NetApp flash strategy unveiled, including FlashRay all-SSD system

NetApp flash strategy includes a FlashRay all-SSD system built from the ground up and another based on its E-Series platform.

NetApp today revealed two pieces of news about its all-flash storage array strategy. The vendor is designing one all-flash system from the ground up that won't be available until 2014, and it has another system as part of its E-Series storage platform available now.

FlashRay is due to enter beta around mid-2013 and become generally available next year. The platform will use a new operating system, marking NetApp's first internally developed storage that doesn't include the Data OnTap OS.

The other NetApp flash array, the EF540, is based on the E5400 high-performance storage array and SANtricity operating system. NetApp acquired SANtricity and the E-Series storage from LSI in 2011.

NetApp Chief Technology Officer Jay Kidd said in December that the vendor would launch an all-flash array, but would not disclose if NetApp would design its own or acquire one of the many startups already selling flash SANs. NetApp's main competitor, EMC, is preparing to launch an all-flash array later this year. That system, code-named Project X, is built on technology EMC acquired from startup XtremIO last year.

Mark Welke, NetApp's senior director of product marketing, said FlashRay is the product name, not a code name. "We wanted to prove our innovative spirit and build something from the ground up instead of going out and buying an existing technology," he said.

Mohit Bhatnagar, NetApp's senior director of product operations for its flash products, said FlashRay will be a scale-out system that auto-balances data throughout a cluster. It will be multi-protocol storage with data protection and efficiency features, such as deduplication optimized for flash. Customers will be able to replicate between FlashRay systems or between FlashRay and FAS Series storage.

NetApp is offering no product specs yet for FlashRay, but Bhatnagar said it will use multi-level cell (MLC) flash.

While NetApp pre-announced FlashRay, it retroactively launched the EF540. The vendor sold around 100 of the E-Series all-flash arrays during limited release over the last few months. NetApp claims the EF540 can deliver more than 300,000 IOPS with sub-millisecond latency. It supports 6 GBps bandwidth, and the 2U system holds either 12 or 24 800-GB SSD MLC drives for 9.6 TB or 19.2 TB of capacity.

Bhatnagar said NetApp did not optimize the E-Series controller to work with flash. But he said the system includes enterprise management features lacking in some early all-flash arrays from competitors.

The EF540 uses such SANtricity features as snapshot copies and asynchronous and synchronous replication to other E-Series systems. It also has redundant components and auto failover for high availability, and proactively tracks SSD wear life. "We did not go out and do an overhaul of the E-Series for flash," Bhatnagar said. "That controller was designed for high performance from the get-go, so the robustness was there."

E-Series storage is sold as NetApp-branded systems and through OEM partners such as IBM. No OEM partners are selling the EF540 yet.

NetApp's Welke said he sees a market for both NetApp flash arrays after FlashRay starts shipping. He said E-Series customers will likely stick with that platform for flash while FAS customers will go with FlashRay. "We believe no one size fits all," he said. "We want to meet different workloads and different customer needs."

NetApp claims it has shipped more than 20,000 systems with some type of flash for a total of more than 36 PB. NetApp introduced a Flash Cache read-caching device for its FAS arrays in 2009, began offering SSDs on FAS in 2010 and on E-Series in 2011, and added Flash Pools read/writing caching last year. It also launched Flash Accel server-side caching software in 2012 that improves performance on PCIe solid-state cards.

During NetApp's Feb. 13 earnings call, CEO Tom Georgens said 19% of the high-end FAS6000 arrays that shipped last quarter were hybrid arrays with Flash Pools. "You can expect NetApp to be much more aggressive on the all-flash array front," he said.

All-flash array competition

Arun Taneja, consulting analyst at the Taneja Group, said NetApp likely made today's announcement to assure its customers it will enter a market that already has at least a half-dozen startups shipping systems. But he pointed out that few large vendors have all-flash systems available. "NetApp obviously recognizes that it's said almost nothing about shipping an all-flash array," he said. "But how many big companies have all-flash yet? The only people really shipping are small guys, except for IBM."

IBM is selling all-flash systems it acquired from Texas Memory Systems last year. EMC is still making Project X ready for the enterprise, while Hewlett-Packard is selling all-flash versions of its 3PAR StoreServ SAN and Hitachi Data Systems is preparing flash systems based on internal technology.

Meanwhile, the list of startups selling all-flash arrays includes Kaminario, Nimbus Data, Pure Storage, Skyera, Tegile Systems, Violin Memory and Whiptail.

Perhaps the biggest problem for NetApp will be that EMC's all-flash system could have a head start of six months or more. Welke said the flash storage winner won't necessarily be the first to market, however. "We think all-flash array adoption is just starting," he said. "Enterprises will need world-class file and volume management, and building that is not trivial."

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