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Hitachi hurries NAS entry with NetApp deal

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ComputerWire: IT Industry Intelligence

Hitachi Ltd is speeding its belated entry into the NAS market by signing a deal that next quarter will see it OEM gateway hardware from NAS maven Network Appliance Inc.

While the deal will give NetApp access to Hitachi's high-end customers and so further its push into the high-end, it will allow Hitachi to offer a persuasive NAS product some months ahead of the home-grown NAS technology it is already developing. It also involves more than one potential area of conflict, as the two companies have admitted.

"We think we'll get to market at this point faster with this product than with our own," said Hitachi's COO and president David Roberson. The product in question will be some form of NetApp NAS head or gateway yet to be detailed, which will allow either a Hitachi high-end Lightning or Thunder to store data at file-level as well as the SAN-style block-level which they currently handle. The device will be integrated with Hitachi's hardware via an API swap between the two companies, and customers will manage it using Hitachi software.

Some time in the second half of next year Hitachi will launch what it is calling E-NAS blades, which will also turn the company's current storage arrays into combined NAS and SAN devices. These will be unveiled sometime in the second quarter - with shipment following at an unspecified date.

Hitachi has offered NAS hardware before, but by its own admission has yet to make anything other than minimal sales of NAS gateways made by Auspex Systems Inc and sold by Hitachi in Asia, or supplied by Virginia-based Networks Storage Solutions Inc and sold in the rest of the world. Given NetApp's massive presence in the NAS market, Roberson said he believed the OEM deal "will greatly improve our credibility".

"There's nothing wrong with lining up with the big dog," as Dennis Martin, analyst at The Evaluator Group said. For the Enterprise Storage Group, analyst Tony Prigmore said: "It's a return on energy issue. The return doing this compared to the blades will be tremendous. They'll have no resistance to the packaging."

Hitachi may also be assuming that some customers may want to use a discrete gateway box to turn their Hitachi arrays into filers rather than add a blade. But it did admit yesterday that the two will compete. "In one context, the question of whether the customers will prefer the NAS blade or the NetApp filer head is a competitive challenge for us," said Roberson.

The deal will not see Hewlett Packard Co or Sun Microsystems Inc sell the NetApp gateway, even though those two companies already OEM Hitachi's Lightning array. Hitachi said the main sales target for the gateway will be Lightning owners, and that it will tread carefully when dealing with customers who bought their Lightnings from HP or Sun. "If it's an HP [or Sun] account, we may treat it differently than if it's Hitachi," he said.

Another area of competition will be between the combination of the NetApp gateway and Hitachi's mid-range Thunder array and NetApp's F940 and 960 NAS/SAN devices, which were launched only recently and are also mid-range to high-end products. Hitachi said simply: "The customer will decide."

NetApp has been here before, when it failed to overcome a conflict with a would-be partner. "We had an OEM relationship with Dell a few years back that obviously didn't get the kind of results either party had hoped for, " NetApp CEO Dan Warmerhoven said frankly. That relationship failed badly because of the collapse of an agreement about who was to target which sort of customer, NetApp said yesterday. It said it is confident it knows how to overcome the problems this time.

© ComputerWire

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