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Services, cloud dominated data storage news in 2020

Storage as a service, hybrid cloud, Kubernetes storage, economic fallout from COVID-19, and backup mergers and acquisitions dominated data storage news in 2020.

The 2020 pandemic changed how -- and where -- people create, use and access critical work data, prompting recent storage trends to accelerate around subscription pricing and cloud services.

With much of the workforce retreating to homes and processes powered outside the data center in 2020, storage vendors put their cloud strategies on warp speed. For suppliers whose bread and butter has been on-premises storage arrays, this meant a rapid pivot to consumption buying and hybrid cloud capabilities.

So while the largest storage companies could not turn into public clouds, they at least set out to offer their customers cloud-like buying experiences. This trend was not new, but the largest storage vendors approached it with more urgency in 2020. And the push to services and cloud dominated data storage news for the year.

Serving up storage: Apex, Keystone take center stage

Dell Technologies and NetApp made new as-a-service programs the focal points of their 2020 user conferences, which went digital this year. NetApp broke its Keystone Capex model into Keystone Flex Pay for organizations that want traditional leasing options, and Keystone Flex Subscription for those who want to use the same pay model as their public cloud of choice.

Dell countered with Project Apex, an infrastructure-as-a-service initiative that will kick off by offering the all-Dell EMC storage and data services on demand in 2021. Dell's plan is to eventually allow customers to order any of its services through its Cloud Console portal.

Meanwhile, HPE pushed ahead with its GreenLake everything-as-a-service strategy, and Pure Storage fine-tuned Pure-as-a-Service by enabling customers to manage workloads to storage tiers and manages services.

All storage vendors continued incorporating cloud as well, to the point where you can't find a storage vendor without "hybrid cloud" in its product description. NetApp made three acquisitions to beef up its cloud capabilities while continuing to partner with the major public cloud providers as part of its "cloud-first, flash-accelerated" strategy.

Data protection vendors continued to embrace the cloud, both for backup and disaster recovery. Even HPE got into the act, using its virtual Discover show to launch HPE Cloud Volumes Backup. The goal is to facilitate data protection for workloads using public cloud compute. The need for SaaS backup also increased, due largely to the growth of Microsoft 365 and the realization that cloud providers don't offer built-in protection for SaaS apps.

Hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) vendors repositioned their systems as hybrid cloud infrastructure pillars. Even hyper-converged infrastructure pioneer Nutanix referred to HCI as hybrid cloud infrastructure, and Dell EMC offered up its VxRail HCI technology, which uses the VMware Cloud Foundation software stack on a subscription basis.

Kubernetes keeps coming

The storage world stepped up the pace for preparing for Kubernetes in 2020 with significant investments. Pure Storage paid $370 million for container-native storage startup Portworx. Backup vendor Veeam acquired Kasten for $150 million. NetApp turned cloud data management software gained in its Spot acquisition into services to abstract compute and cloud storage instances for Kubernetes deployments. IBM-owned Red Hat built support for external Kubernetes clusters into OpenShift Container Storage.

Backup vendors also scrambled to add Kubernetes data protection to their stacks. Besides Veeam's acquisition, Catalogic, CommVault, Druva, Trilio and Zerto made significant enhancements in this area, and container backup is a key focus among all data protection vendors.

Corporate comings and goings

The year was interesting for storage executives, partly -- but not completely -- because of COVID-19. HPE CEO Antonio Neri and Pure Storage CEO Charlie Giancarlo contracted and recovered from the virus. HPE replaced storage general manager Milan Shetti with Tom Black. IBM storage GM Ed Walsh left for startup ChaosSearch in August, and IBM vet Denis Kennelly moved into Walsh's old role.

The VMware-Nutanix HCI rivalry also made data storage news headlines in 2020. Nutanix founder Dheeraj Pandey retired as CEO. He said it was because COVID-19 changed his priorities, although his departure coincided with a $750 million investment from Bain Capital. Nutanix hired Rajiv Ramaswami from its HCI rival VMware to replace Pandey, and VMware countered by suing Ramaswami for breach of contract.

Backup vendor Veeam also changed CEOs following its sale to private equity firm Insight Ventures. William Largent returned to the CEO role that he held in 2016-17 to replace founder Andrei Baranov.

The drop in revenue across the storage industry prompted some hard financial decisions from CEOs. Dell, NetApp, Pure Storage, HPE and Nutanix all had layoffs or furloughs to cut costs.

Backup makes for hot acquisition target

Data protection, Kubernetes storage and data protection for Kubernetes accounted for most of the significant storage mergers and acquisitions in 2020.

Insight Ventures bought controlling interest in Veeam in a deal that placed the backup vendor's valuation at $5 billion and prompted its founders to step down from full-time roles. Google bought copy data management pioneer Actifio, Veeam picked up Kubernetes backup vendor Kasten, and VMware bought Datrium for $137 million for its DRaaS. Pure moved into Kubernetes storage by grabbing Portworx, which includes Kubernetes backup in its product suite.

The most expensive storage deal of 2020 involved NAND flash. SK Hynix paid $9 billion for Intel's memory group, although Intel held on to its Optane storage class memory technology.

What about on-premises storage?

With all the emphasis on services and building out cloud capabilities, it was hardly a banner year for on-premises products among data storage news. Dell EMC PowerStore was the most significant launch. Dell EMC finally got its new flagship midrange storage array out the door in May following several delays.

Dell executives see PowerStore -- which consolidates several midrange arrays -- as the key to regaining share in that market segment. But that sales bump failed to materialize in 2020. Dell's storage revenue continued to drop year-over-year after the PowerStore launch, which Dell COO Jeff Clarke blamed on poor midrange sales.

Another significant SAN launch involved the cloud, as AWS added EBS io2 Block Express volumes at re:Invent 2020. Amazon calls Block Express volumes "a SAN for the cloud" and claimed performance of up to 256,000 IOPS and 4,000 MBps -- four times standard io2 volumes.

NVMe drives were a continued focus for storage vendors, expanding into NAS, HCI and storage for Kubernetes for performance gains.

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