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NetApp - just like perfection?

Behind the scenes in storage Disneyland

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Talking to NetApp about storage is like entering a holiday village where everything is well-ordered, well-run, efficient and clear-cut. The world outside can be messy and confusing, but inside the holiday village gates the lawns are mowed, the pavements clean, everything is signposted clearly and it's all consistent. Why would you ever want to leave?

It's a kind of Disney World approach which looks weird from outside but which is perfectly logical inside. In fact the insiders think outside is weird - why on earth would you want all those different pieces of incompatible storage kit? Those EMC Clariions, DMX, Celerras, Centeras, whatever.

Just say no to all that and choose NetApp storage. It can be whatever you want it to be. Stick a NAS skin on it, an iSCSI block-access skin, a Fibre Channel access skin, have it function as a layer two storage NearStore. Have your primary storage de-duplicate with ASIS while every other supplier restricts de-dupe to secondary storage. Have it replicate, snapshot, thin-provision. Have it virtualise other suppliers' storage in its V-Series form. It's all NetApp storage arrays or controllers and it's all running ONTAP, NetApp's operating system with date stored using WAFL. Sounds like WAFFLE; how American is that?

Even NetApp's employees adore it. The firm has just been voted the best place in the US to work by Fortune magazine which ranked US companies. What's not to love?

But look a little closer and gaps appear. ONTAP comes in two versions; 7G, the mainstream version, and GX, the clustered version. Then the VTL (Virtual Tape Library) product doesn't run ONTAP at all.

Talk to Dan Warmenhoven, NetApp's CEO, and clarity returns, the gaps are explained: "We don't think every single function can be delivered with ONTAP... I don't think they (VTL and ONTAP range) should be integrated fully." He can't see the business sense as "a VTL is virtual tape". It stores tape-reel data and is not a standard file system.

There'll be some integration but not that much. "I think you'll see more of a shared code space (with) FCoE and management interfaces shared between them."

Earthshaking ONTAP 8

What about 7G and GX? They are coming together in ONTAP 8. GX is based on code acquired with Spinnaker in 2003, and the idea is to cluster multiple NetApp systems together. Combining n-way clustering with NetApp's mainstream technology and its replication and snapshot technology and existing high-availability clustered pairs has not been easy.

Warmenhoven said: "It's been a hard challenge but we'll be ready to ship in about six months from now. It's the culmination of five years of very complicated engineering, a lot harder than we anticipated when we acquired Spinnaker."

"I think it will be earth-shaking. It will be as innovative in the storage world as DNS was. Today you have to know what physical device data is on, the LUN, the system. If you move data about you have to change all the apps that point to it."

DNS, the Domain Name System, translates website names into actual IP addresses, the dotted quads, four bytes in a sequence such as 172.128.248.36, which, in IPV4 defines the actual IP address for a website. This means website names can stay the same even though its host computer can move, and we website users don't have to know or care where a website is physically located.

It's different with storage. On your PC you have to go find a file on the C: drive or another one. If you don't know the device and directory you're in a bit of a bind. On a storage area network you have to know the volume or LUN details and accessing stored data on a host or across a network generally means you have to know pretty much which physical device it's on. That goes away with ONTAP 8.

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