BACKGROUND IMAGE: iSTOCK/GETTY IMAGES
NetApp FlexPod is a reference architecture for server, storage and networking components that are pretested and validated to work together as an integrated infrastructure stack. The stack consists of products from multiple vendors and is sold by storage vendor NetApp Inc. or its value-added resellers (VARs) and systems integrators.
A FlexPod stack includes NetApp FAS storage, the Cisco Systems Inc. Unified Computing System (UCS) with Cisco Nexus switches, and either VMware Inc. or Microsoft Corp. hypervisor technology. NetApp added SolidFire to its FlexPod lineup in mid-2017 with FlexPod SF, which runs SolidFire's Element operating system (OS) on Cisco servers.
Cisco UCS allows IT administrators to establish server configurations that abstract from the underlying hardware. The operating system for the Nexus switches, NX-OS, also allows the switches to have configurations abstracted from the switch hardware.
NetApp FlexPod is based on reference standards from both Cisco and NetApp, which worked together to publish Cisco Validated Designs and NetApp Validated Architectures for FlexPod.
The two vendors have also published design and deployment guides based on these sets of standards. For example, the NetApp website has a design guide and the "FlexPod Datacenter with VMware vSphere 6.5, NetApp AFF A-Series and Fibre Channel" deployment guide, among many others.
NetApp FlexPod is available in several versions.
- FlexPod Datacenter for enterprise applications and virtualization in large enterprises.
- FlexPod SF to support multiple applications, clients and tenants with the storage capacity each one needs.
- FlexPod Express for small and medium-sized enterprises and branch offices.
- FlexPod Select for specialized, data-intensive workloads like big data and analytics.
- FlexPod Modular Infrastructure (FMI) for a plug-and-play pre-racked system based on baseline versions of the various models.
FlexPod systems are assembled from approved components based on one of the many design guides.
The five different versions have their own standard components, however. For example, while the Datacenter and Select versions use Cisco Nexus 9000 switches, the smaller Express version uses the Nexus 3000 series switches and Cisco UCS Mini for a smaller form factor.
FlexPod SF is unique in that it uses the SolidFire Element OS running on Cisco rack servers for storage instead of the NetApp all-flash FAS arrays.
FlexPod pros and cons
One advantage cited for NetApp FlexPod and similar converged infrastructure products is they can scale resources, such as compute and storage, independently. That is different from hyper-converged systems that require customers to scale all the resources together.
However, if an IT department uses the same design guides for its FlexPod units, it can scale out all the components like a hyper-converged infrastructure if that suits the user.
A possible disadvantage with all the NetApp FlexPod versions -- except for FlexPod SF -- is that the user is buying hardware and software from only Cisco and NetApp. That means there is no one throat to choke or support system to rely on, particularly if the IT administrator uses a DIY approach and does not buy from one of the many VARs that assemble and sell FlexPod systems. With FlexPod SF, all the hardware is Cisco hardware, including the storage component.
Dell EMC's VxBlock Systems, a competing product, is shipped as a preconfigured tool that is also based on Cisco UCS servers and network switches. Prior to February 2018, each VxBlock System had its own number designation based on whether it used Dell EMC Unity, VMAX or XtremIO storage arrays. With the introduction of VxBlock System 1000, any of those storage systems can be used.
Other converged infrastructure systems include VersaStack and FlashStack. VersaStack includes Cisco UCS servers with IBM Storwize storage. FlashStack combines Cisco UCS with Pure Storage all-flash arrays.