, Nesbit said. Because of that NetApp’s VSeries devices will appeal most to users with mixed file and block level environments, who are especially common in NetApp’s user base, because of its existing support for both types of storage.

Asaro said the VSeries is likely to sell best into the midrange of the virtualization market at first, but will move upmarket as NetApp uses its Spinnakerbased clustering technology to boost the product’s scalability.

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