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NetApp makes single-node FlashRay systems available

NetApp says select customers can buy its FlashRay all-flash array, which includes inline dedupe and compression but is still a one-node configuration.

NetApp today said it is shipping its FlashRay all-flash storage system, the vendor's third all-flash platform and first built from the ground up. However, FlashRay is still available only to select customers and partners and some of its most valuable features are still on the roadmap.

For now, FlashRay is available as a single-node configuration with up to 24 commercial multi-level cell drives and a maximum of 11.5 TB of raw capacity (7.86 TB usable before data reduction). It uses the new Mars operating system rather than the Data Ontap OS that runs its flagship FAS arrays.

Ty McConney, NetApp vice president of flash solutions, said FlashRay will become generally available in early 2015. He said the platform will be scale-out and will integrate with Data Ontap to move data between FlashRay and FAS arrays, but those capabilities are not in the targeted release version.

Inline data compression makes the first version

The version shipping now does have inline data deduplication and variable-length block compression to minimize capacity used and the I/O activity to flash. FlashRay's data efficiency features are always on, and NetApp promises no impact on performance from dedupe and compression. McConney said FlashRay can achieve sub-millisecond latency.

We know single-node architecture doesn't appeal to everyone, but we thought the time was right to get it in front of customers.
Ty McConneyvice president of flash solutions, NetApp

Global dedupe across nodes is another roadmap item.

"We know single-node architecture doesn't appeal to everyone, but we thought the time was right to get it in front of customers," McConney said.

FlashRay is a Fibre Channel SAN system, although McConney said the vendor can add NFS support for NAS down the road if there is customer demand. As for support for Data Ontap features such as snapshot and replication, "The hooks are in today. It's a roadmap item, but it's not going to be bolted on later. It was designed into the [FlashRay] platform from day one."

Rip Wilson, NetApp's senior product marketing manager for flash, Said NetApp made its data efficiency features always-on because early testing found no impact on performance. They include thin provisioning as well as data reduction.

He said FlashRay can compress data in any size blocks.

"Our differentiation is in the way we have integrated dedupe and compression with variable block sizes," Wilson said. "Most systems have fixed block size reduction."

NetApp executives have talked about FlashRay since early 2013, and it was expected to reach general availability this year. The vendor did jump into the rapidly developing all-flash market with its EF arrays that are part of its E-Series performance systems in 2013 and added all-flash FAS8000 configurations this year. But FAS and E-Series systems use controllers built for spinning disk, and FlashRay is NetApp's first array designed for flash.

Build vs. buy: NetApp built, lost time to market

FlashRay faces stiff competition, with every major storage vendor selling all-flash arrays and flash pioneers Pure Storage, Violin Memory, Nimbus Data, Kaminario and SolidFire in the market for years.

Arun Taneja, consulting analyst of the Taneja Group, said the FlashRay on the market now is not complete but customers can get used to the platform while waiting for the scale-out full-featured version.

"This is a signal to NetApp's customer base -- 'Stay with us. If you really want an all-flash array, start with a single node, experiment with it, but just don't buy from somebody else,'" he said. "They don't want their customers flying into the hands of Pure or Nimbus or XtremIO. The first product they bring out will be enough to get people to start playing with it."

He said NetApp could have gone to market faster by buying a startup but decided to build its own.

"NetApp believes things have to be compatible with Ontap and with the snapshots and all the other technologies they put together," Taneja said. "Nobody could argue that's a bad strategy. The last thing the customer wants to do is learn a new user interface and new way to do snapshots, like with EMC's XtremIO."

McConney acknowledged that NetApp could have acquired flash startups, as EMC did with XtremIO and IBM did with Texas Memory Systems. But he said it was more efficient to build its own, even if that cost time to market.

"We looked at a lot of companies in the market," he said. "We decided we're going to spend the time ensuring that we build a solid architecture. We're not putting a point product in the market. We felt a need to design a new architecture for the future. This is a new architecture that has legs and is built to last."

He said FlashRay is designed so it can use future technologies such as triple-layer cell drives, which can lower the cost of flash.

All-flash FAS vs. EF-Series vs. FlashRay

NetApp positions its FAS all-flash systems as a flash tier for customers who want to run flash and spinning disk systems in the same cluster and need enterprise data management. The EF-Series provides flash performance for customers who can use the data management features built into applications and don't need them in the array. FlashRay is aimed at virtual desktop infrastructure and database workloads that require performance and data efficiency. NetApp hasn't released pricing on FlashRay, but McConney said it will sit between the more expensive all-flash FAS and less expensive EF-Series from a per-GB cost.

"One size does not fit all," McConney said. "Some workloads benefit from dedupe, some don't. Some benefit from compression. We felt we need a portfolio to help customers take advantage of all of the different flavors and variants of flash."

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What features are most important in an all-flash array?