Feature

NetApp spins out Ontap GX

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IT'S OFFICIAL. In June, Network Appliance (NetApp) began shipping its high-performance, highly scalable Ontap GX OS--the marriage of its Write Anywhere File Layout (WAFL), FlexVol, RAID Double Parity (RAID-DP) and SpinOS, the clustered file system the company acquired in 2003 from Spinnaker Networks. For now, Ontap GX is targeted at high-performance computing (HPC)--the segment where NetApp first earned its file-serving chops--but industry observers wonder whether GX can satisfy these customers.

Ontap GX can support two to 24 nodes and, when coupled with FAS6070 disk arrays, can scale to 6 petabytes (PB) of capacity behind a single file system. "As the scope of compute problems gets larger, simplification gets more important," says Rich Clifton, NetApp VP and general manager for the network storage business units. Ontap GX, he says, "lets you aggregate storage devices and present them to a large compute farm as a single piece of storage."

The system is also designed to deliver high performance. A recently published SPEC-SFS benchmark clocked Ontap GX at more than 1 million IOs/sec, approximately three times more than any previously published figures. But NetApp didn't disclose its throughput numbers. Larry Jones, VP of marketing at Panasas, a competitor that also offers a clustered storage environment, says a "back-of-the-envelope" estimate on GX's throughput capabilities is in the range of 3GB/sec to 4GB/sec.

That would

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have been ample throughput for Amerada Hess Corp., a global energy company. But four years ago, when it came time to buy storage for the massive Linux compute farm running Amerada Hess' seismic processing app, NetApp storage was too expensive, says Jeff Davis, technical lead for the project. Instead, Amerada Hess purchased SATA disk from DataDirect Networks and a distributed file system from PolyServe, which has grown to two 10-node file-serving clusters and 200TB of capacity, with a total of approximately 2GB/sec of throughput. "We could have gotten that kind of throughput by clustering two Net-Apps together, but it would have cost between five to eight times as much," says Amerada Hess' Davis.

Amerada Hess continues to be a loyal NetApp customer, though, using NetApp filers to store the company's "crown jewels"--its visualization data. "NetApp is just a great file server," says Davis. "In the seven years we've been buying it, it's never had a problem." But when it comes to its seismic processing apps, "we prefer to spend our money on compute," he says. List price for the GX system is $250,000 for a minimum two-node configuration.

But a high price tag isn't always a stumbling block for HPC customers. "The HPC market tackles the hardest problems to solve, and customers have been willing to pay a premium to companies that can help them solve it faster," says Panasas' Jones.

More limiting may be Ontap GX's lack of ancillary features. While it does include a snapshot capability, it still supports only NFS, making it inapplicable for most commercial or digital media applications.

"If they don't support Windows or Apple, then sure, go to HPC," says Rami Schwartz, CEO at Exanet, which makes high-performance clustered NAS software that runs on commodity hardware. Furthermore, he notes, "[HPC is] much more willing to compromise on reliability." Exanet recently announced continuous snapshot capabilities that, according to Schwartz, "will allow us to target apps that we couldn't before," namely CAD/CAM, chip design and product lifecycle management.

"[These are] apps that are capacity and performance killers, but that also need continuous data protection," he says.

--Alex Barrett

This was first published in August 2006

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