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IBM, NetApp get cozier with NAS gateway

IBM has integrated the NAS gateway it rebrands from NetApp with its virtualization software, SVC, a move that's leaving some analysts scratching their heads.

IBM announced new interoperability between its rebranding of Network Appliance Inc.'s (NetApp) V3000 series network attached storage (NAS) gateway products and its own storage area network (SAN) Volume Controller (SVC), which will allow users to attach the gateways to their SVC-virtualized storage pool.

Under this new configuration, according to John Foley, worldwide product marketing manager for the IBM-NetApp alliance, users can attach the gateways to the SVC along with their other servers. The chief advantage of this, Foley said, is that IBM claims the SVC has been certified with 80 different storage boxes on the back end, whereas NetApp has certified its gateways only with IBM and Hitachi Data Systems Inc. (HDS) storage.

"Users can access a massive pool of storage from multiple vendors as if it's a NAS box," Foley said.

But analysts said they're confused by the move, since by definition the NAS gateway already does its own block-level virtualization similar to that of the SVC.

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"There's some overlap there, since they both do volume-level virtualization," said Pushan Rinnen, principal research analyst for Gartner Inc.. "If you have IBM or Hitachi storage already, there's no reason to add more layers and complexity."

"For existing SVC users, the added connectivity will have some benefit," said Greg Schulz, founder and analyst with the StorageIO Group. "But you still have to manage the NetApp gateway, the SVC gateway and the underlying storage through the SVC. I thought the whole idea of virtualization was reducing complexity."

Schulz said that native NAS virtualization was the only thing the SVC is currently missing. "This is one way to address it," he said. "But I'm not sure it's the best way." Schulz added that in addition to management complexity, this configuration raises concerns about performance.

A more deeply integrated NAS virtualization product, like the one EMC acquired from Rainfinity in August of 2005, would be "a good spot for IBM and NetApp to make some noise, Schulz said.

"Maybe this is a step in that direction," he said. "But layering in NetApp's IP to that extent might start to step on the terms of the partnership."

Relationship deepens, grows trickier

Analysts also pointed out that IBM has so far jealously guarded Fibre Channel (FC) SAN for its own, even in combined deployments -- of which this latest configuration is also an example.

"While there is some overlap in functionality between the gateway from NetApp and the SVC, it is implicit with this announcement that IBM is standing behind its own [product] for block-level virtualization," said Brad Nisbet, program manager, storage systems for IDC.

But the cozier IBM and NetApp get, the more "coopetition" between the two could increase, analysts said.

"There is a very strong possibility that customers will increasingly look to, at least experiment with NetApp's unified storage offerings with both IP and Fibre Channel connectivity," Nisbet added. "In fact, I would not be surprised if this is already happening, and something I'm sure IBM is keeping a close eye on."

And so, the long-standing speculation about an IBM-NetApp merger continues -- this is one example where the two partners remaining separate companies might be hindering their combined products. The partnership is also growing broader by the day. Since IBM and NetApp formed their union in April of last year, IBM has launched more than 100 hardware products, 20 hardware models and 41 software features based on the partnership, according to company officials.

"They keep getting cozier and cozier, and there are always rumblings [about a merge]," Schulz said. "But at the same time, IBM has continued to divest hardware pieces and reinvest in software."

Oracle snaps, FAS3070 also come into the IBM fold

In the same announcement, IBM also declared it is adding NetApp's SnapManager for Oracle, as well as the recently announced FAS3070 array into its product line. FAS3070 will be renamed the N5600 within IBM and will be positioned between IBM's N5500 (NetApp's FAS3050) and N7600 (NetApp's FAS6030) NAS devices, according to IBM.

The swiftness of this new announcement is unprecedented even in the traditionally close IBM-NetApp relationship, analysts noted.

"IBM is accelerating their time to market with the NetApp products -- announcing only nine days after NTAP's [NetApp] announcement of the new FAS3070 and V3070," Nisbet said. "Previous NetApp products were made available by IBM weeks and months after the initial availability by NetApp."

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