New products have been announced by NetApp. A previously un-publicised aspect of the IBM relationship has come to light. Knockout financial results have been reported. Customers are buying its products more and more. Should mid-tier and larger enterprise customers add NetApp to their storage supplier shortlist?

Background
NetApp has provided filers, network-attached storage (NAS) boxes that now jointly dominate customer purchases with EMC. NetApp now provides both Fibre Channel (FC) and IP SAN arrays. It is a truism to say that NetApp is coming into the mid-tier enterprise market from below while EMC is coming into it from above. IDC has released, in March this year, illuminating market data about the two companies' positions.

In the overall NAS, FC and IP SAN market NetApp has an 8.5 percent revenue share and a 16.7 percent petabyte share. EMC's numbers are 28.8 percent and 26.1 percent respctively. In the NAS market NetApp has a 36.9 percent revenue share and a 42.9 percent installed petabyte share. EMC lags slightly here with a 33.8 percent revenue share and a much smaller 25.7 percent petabyte share. NetApp sells more and smaller NAS boxes than EMC.

In the iSCSI (IP SAN) market NetApp has a 43 percent revenue share and a 50 percent installed terabyte share while EMC has a 26.5 percent revenue share and a 15.8 percent terabyte share.

NetApp has its own operating system called Data ONTAP which runs across its range providing a homogenous environment. It has added storage virtualisation to this range with its V-Series and this also supports multi-vendor virtualisation, bringing NetApp into the centre of the virtualisation race alongside EMC, Hitachi Data Systems, Sun and IBM.

Two strong partners; Dell and IBM
EMC has a strong and growing relationship with Dell through which low end Clariion arrays, the AX100 range, are sold. NetApp has a new reseller deal with IBM which has potential for increasing sales throughout the enterprise space. Although the joint IBM and NetApp publicity for the deal promoted the idea that IBM will resell all of NetApp's NAS kit, NetApp believes IBM will resell its SAN kit as well.

Tim Pitcher, NetApp VP for strategy and business development, says: "IBM is really excited about this (virtualisation) technology. They'll be taking the V-Series as well. They'll be taking the whole product set."

Why?

"The big benefit we bring is a seamless storage architecture, running right across our product range. We can extend it through the V-Series to include other vendors. The NetApp single architecture (will be) living within IBMs product range. I've no doubt it will spread within IBM's product range."

That's pretty unequivocal.

Note that NetApp, like HDS and Sun, believes the place for virtualisation is in the front of the disk array. EMC believes it should be in the storage fabric, running on intelligent switches and directors or devices attached to them. (For EMC to virtualise the storage behind NAS implies that EMC's NAS head has to talk to storage though EMC's Invista software running in the fabric by the way.)

IBM's SAN Volume Controller (SVC) is also located in the fabric. For NetApp's virtualisation products to spread with the IBM Product range there needs to be an accommodation within IBM about these two virtualisation location ideas. Also about how a customer running SVC, and therre are 1,000 of them, could embrace an IBM-supplied NetApp V-Series virtualisation product.

New products
The new NetApp products should strengthen its appeal across its customer base. Stuart Gilks, NetApp's SE director in Europe, says, for example, that with the FAS 940: "We've increased the shelf count and thus the number of drives and so increased capacity substantially. We've doubled overall system performance."

With the FAS3000 line NetApp has doubled the price/performance. Pitcher reckons NetApp has more than twice the price/performance of comparable EMC CX500 arrays with the FAS3020.

The new NetApp arrays can have both FC and SATA drives included.

NetApp is bring out bigger and faster boxes. Pitcher says that the mid-range is where the growth is. And iSCSI is a growth driver because it offers similar storage capabilities to Fibre Channel at much less cost. According to Pitcherr: "FC prices will not fall enough to stop IP SANs - unless they give it away."

For NetApp he says: "iSCSI is exploding. DAS is falling away rapidly. FC SAN is growing, NAS is growing a little faster but the IP SAN market is exploding."

Where is NetApp going?
But bringing out bigger and better boxes for NAS and FC/IP SAN applications isn't the main event. It's necessary, but the main event, the direction NetApp is pursuing, is: "A storage environment, a grid, which provides a global single storage environment that manages provisioning and compliance in a single global namespace. This is the holy grail; this is what everyone will want to get to."

In other words a Data ONTAP-mediated storage environment. Virtualisation is a key aspect of this, an underlying, an under-pinning technology. Pitcher says: "For other vendors the message is do you want to provide the virtualisation or be virtualised?"

Where will the storage management and data protection software come from? Pitcher says that NetApp will continue to partner with other suppliers with, for example, IXOS and Veritas in the data protection and compliance space. There is a built-in tension here, in our view, because NetApp technology provides RAID, mirroring and so forth. Backup and archiving uses tape-based software and ideas from partners. We're seeing a middle area where disk-based backup is growing and tape-based backup is reversing out of the new nearline storage space.

Several vendors, such as Sepaton, are promoting tape-less backup ideas. Others, like Revivio, are promoting continuous data protection to disk. NetApp has to keep on top of these trends and has to provide disk-based protection facilities as they develop. Pitcher says continuous data protection efforts are ongoing but there's nothing to announce. The boundary where storage array vendor-provided data protection stops and partner-provided data protection starts is a moving one.

And so?
NetApp believes it is very well-placed. However, as a consequence of having its own under-pinning operating environment it has an inability to bring in point-products that are not integrated into Data ONTAP. EMC is not in the same position. It has bought much technology and sells it without integrating products all together through an underlying software layer.

It may be that EMC, and other NetApp competitors, can bring new technology to market faster. NetApp would counter that, saying its products are far better integrated and that, as we move to quasi storage utilities based on grids, its unifying architecture will be a strength.

Hmmm. Techworld thinks that much hangs on IBM. That company represents a road straight into the heart of enterprises. NetApp doesn't need Dell as much as EMC needed it. It already had access to the SME market. But it really does need a channel to the enterprise to arrive there in time to realise its ambitions and not find EMC and others present and hard to shift.

If IBM does take on NetApp's SAN and virtualisation products then we could find NetApp having a much stronger appeal to enterprise storage buyers.

You may think there are too many potential storage utility suppliers at present, counting EMC, HDS, HP, IBM, NetApp, StorageTek and Sun as suppliers with the general enterprise 'clout' and broad storage product ranges to build on. Six is too many. Who will be at the top of the storage utility supplier tree in five years time? NetApp's product range is strong and growing. It certainly can't be dismissed.