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No more WAFL waffle: NetApp changes tactics

From unified to diversified storage

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Comment: It's the end of one-size-fits-all WAFL waffle: NetApp HQ at Sunnyvale enters a new era today, in which it sells diversified storage systems. WAFL is no longer the defining factor.

WAFL (Write Anywhere File Layout) has been synonymous with NetApp's success as progressively more and more functionality has been added onto it. NetApp's FAS arrays run ONTAP, the NetApp O/S which has WAFL at its heart, and NetApp's ONTAP arrays have been positioned by NetApp as "the" unified storage solution.

You need filer access? ONTAP. iSCSI SAN? ONTAP. Fibre Channel SAN? ONTAP. RAID 6? ONTAP. Snapshots, replication, cloning, deduplication, flash caching? ONTAP. Storing files for virtualised servers? ONTAP.

ONTAP software expanded sideways across the storage stack and upwards as well. One size fits all under a unified software functionality and management scheme, for which NetApp charged big bucks, and for which customers were happy to pay – witness NetApp's recent string of superlative quarterly results.

The one fly in this ointment was that it took an age for external technology to be integrated, with the most outrageous example being the Spinnaker clustering scheme. Even now, years after the technology was acquired, there are still two versions of ONTAP, and NetApp's scale-out file storage capabilities are lacking in comparison to EMC's Isilon, DataDirect Networks, and HP's Ibrix.

It is even rumoured that there are fewer than a hundred actual ONTAP GX clusters in existence.

Unified becomes diversified

NetApp recently bought object and grid storage company ByCast and observers settled themselves down for another painful integration saga – or would NetApp not integrate the ByCast technology and run it as a separate product line?

Now here it has bought Engenio with its distinctly different storage array technology from NetApp's FAS boxes. Doesn't this utterly destroy NetApp's unified storage message?

NetApp co-founder and EVP Dave Hitz directly addressed this issue in his blog and says he doesn't think NetApp will suffer from the same issues as EMC "with its fragmented product line". That is because EMC has overlapping and differently functioning and managed features in its product lines, Hitz says, like multiple kinds of deduplication.

In NetApp, ONTAP has all such features while Engenio's arrays are like stripped down, high performance storage engines – very simple ones with few features. Feature overlap is "not an issue for NetApp. If you want the advanced data management features, go with ONTAP which has them all," says Hitz.

He admits he's over-simplifying, but says "NetApp and Engenio have very different design points optimised for different workloads and market segments." For customers that need big bandwidth without fancy features, Engenio is perfect.

Over time he expects ONTAP to be used more as a virtual machine (VM); it already exists as a VM for Fujitsu use, and the Engenio product could be a great match for that.

In other words, what was NetApp's universal unified storage message is being confined to the ONTAP FAS world and is unaffected by Engenio. The once universal unified storage message is no more... with Hitz now asserting that it doesn't matter.

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