NetApp seeks performance bump for All Flash FAS arrays

NetApp takes steps to fix All Flash FAS array performance and endurance, and is still working on FlashRay upgrades.

NetApp today enhanced the performance and efficiency of the all-flash versions of its FAS storage array, extended the warranty and added a $25,000 entry-level system.

NetApp also rebranded the system as the All Flash FAS (AFF) Series. The hardware configurations are the same as the all-flash versions of the FAS8000 series it has sold since mid-2014, but the vendor changed the way it writes data to flash to increase performance and reliability.

All Flash FAS is one of NetApp's three all-flash platforms. It also has an EF Series aimed primarily at performance needs, and a FlashRay platform built specifically for flash but not yet generally available.

All Flash FAS is targeted for NetApp's core FAS enterprise customers who want an all-flash system for performance while maintaining their familiar storage management and data protection features.

Most of the changes to the AFF8000 are in FlashEssentials, a series of software optimizations that include a flash-optimized read data path, inline compression and zero-based inline deduplication to write data faster and more efficiently to flash. FlashEssentials is included in the clustered Data OnTap operating system. The biggest change is in the way NetApp's Write Anywhere File Layout (WAFL) works with solid-state drives.

The product was too hard to configure. ... Now you can go from box to I/O in 15 minutes.
Lee Caswellvice president for product marketing, NetApp

NetApp also added OnCommand Performance Manager 2.0 software that provides a dashboard to evaluate flash performance and troubleshoot issues, and a wizard that provides automatic setup for Oracle and Microsoft SQL Server database installations.

"The product was too hard to configure," admitted Lee Caswell, NetApp vice president for product marketing. "The wizard automates provisioning for our top two workloads: SQL Server and Oracle. Now you can go from box to I/O in 15 minutes."

Caswell said the AFF8000 is now priced at the same $5 per raw GB as the EF Series. The AFF8000 has a starting price of $25,000 for a 4.8 TB array.

While FAS controllers were built for hard disk drives rather than SSDs, NetApp is looking to make improvements by writing data to disk more efficiently. It removed the defragmentation process from WAFL that improved reads with disk but slowed the process on flash.

"We found it was a much speedier process to introduce performance to a flash-friendly architecture that it would be to introduce enterprise features into a new architecture," Caswell said.

The changes in wear levelling allowed NetApp to extend support on All Flash FAS to seven years. NetApp is also offering trial systems to customers and channel partners.

Will changes give NetApp flash a boost?

NetApp's flash arrays have been criticized by customers and industry experts, and its poor flash strategy was cited as one reason why the vendor switched CEOs earlier this month.

IDC storage research director Eric Burgener said the changes should help bridge the performance gap between All Flash FAS and competitive systems designed specifically for flash, such as EMC's XtremIO, Pure Storage's FlashArray and IBM FlashSystem. All of those platforms are out-selling NetApp's all-flash systems.

Burgener also said the $25,000 starting price makes All Flash FAS competitive with other low-price all-flash arrays that recently hit the market. These include the Dell SC4020 that costs $25,000 for 3 TB and the HP 3PAR StoreServ 7200 Starter Kit, priced at $35,000 for 3.5 TB.

"NetApp is going after smaller customers that wouldn't think of buying flash before because it was too expensive," Burgener said. "If $250,000 was the entry point and they were looking to spend $50,000, they wouldn't even consider all-flash."

FlashRay: Still no GA date

Caswell said NetApp remains committed to FlashRay, although he declined to give a target date for its general availability. FlashRay came late to market and appeared as a one-controller configuration when it started shipping in limited availability in late 2014. FlashRay uses a Mars operating system that is different than the vendor's core Data OnTap OS.

"They had a few things to address with FlashRay," IDC's Burgener said. "They had some work to do. But I think FlashRay is a good architecture and as soon as they address those issues, they'll have a pretty good product."

Caswell didn't dispute that FlashRay needs work before it is ready for prime time.

"There were some missteps on this," he said of FlashRay. "Talking about FlashRay early was a mistake, and talking about it as complete without high availability was not credible. Now we're doing what seasoned storage veterans do. We're finishing the product and making sure it ideally suits the target market we have identified for it."

Caswell identified the market for FlashRay as "outside the data center," where he said startup Pure Storage has done well.

"That's the product that threatens Pure the most," he said of FlashRay. "Our AFF is coming after the major enterprise players. We have different products so our customers can spec the job and then choose the tool."

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