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NetApp guarantees storage capacity savings for VMware users

NetApp guarantees its arrays will require 50% less storage to host ESX servers than competing arrays. But you'll need to read lots of fine print to know your environment qualifies.

NetApp Inc. said its multiprotocol storage arrays are 50% more space-efficient than competitors' systems when running VMWare, and for NetApp array users who don't see that improvement, the company pledges to make up the difference for free.

NetApp claims that its software features, such as thin provisioning, data deduplication and space-efficient snapshots, save storage capacity in VMware environments. "We've used reference selling [against competitive arrays] in the past," said Patrick Rogers, NetApp's vice president of solutions marketing. "This is taking it to a different level and challenging the rest of the industry to show their differentiation in virtual server environments."

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As an example of how the program works, NetApp maintains that a traditional storage system might require roughly 21.75 TB of raw capacity for 10 TB of data. But percent less storage means that the user will only need 10.75 TB of raw space with NetApp. In other words, NetApp will pay for any additional capacity needed above 10.75 TB.

"It's great they're putting their money where their mouth is," said Forrester Research analyst Andrew Reichman. "Users don't have to guess as to whether they're really seeing the savings that have been advertised." Just assessing the efficiency of their storage, he noted, could prompt customers to follow best practices.

However, the guarantee is highly conditional, according to terms of an FAQ guide put out by NetApp. For one thing, storage arrays valued at more than $2 million are exempt from the program. Asked if the largest systems might be the ones that need efficiency the most, Rogers responded that they're also the most likely to see dramatic efficiency gains, and so they don't need an assessment service to calculate what those gains might be.

Customers also must have specific configurations of NetApp system to be eligible. Thin provisioning must be enabled without LUN reservations, and customers must use RAID 6 (NetApp calls it RAID DP), space-efficient snapshots and deduplication. To ensure that all the eligibility requirements are met, customers must also engage NetApp professional services, which might entail a fee.

Rogers declined to specify how much that fee might be or how it might work with existing customers' support contracts, but said, "We're not trying to make money on the professional services in this case – this is not that material an expense."

Other stiuplations of storage capacity guarantee There are other stipulations to NetApp's storage capacity guarantee. The 50% comparison is made against "traditional storage systems," examples of which, according to Rogers, are EMC's CX4 and Hewlett-Packard's EVA disk arrays. Beyond that, the comparative system must be running RAID 10 data protection (striped and mirrored).

Comparisons to RAID 5 systems will not be made, because NetApp argues that RAID 5 is passé among VMware users and that best practices dictate RAID 10 in most virtual environments. However, Reichman disagrees with that assessement of RAID 5. "I've talked to users with RAID 5, it's not uncommon," he said, pointing out that compared to RAID 5, RAID 6 actually uses more disk drives.

Furthermore, the FAQ declares that to be eligible for the program, customers must have "no more than 10% of the following data types: images and graphics, XML, database data, Exchange data and encrypted data." Furthermore, according to the FAQ, large database Exchange deployments are excluded, because these data types "are deduplicated at a lower rate." Customers also "must have at least 10 similar virtual machines per flexible volume, so that deduplication can work properly to realize the capacity savings."

"This is the flip side – there is a lot of fine print to this," Reichman said, noting that the stipulations about data type "definitely stack the cards in [NetApp's] favor." On the other hand, he said, NetApp can't be expected to guarantee space efficiency on file types that almost no data deduplication system will be able to reduce, such as encrypted data or image files.

At least one NetApp customer is skeptical about the guarantee. "It would be pretty cool to make sure you're running at maximum efficiency," said Jim Corrigan, president and CEO for Manage Operations Inc. "I'm wondering what industries it'll help because it's a great idea, but so many things are exempt [from the program]." Corrigan runs NetApp with Citrix Xen virtual servers, which are not eligible under the program, although Rogers said a similar program will be rolled out for Hyper-V and Xen users soon.

"What I want is to see the results of this – I want to know how many people qualify for this program, and how many guarantees NetApp actually pays out after six months," Reichman said. "You hear a lot of talk about dedupe and not a lot of proving out results. This has the potential to be useful and helpful, but right now I'm on the fence."

NetApp is just starting to roll out the program, so no customers are signed up yet, Rogers said. The guarantee program runs through March 31, 2009.

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