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NetApp storage systems growth hinges on cloud transition

NetApp's decision to aggressively market storage systems for building hybrid and multi-clouds is put to the test in the face of declining sales in 2019.

NetApp appears to be at a crossroads. Similar to the spot it was in when CEO Tom Georgens was fired in 2015, NetApp is searching for a doorway that leads to positive territory in 2020.

The key to unlocking that door: all-flash NetApp storage systems, coupled with hybrid cloud data management. New CEO George Kurian pivoted NetApp storage hardware to support multi-cloud adoption, and the move fueled a string of strong growth quarters, even as external networked storage sales declined industrywide.

But after closing the gap with market leaders Dell EMC and Hewlett Packard Enterprise, NetApp has given back most of the gains in 2019. The revenue slump continued last quarter.

NetApp Wednesday reported net revenue of $1.37 billion for the quarter that ended Oct. 25, a shade below Wall Street's consensus of $1.38 billion. NetApp said $20 million of quarterly net revenue from software licenses from a year ago did not recur this quarter, contributing to the miss.

For its full fiscal year, NetApp projects revenue of $5.5 billion, or 8% lower than its initial forecast.

A surge in flash and cloud sales last quarter helped to soften the blow. NetApp's all-flash revenue jumped 29% last quarter, driven mostly by sales of its All Flash FAS (AFF) systems and NetApp HCI with SolidFire all-flash storage. That's a turnaround from last quarter, when all-flash sales fell 24%.

NetApp said its cloud products and services generated $300 million, including sales of NetApp HCI, SolidFire all-flash and StorageGrid object storage. NetApp said annual recurring revenue from cloud data services was of $72 million, up 167%.

NetApp CFO Ron Pasek said enterprises increasingly look to NetApp storage systems to underpin hybrid cloud infrastructure.

"We complete the hybrid multi-cloud picture for customers and people are willing to pay for that," Pasek said in an interview prior to the earnings call.

NetApp customers voice opinions

NetApp has work to do to remake itself as a cloud software company in a crowded field, said Steve McDowell, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, based in Austin, Texas. He said NetApp isn't selling much storage to new customers and is losing share, despite good technology and innovations such as NetApp Data Fabric.

"NetApp is making a bit of a bet that its cloud revenues will grow enough to offset declining array sales. That market is still very young. There's enough momentum in the market that they aren't going out of business, but will it carry them forward as they transition to the new cloud model. That's the question," McDowell said.

Customers said NetApp has made strides in recent years, after missing the mark early on all-flash and hyper-converged infrastructure. The emphasis on cloud data mobility makes NetApp "more of a technology company than a storage company," said Collin Mariner, vice president of data center operations at digital home repair company HomeAdvisor.

"You don't see a lot of storage companies that are trying to help you get to the cloud. And that's where Data Fabric comes in," Mariner said.

The latest extension to Data Fabric is NetApp Keystone consumption pricing, which gives users a variety of deployment options to purchase NetApp storage. PayPal uses hybrid NetApp storage systems and Data Fabric to consolidate its data center footprint, and the company plans to explore NetApp Keystone cloudlike consumption pricing for buying arrays, said Slade Weaver, a senior manager in charge of PayPal's Core Data Platform.

"NetApp has turned the corner, after missing the boat for a long time," Weaver said. He said NetApp does still need to develop stronger connections on how its legacy storage arrays transition to the cloud.

NetApp has turned the corner, after missing the boat for a long time.
Slade Weaver Senior manager of Core Data Platform, PayPal

Other customers said the decision to market NetApp storage systems as cloud arrays is emblematic of a broader trend among legacy vendors. Eric Sedore, associate CIO at Syracuse University, said the cloud is forcing storage and other on-premises infrastructure vendors to innovate features more rapidly as they shift focus. The university uses NetApp AFF and FAS arrays  and is considering using Cloud Volumes Ontap in the public cloud or a co-location site for disaster recovery.

"The timeline for adding cutting-edge features has always been slow, but now it's more a question of 'Why isn't IT leading [the way] on meeting our needs? How could we still have problems, if the cloud is supposed to fix everything?'" Sedore said.

"In the past, we would have bought the most reliable [product]," he added. "Now we're mixing that with 'What features should we embrace?' It's not only having reliability, but [whether] the storage does all the sophisticated things we need to keep up with demand."

Aside from earnings, NetApp could be feeling the aftereffects of losing several longtime key executives to retirement, including co-founder Dave Hitz and former president and vice chairman Tom Mendoza.

NetApp also avoided a potentially embarrassing legal outcome in September when a U.S. District Court for Northern California dismissed a suit against the vendor brought by seven former NetApp executives. The suit's plaintiffs included the two previous CEOs, Georgens and Dan Warmenhoven, and former CFO Steve Gomo. They sued NetApp over allegations that NetApp unfairly terminated their company-paid lifetime retirement health benefits.

Executive news director Dave Raffo contributed to this story.

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