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NetApp acquisition to improve NAS scalability

NetApp has plans to overcome its scalability issues by acquiring NAS startup Spinnaker Networks. Spinnaker's global file system will play a key role in NetApp's plans for grid computing.

Network Appliance Inc., a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company that has made its living in the NAS world, has taken a step toward grid computing by signing a deal to acquire Spinnaker Networks Inc., a privately held company based in Pittsburgh, for approximately $300 million.

Spinnaker specializes in scalable system architectures, distributed file systems, clustering technologies and virtualization. Network Appliance (NetApp) plans to acquire Spinnaker for its software in an effort to advance its own efforts in the grid computing market. Grid computing is the practice of applying many computer systems to a single task at the same time.

NetApp co-founder Dave Hitz said that buying Spinnaker is all about applying the concept of grid computing to the commercial world. "There are a lot of factors driving grid computing," he said. "[Processing power] is getting cheaper. Networks are getting faster. But the question has been how do you build a storage back end to this stuff? That's exactly what Spinnaker has been focused on."

According to Hitz, the most important thing that Spinnaker's technology brings to the table is its ability to scale its global file system and global management capabilities to gigantic capacity points.

Spinnaker's distributed architecture lets users tie multiple NAS servers together, which creates a large, scalable server that can be managed as a single storage resource through one interface.

Ron Bianchini, Spinnaker's president and CEO, said his company's design is different than NetApp's. "When you put a bunch of NetApp boxes together, you end up with multiple servers with independent pieces of the data. This means a bunch of independent server images to manage," he said. "If you have three or four Spinnaker servers, you have one linearly scaling server to manage."

Evaluator Group analyst Randy Kerns said that an influx of startup companies are developing high-scaling NAS systems, a market that NetApp hasn't addressed very well.

"Prior to this acquisition, NetApp really couldn't scale very large without replicating NAS devices and introducing all [of] the load-balancing and individual management issues that brings," Kerns said. "With the acquisition of Spinnaker, NetApp now has the ability to scale to incredible capacities with a single image."

NetApp said the acquisition will accelerate the company's plans for a so-called Storage Grid Architecture. The storage grids are expected to offer a unified view and management of corporate data along with scalable capacity, performance, availability, quality of service and connection protocols on demand. The grids will also optimize performance for remote data access in distributed computing environments.

Enterprise Storage Group founder and senior analyst Steve Duplessie said Spinnaker has been one of the next-generation NAS vendors to watch. "NetApp got a ton of technology, in essence for free," Duplessie said. "Just like EMC used overvalued stock to buy Documentum, NetApp bagged Spinnaker in the same way."

He added that Spinnaker will give NetApp a technology lead in the high-end storage market and, with its market muscle, NetApp can "really widen the gap."

NetApp has not announced details of any new products based on the acquisition, but NetApp CEO Dan Warmenhoven sees integration proceeding gradually. The first step will be to merge each company's underlying hardware platform, which according to Warmenhoven has a lot of commonalities. The next step will be to integrate each company's file systems, which Warmenhoven expects will happen gradually, over the next couple of years. "There won't be a big bang, more of a continual flow," Warmenhoven said.

Hitz said the nuts and bolts of how the technology will be integrated into NetApp's product line will come after the acquisition is finalized. NetApp expects to close the deal by January 2004.

NetApp plans to operate Spinnaker as an engineering and development site in Pittsburgh, adding to existing NetApp research and development teams in Massachusetts, North Carolina and California, and at the company's Bangalore Technology Center in India.

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Kevin Komiega, News Editor.

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