NetApp flash plans include all-flash array for 2013

NetApp flash plans include an all-flash array in 2013, according to strong hints from its CTO Jay Kidd.

NetApp plans to join the all-flash array market in 2013, according to its CTO Jay Kidd.

In an interview with SearchSolidStateStorage.com, Kidd this week said 2013 will be a "milestone year" for all-flash storage, and NetApp is preparing to enter the market.

"I think a broadening of the use case for all-flash arrays will accelerate in 2013, particularly as the bigger players will jump into the all-flash market in a bigger way," Kidd said.

When asked if NetApp would be one of those players jumping into all-flash, Kidd said, "That's a good possibility. We see a clear use case for this technology with our customers, and we have a lot of intellectual property and expertise we can bring to solve problems here."

NetApp can either build or buy an all-flash product, Kidd said. There are several startups already selling all-flash storage, including Nimbus Data, Violin Memory, Whiptail, Pure Storage, Kaminario, Skyera, Tegile Systems and SolidFire. NetApp this week said it would sell senior notes of its stock, listing an acquisition as a possible use for the money it would raise. But industry sources claimed NetApp has also been working on its own all-flash array technology, internally called Mars Project.

In 2012, EMC acquired all-flash stealth startup XtremeIO for $430 million, and IBM bought Texas Memory Systems, which was already shipping a series of all-flash systems. Hewlett-Packard has offered all-flash versions of its 3PAR StoreServ and StoreVirtual (LeftHand) systems, and Hitachi Data Systems said it will build all-flash arrays based on its in-house technology.

Kidd isn't tipping NetApp's flash hand yet, as to whether it will build or buy.

"We can do either," he said. "We have a number of options for [buying] products, and we definitely have the intellectual property to do it in-house. A lot of companies are out there with all-flash arrays, but what we hear from customers is, 'I like the technology. The IOPS level and latency are great, but so many of these products are immature for enterprise storage from support and availability standpoints.'

"This is where bigger companies, including NetApp, will raise the bar in what customers can expect from all-flash products in 2013."

He said performance alone won't be the ultimate measure of success for all-flash systems. They must also have storage management and data protection features customers are used to for enterprise storage. That suggests the NetApp flash array strategy will be similar to EMC's, and it will acquire an all-flash startup and integrate its set of software features into the product. That can take time, though; EMC is not expected to ship its all-flash array until around mid-year 2013, maybe more than a year after the XtremeIO acquisition.

NetApp has insisted the best way to use flash is as a cache rather than a tier alongside hard drives in storage arrays. It has resisted the notion of using solid-state drives (SSDs) as a tier in storage arrays as a hybrid architecture along with traditional disk drives, which other major storage vendors have embraced. NetApp first incorporated flash in its Flash Cache product, which is a PCIe card in the storage controller that handles read-intensive workloads. Last year, it added Flash Pools that cache volumes combining SSDs and hard drives, and Flash Accel server-side caching software.

But Kidd said a NetApp flash array would not be a change in strategy.

"We've put a lot of flash into our NetApp arrays to accelerate disk," he said. "We've shipped about 22 petabytes of flash, so we certainly know the properties of flash, how it behaves as a storage layer, how it can accelerate disk, and what it can do on a standalone basis. I wouldn't call it a departure for us, but an all-flash array will play a little different role than what a combined flash and disk product would. And we'll sell both."

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