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NetApp HCI system brings vendor belatedly into hyper-convergence

NetApp's HCI incorporates flash hardware and quality of service from SolidFire, which NetApp acquired in 2016. Traditional NetApp software also runs on the HCI appliance.

NetApp will finally join the hyper-converged market with a system that combines SolidFire flash storage, NetApp...

software and third-party servers in one chassis.

The company today previewed its enterprise-level NetApp HCI system, which targets quality-of-service (QoS) issues that typically plague hyper-converged infrastructures running multiple workloads. NetApp HCI won't be available until the fourth quarter of 2017, but the company provided full specs and a list of the software that will go into the product.

NetApp today also upgraded the ONTAP software for its traditional FAS arrays and instituted a consumption pricing model.

"NetApp is really known as the ONTAP company or the NAS company, and it's so much more than that," said Brett Roscoe, vice president of product and solutions marketing at NetApp, based in Sunnyvale, Calif. "We want to change the perception of NetApp from being a traditional storage company to what we really want to be known for, which is a cloud, SaaS [software-as-a-service] software company. We want to change our mantra from storage to data."

NetApp has been slow to embrace new storage technologies. It entered the all-flash market long after all of its major rivals before finding success with its All-Flash FAS arrays that launched in 2015. Now, the vendor will look to make up ground in hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) after giving a big head start to rivals Nutanix, Dell EMC, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Cisco and others. NetApp had a hyper-converged false start two years ago, when it said it would deliver an HCI product built around VMware's ill-fated EVO:Rail program, but NetApp never shipped that product.

Arun Taneja, president of the Taneja Group IT consultant firm in Hopkinton, Mass., said the HCI product is crucial for NetApp because it will stop the "bleeding within its own accounts."

"NetApp is uniquely late to market with HCI -- almost criminally late," Taneja said. "It's a critical product for them not because it's a barnburner, but because it will stem the loss from their own accounts. Customers have been asking for this. The power of hyper-converged is so strong that customers had no choice but to look somewhere else."

NetApp HCI uses SolidFire technology to tackle QoS

NetApp HCI combines its SolidFire all-flash storage and several other NetApp storage technologies, along with compute from an unidentified partner. The HCI appliance will be sold in 2U rackmount chassis with four nodes. A minimum configuration requires two chassis.

Each two-chassis configuration will include at least four storage nodes and two compute nodes, with two open bays for expansion. Open bays allow for customers to scale storage or compute independently.

The storage and compute nodes will come in small, medium and large sizes.

Storage nodes include 2.9 TB (small), 5.8 TB (medium) and 11.4 TB (large) of raw capacity. Compute nodes options are 16 cores and 256 GB of memory (small), 24 cores and 512 GB of memory (medium) and 36 cores and 768 GB of memory (large).

Storage and compute nodes of any size can be mixed into a chassis. Each node measures 1U. NetApp HCI supports VMware ESXi hypervisors and vCenter.

SolidFire Element OS for scale-out block storage and SolidFire's VMware vCenter plug-in are included. Other software includes NetApp Data Fabric, ONTAP file services and NetApp SnapMirror, SnapCenter, AltaVault and StorageGRID data protection.

Roscoe said 64 nodes is the maximum supported cluster for NetApp HCI.

Taneja said NetApp's HCI product addresses one of several warts that limit the expansion of HCI: the need for quality of service. SolidFire arrays -- originally developed for cloud storage providers -- had QoS built in from the start.

QoS can make it more efficient to run multiple applications on the same box, which helps HCI evolve from a technology for virtual desktop infrastructure or remote offices into an enterprise platform.

Pivot3, an early but still small HCI player, has incorporated QoS through an acquisition of NexGen Storage, but most HCI products have rudimentary or no QoS.

"NetApp is claiming to have QoS," Taneja said. "I do know that was one of the strong characteristics of the SolidFire technology. It was designed for the service provider market. If they brought in that QoS and rolled it into the product, I would say that is a good differentiating feature for them coming out from Day 1. It's very hard technology to do well."

NetApp acquired flash storage startup SolidFire in February 2016 for $870 million.

NetApp HCI system
NetApp's HCI system

Taneja said HCI customers have run into QoS issues in mixed-load environments, as they've tried to scale their HCI systems.

"Hyper-converged is really good for certain things," he said. "But there are two or three warts with hyper-converged, and one is, 'Can I truly run a multiple set of workloads that are extreme with different I/O profiles? Can I have five I/O-hungry applications at the same time and not have a disaster happen? What assurance do I have that an application won't smash another application?'

"Right now, I can say that Pivot3 has a head start on QoS. Nutanix is working feverishly to put QoS into its portfolio."

A NetApp spokesperson said pricing for NetApp HCI will be set around the time it becomes generally available.

ONTAP adds cloud tiering, cloud pricing model

NetApp also added a FabricPool feature for tiering inactive data to the cloud to its ONTAP software for its flagship FAS arrays. ONTAP's data deduplication has also been enhanced to work across aggregated volumes.

The vendor is also expanding its ONTAP Select software-defined storage with a two-node, high-availability configuration for remote and branch offices and broader support for VMware vSphere licenses.

NetApp's new NetApp OnDemand licensing model allows customers to lease their NetApp infrastructure and pay a monthly subscription based on capacity used and the type of storage media in their arrays. Subscription options include Value (hard disk drives), Performance (hybrid disk and flash arrays) and Extreme (all-flash) tiers. There is no minimum contract length for OnDemand licensing.

Next Steps

Can you compare SDS and HCI?

NetApp Data Fabric adds SaaS

NetApp hyper-converged infrastructure product slated for 2017 release

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How will NetApp HCI stack up against the hyper-converged products already on the market?
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How is this HCI? It's just servers on top of a 4-node solidfire array. There's no "Hyper" in this, it's just like Converged Infrastructure a la FlexPod and vBlock. What makes this HCI?
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How does this solution protect data? Is it going to do mirroring or will it be erasure coding capable?
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This is not HCI. 

This is separate compute and storage (SolidFire AllFlash) nodes in a common chassis. HCI would have both types of ressources in every node (> Nutanix).
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