It's nothing personal, users say. Well, not totally. But when it comes time to replace NAS boxes, several say they're looking to replace NAS heads and even storage arrays from big players like Network Appliance Inc. (NetApp) and EMC Corp. with BlueArc Corp.'s Titan SiliconServer.
The users SearchStorage.com reached for interviews agreed on several key reasons for their choice, most prominent among them being scalability of performance and capacity; the Titan box scales from 5 Gbps performance at the entry level to 20 Gbps of data throughput with a modular upgrade, and can host capacities of up to 256 terabytes (TB) in a single pool of storage. Meanwhile, NetApp's largest filer, the FAS980, scales up to a maximum of 100 TB.
The users uniformly attributed the performance advantage to the fact that BlueArc embeds file system operations in the Titan's hardware -- in units called field-programmable gate arrays -- rather than using a traditional CPU and OS.
"NetApp's an excellent product, don't get me wrong," he said. "I still have it in my shop. NetApp is fast. BlueArc is just faster. When the network is saturated, there's not enough CPU on the NetApp -- you start to notice a slowdown. Any other work you do at the same time, like a backup, will be slow. With the BlueArc, there's enough horsepower to do a backup without noticing a performance difference."
"They're not relying on an OS on disk. It's stable, it's easier to upgrade and manage, and it's faster," agreed Rick Barbieri, IT manager for Zhone Technologies, a telecom equipment manufacturer that replaced several NetApp 740s and an 880 cluster with a 10 TB Titan this year.
"NetApp worked fine for us," he said. "It's not a bad product at all -- it was the cost of maintenance that was a problem." Barbieri said that he was interested in a next-generation product from NetApp, "but it's not going to be ready for another year or two, and they didn't give me an upgrade path to it."
BlueArc charges Barbieri for service, too. "Of course they do," he said. "But the four-year total cost of ownership is still lower."
Barry Ribbeck, director of systems architecture and infrastructure for Rice University in Houston, replaced a scattered group of nearly 600 departmental servers and storage with two new Titans this year.
"What happens is, people get research grants and they buy equipment," Ribbeck said. "Then they run different departmental applications on it, like e-mail. They're trying to be helpful, but then in three years the grant runs out and it's just another silo of storage sitting in a department office."
He started with a capacity of 50 TB in each system, but said he plans to expand -- the main reason why he didn't go with NetApp along with IBM and others (he declined to name them all).
"We're already at the upper threshold of most of NetApp's products with our entry-level storage requirements," he said.
The BlueArc product, the users agreed, is far from perfect. "Like any NAS product, there are problems with backup," said Washington University's Carpenter. "NetApp is more mature in this regard -- they've got ways to do snapshooting underwater while in orbit. BlueArc still has the basics."
And there was some nervousness buying from a vendor that was new to his shop, Carpenter admitted. "I checked their hardware just in case. If it turns out to be a piece of crap, I made sure I could pull the heads off and turn it into a SAN. Just in case it's a lemon, you check how to make lemonade."
Generally, Carpenter said, both NetApp and BlueArc had their selling points. In fact, Carpenter said, he was more likely to ditch his 20 to 30 TB of Clariion FC4700s for the Titan than NetApp.
"They're pieces of [expletive]," he said. "You can quote me on that."
Carpenter said he was tired of Clariion's "catastrophic crashes" and said he felt he'd been "screwed" by EMC's recent bug fixes, which turned out not to fix his bugs at all.
"This thing's at the end of its life and should be bug free and smooth. But lo and behold, we're having the same issues over and over again."
NetApp on the defensive?"Point decisions don't point to trends -- no matter how you or competitors try to sway the data," said Eric Brown, director of worldwide public relations for NetApp, in an e-mail. "If I were to hazard a guess as to their purported customer wins, I'd attribute those to over promises and cut-rate pricing on the part of BlueArc. That would create a perceived huge value in the eyes of some customers.
"Over time," he continued, "I don't think BlueArc has ever demonstrated they can close that gap, however, or really break into true, full-fledge enterprise storage … For the six years I've been at NetApp, they've been getting media knickers in a twist with some promise that never materializes -- and for their almost 10 years of existence, there has been precious little momentum -- who is going to finally call their bluff and say 'really, guys, after a decade, you're no longer a startup'?"
Well, Steve Duplessie of the Enterprise Strategy Group, for one. In a feature for this month's issue of Storage magazine "If you can't beat 'em, lie about them," Storage Bin, December 2005, Duplessie said that BlueArc is very rapidly outgrowing the "startup" label, and that the best indication of this is in the reaction of competitors like NetApp.
"How can you tell when a company has crossed the chasm from piddly little startup to legitimate contender? When you hear stories of its imminent demise," Duplessie wrote. "The most violent attack I've witnessed recently happened to BlueArc."