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NetApp cloud overshadows everything else at Insight 2020

NetApp stitches cloud services with its Data Fabric technology. NetApp Insight 2020 will showcase new cloud consumption options and storage for microservices-based applications.

NetApp made an early bet on the cloud with its integrated Data Fabric five years ago. Now, NetApp is pushing its chips to the center, looking for bigger winnings in the hybrid cloud market.

NetApp Insight 2020 kicks off Oct. 26 as a three-day virtual event. Like other IT vendors, NetApp canceled its live conference when the pandemic struck. Also like other IT vendors, NetApp has faced unusual challenges in 2020. NetApp was already struggling to jumpstart storage sales before the pandemic. As did other vendors, NetApp enacted cost-cutting measures that included staff layoffs.

NetApp's cloud-first, flash-accelerated model for data management continues a theme started several years ago. A week before its conference, NetApp launched a version upgrade and new cloud deployment of its flagship OnTap storage operating system for FAS and EFF Series arrays. It also hinted at future direction in cloud with Spot Storage by NetApp to ease storage administration for Kubernetes-based microservices.

Those attending NetApp Insight can expect to hear more about how the vendor will tune its legacy storage hardware for scale-out, born-in-the-cloud applications and containers. That includes updates on recent NetApp cloud acquisitions, including CloudJumper, Spot and Talon Storage. Here is an overview of key topics at NetApp Insight. We'll focus on a few cloud-related highlights.

Steve McDowell, an analyst for storage and data center technologies at Moor Insights and Strategy, said NetApp has strong technologies but needs a message that resonates with enterprise cloud buyers.

"We've seen NetApp embrace cloud storage. They seem very serious about jumping into the container world. And its all-flash storage business continues to do well. Where NetApp has struggled the hardest is in telling a cohesive story. It has had false starts with its container efforts, and it's not clear how its container strategy intersects NetApp cloud and traditional on-prem storage," McDowell said.

NetApp isn't alone at the intersection of cloud and traditional on-premises storage. Insight comes a week after Dell Technologies World, where NetApp's main storage rival launched its Project Apex initiative to sell IT resources as services. Dell EMC will kick off Apex in 2021 by offering storage as a service, and plans to extend it across its product portfolio.

Liftoff of Project Astra

NetApp Data Fabric is a software component in the NetApp OnTap storage operating system. Enterprises use the Data Fabric for data access that spans traditional data centers and multiple clouds.

NetApp's cloud enhancement include tools to deploy and manage container-based microservices. Code-named Project Astra, the technology centers on a containerized version of OnTap tuned to managed clustered Kubernetes nodes, running locally or with NetApp Cloud Volume Service in the public cloud.

Project Astra is a big part of NetApp's cloud vision. Astra is the next evolution of NetApp Kubernetes Service (NKS). The key to NKS is a Kubernetes control plane that NetApp acquired in 2018 from Seattle startup StackPointCloud. Brad Anderson, executive vice president of NetApp's hybrid cloud group, said Project Astra builds on NKS by giving customers greater flexibility.

"There are a number of upstream Kubernetes distributions. We want our customers to be in charge of choosing which distribution they use. Our focus is only on providing them with the best Kubernetes-based storage," Anderson said.

NetApp's plan for SolidFire

NetApp Astra weaves in features from the OnTap upgrade with the SolidFire all-flash ElementOS operating system. Customers can deploy applications using any Kubernetes variant, with data access provisioned across public clouds and local data centers. Application lifecycles, data services and persistent storage are managed directly from same pane.

Recent layoffs at NetApp reportedly affected engineers developing its SolidFire arrays. The cuts raise questions on how NetApp will get the most value from its $870 million SolidFire acquisition.

The SolidFire arrays were acquired by NetApp following its fitful FlashRay product development. NetApp has used the SolidFire all-flash technology mostly as storage for its NetApp HCI product. That brought SolidFire technology into hybrid cloud deployments. Hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) systems combine fixed ratios of compute power and storage with networking gear and virtualization in an integrated appliance. The NetApp HCI product based on SolidFire is closer to a converged or disaggregated storage system that expands with additional compute and storage nodes.

"We were criticized by some who said NetApp HCI isn't hyper-converged, it's disaggregated. We say HCI stands for 'hybrid cloud infrastructure,' and it's not just a play on words," Anderson said. "Now you see other vendors doing disaggregated infrastructure," he said, referring mainly to HPE Nimble Storage's dHCI product.

Still, it's not clear how much market demand exists for the SolidFire as a standalone all-flash storage system.

"They've largely stopped talking about HCI" as a meaningful addition to NetApp revenue, McDowell said.

Tim Stammers, a senior analyst for storage at 451 Research, said NetApp has struggled to position the SolidFire product lineup.

"I had a conversation with SolidFire shortly after they were bought by NetApp [in 2015].  I said, 'Explain [NetApp's] scale-out to me.' And the SolidFire guys were dissing NetApp. They said, 'The volume on a NetApp cluster is tied to a single node. That's not scale-out,'" Stammers said.

NetApp is expected to elaborate on SolidFire's strategic direction during Insight, including pricing and other details for a software-only license of ElementOS launched last week. The initial launch qualifies Element on servers by Hewlett Packard Enterprise. When sold as an integrated system, SolidFire arrays use Quanta servers.

Stammers said offering SolidFire as software-only is not likely to move the needle for NetApp.

"SolidFire has always been a software-defined product," he said.

Anderson said NetApp HCI plans to merge features of OnTap and SolidFire. Large commercial customers tend to use OnTap in the cloud to build private clouds, he said, while Element on x86 servers helps build smaller, internal clouds that connect to the public cloud.

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