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SolidFire CTO dishes on NetApp all-flash array strategy

NetApp vet and SolidFire CTO Val Bercovici says NetApp will apply lessons learned from its Spinnaker Networks 'fiasco' while integrating its new all-flash platform.

Since buying all-flash array vendor SolidFire for $870 million this year, NetApp has run SolidFire as a separate business unit distinct from its other storage systems.

NetApp all-flash offerings currently include two other arrays; the All Flash FAS (AFF) built around NetApp's ONTAP operating system and the EFF Series for high-performance computing. Each all-flash platform is designed for different use cases and has its own engineering teams.

However, there is a link between the traditional NetApp and SolidFire teams. Longtime NetApp executive Val Bercovici took over in April as SolidFire CTO. Bercovici has spent 18 years at NetApp in the office of the CTO and served as its "cloud czar" for the past seven years.

We spoke with Bercovici about NetApp's integration of SolidFire flash, why buying an all-flash system made more sense than building one and how SolidFire fits in with NetApp's Data Fabric hybrid cloud strategy.

What is your role at SolidFire? And how different is it from what you were doing at NetApp?

Val Bercovici: The enterprise IT purchasing cycle is being disrupted. Digital transformation is changing how service providers and development teams at hyper-scale companies operate. It's also changing how a lot of brick-and-mortar companies operate. That recognition drove NetApp to acquire SolidFire.

The modern enterprise buyer has a lot in common with the modern [consumer]: They do a lot of online research on a big-ticket purchase before reaching out to a sales team. They also want to consume storage, rather than install it and manage it. It's very important for us to have heavily outbound technical thought leadership as part of our overall marketing influence. That's one of the reasons I was asked to lead the creation of the office of the CTO, specifically for SolidFire. The primary role of my team is to create content and an online presence ... to establish ourselves as experts in data management and next-generation storage topics, including things like VMware VDI

What does SolidFire add to NetApp's all-flash portfolio?

Bercovici: SolidFire gives us the ability to enter completely adjacent markets that other storage vendors are just not in. SolidFire offers you on-prem storage as a service that works out of the box.

The driver for NetApp to purchase SolidFire is our ability to enter strategic new markets, as opposed to selling just another flash product.
Val BercoviciCTO, SolidFire

One of the key tenants of on-demand pricing is you pay only for what you use -- right down to the metal. SolidFire differentiated itself from any other product, including the NetApp portfolio, with the ability to start small and grow incrementally to a very larger overall deployment without a forklift upgrade. You can add one node type and add different nodes for a heterogeneous cluster, and the load balancing and the quality of service (QoS) is automatically maintained. A recent innovation is capacity licensing, which brings the flexibility of a cloud-like licensing model.

The NetApp all-flash FlashRay system was introduced in 2013, but only shipped in single-node configurations and has been discontinued. Did FlashRay's problems drive NetApp's SolidFire acquisition?

Bercovici: There was some obvious confusion because of the timing of the announcement. We announced our intention to acquire SolidFire on the same day we announced the retirement of the FlashRay product. We came to realize that, with NetApp all-flash FAS, we already had a product with market-leading performance that has been validated by IDC market share [statistics]. We leapfrogged almost every other vendor to be No. 2. From a storage perspective, there was nothing functionally wrong with FlashRay.

On the other hand, acquiring SolidFire is recognition of the fact that Global 2000 enterprises are digitizing most of their products and services very rapidly. The SolidFire buyer wants storage as a service that is elastic and highly available, easy to consume and manage performance, and easy to pay for. If I pay for a certain IOPS performance, I'm guaranteed to get it. The ability to consistently tune storage and maintain the desired QoS is built into the SolidFire automated software layer... which means many customers for the first time can establish storage as a service without needing [additional] IT staff. The driver for NetApp to purchase SolidFire is our ability to enter strategic new markets, as opposed to selling just another flash product.

Will you combine engineering and technologies from SolidFire with the NetApp all-flash FAS system?

Bercovici: If you know NetApp history, you remember the Spinnaker Networks fiasco. It took us about 10 years to integrate the Spinnaker product [into Clustered ONTAP]. Unlike prior acquisitions, we've maintained the brand and website for SolidFire. We kept SolidFire's market strategy and sales team, but we partner with the NetApp general sales team for help and advice on some of the more sophisticated SolidFire opportunities.

From an engineering perspective, I can't disclose much on specifics, but the engineering teams are different. We have a core ONTAP engineering team, a core storage engineering team for FAS arrays, a core EFF engineering team, and now we've added a core and distinct SolidFire engineering team.

How far along is NetApp's integration of SolidFire technology in Data Fabric? 

Bercovici: The NetApp OnCommand Insight management software supported SolidFire arrays within a week after we closed. And we will add other unifying elements for data movement for Amazon S3 support and SnapMirror across every virtual controller in the Data Fabric portfolio, including SolidFire arrays.

One of the things implicit in Data Fabric is we no longer have appliance-only deployment models. We allow customers to choose software-only or even cloud-only deployments of our various storage controllers. Customers that need hybrid storage may still choose to deploy an ONTAP-based solution in software, in the cloud, or as an appliance on prem. Customers that have next-generation workloads or need high levels of multitenancy may choose to deploy SolidFire, either as software-only or, more prominently, as an appliance model.

What is next on NetApp's product roadmap for SolidFire?

Bercovici: We will use the breadth of the NetApp all-flash portfolio to our advantage. The use cases will determine which part of the Data Fabric our sales team will lead with. Our ONTAP AFF product gives you the flexibility to use 15 TB SSDs if you want extremely dense flash storage. For customers that need webscale or a shared-nothing storage layer, we'll lead with SolidFire.

Next Steps

New all-flash options become available

All-flash storage edging out hybrids

Comparing all-flash vendors in the market

Dig Deeper on All-flash arrays