Something was missing this week when NetApp launched several new products, including an enterprise array, storage virtualization software and a clustered storage operating system. The missing piece was FlashRay, NetApp Inc.'s long-awaited all-flash storage array.
Mark Welke, NetApp senior director of product marketing, said FlashRay is in internal testing and will be released this year. So it's not late by NetApp's timetable. When the vendor first revealed details about FlashRay a year ago, it would get no more specific on a release data than to say it would launch in 2014.
Flash is not disk, and if you treat flash as disk, it's not going to be as good.
It is late when you look at the market, though. All of NetApp's large competitors have all-flash and are pushing it hard. EMC claims its XtremIO array is now the No. 1 selling all-flash system and it has only been out for a few months. And a bunch of well-funded startups are out there selling only all-flash storage and giving customers plenty of options if they want flash now.
NetApp does have an all-flash system as part of its E-Series, but the EF550 is built for performance only and lacks storage and data management features most enterprise customers require before shelling out for flash.
FlashRay is the last to market because NetApp designed it from the ground up instead of buying a flash startup (as EMC and IBM did) or put flash into an existing platform (the approach taken by Hitachi Data Systems, Hewlett-Packard and Dell). NetApp's goal is to come up with a different operating system than Data OnTap that is used for FAS storage, while keeping all the storage and data management capabilities on OnTap.
Maybe NetApp's approach will prove best, but it is playing catch up in a hot market.
Russ Fellows, a senior partner at Boulder, Colo.-based analyst firm Evaluator Group, said NetApp and their competitors are still trying to come up with all-flash systems that give customers enterprise features they are used to.
"Dave Hitz [NetApp founder and current executive vice president] once said, 'If customers want to buy something, don't argue with them,'" Fellows said. "When enterprise systems have all-flash capabilities and enterprise features, it will be a big enhancement for customers."
Dan Timko, CTO of Atlanta-based cloud provider Cirrity LLC, is one NetApp customer who wants FlashRay. Despite the wait, he endorses NetApp's approach. But not all NetApp customers are as patient.
"I have my eye on FlashRay," Timko said. "The whole FlashRay concept of building it from scratch instead of trying to wrap it under NetApp's legacy products built for disk was the right move. They came up with a new product set with a skunkworks instead of trying to wrap it up under Data OnTap. That was the right way -- to think about it as a whole different model. Flash is not disk, and if you treat flash as disk, it's not going to be as good."
NetApp executives point out that the vendor isn't ignoring flash while waiting for FlashRay. Along with its EF550 all-flash array, it sells Flash Pools (combining solid-state drives and spinning disk) and Flash Cache (PCIe cards) for FAS systems, and Flash Accel software to manage server-based flash.
Welke said most NetApp customers now buy FAS arrays in hybrid configurations with a little bit of flash. He said 90% of NetApp's high-end FAS arrays and about 50% of its midrange arrays are sold as hybrids. Overall, he said 60% of FAS storage initially goes out as hybrid with Flash Pools, Flash Cache or Flash Accel.
But for all of its flash, NetApp is still missing one big piece and that will remain missing until FlashRay ships.