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NetApp: Solidfire to get some Snap functionality but not NVMe

NetApp Solidfire execs talk of roadmap SnapMirror and SnapVault functionality in Solidfire, but NVMe will have to wait until customers are ready to pay for it

When NetApp bought all-flash specialist Solidfire for $870m a year ago, it gained a well-regarded set of all-flash products that successfully addressed the cloud provider and enterprise market segments.

Computer Weekly storage editor Antony Adshead spoke to Laurence James, NetApp products, alliances and solutions manager, and Martin Cooper, systems engineering director with NetApp SolidFire.

They spoke about plans to integrate Solidfire with Data Ontap data protection functionality such as SnapMirror and SnapVault, how NetApp differentiates Solidfire from its other flash products, and plans for NVMe in Solidfire arrays.

Adshead: NetApp has always made a big thing about having a common operating environment across its storage with the Data Ontap operating system. Will there be any integration between Solidfire and Ontap?

Cooper: There are no plans to integrate Solidfire into Ontap. They will be separate and discrete products in the storage portfolio.

But right now, for example, you can manage our E Series flash arrays [which have their own operating system] via Ontap. And Solidfire can connect to the [cloud-based] NetApp Data Fabric via S3.

James: In future, however, we do have roadmap plans to provide SnapMirror and SnapVault functionality in Solidfire, probably in the next 12 to 18 months.

Read more about all-flash, NVMe

Adshead: What effect has the acquisition of Solidfire had on the combined organisation’s sales efforts? In other words, how do you decide when to sell flash-equipped FAS or Solidfire to a customer?

Cooper: When we were first integrated, we made the mistake of putting all three flash products – the E Series, for straight line high performance, FAS for data-rich functionality, and Solidfire – on the same slide.

So, we ended up comparing all-flash products when Solidfire is actually built around a different model, an infrastructure you program rather than configure. That’s how the webscale datacentre operations do it, and that’s what Solidfire is all about.

Flash is obviously required for some workloads, but it’s not the reason to choose Solidfire. We entirely virtualise all capacity and performance in a cluster with the ability to define it in an API [application programming interface] layer. Solidfire is also scalable in a truly linear fashion.

Adshead: If Solidfire has such great functionality, does the FAS sales team not wish their product had it too?

James: FAS offers a richer set of protocols – such as NFS and CIFS – as well as multiprotocol operations, and is integrated to a broad set of apps and an operating environment, such as AIX, HP-UX, that Solidfire just can’t work with.

Cooper: There are clear gaps in what Solidfire can do. There has been no compromise in its design, but it’s lousy at everything else.

We need to stay honest and work out exactly what the customer problem is that we’re trying to solve.

Adshead: Will Solidfire get NVMe?

James: Yes. But not yet.

There are two things our customers are not asking for. And they are faster flash and more costly flash. We will see NVMe moving into the datacentre via multiple methods, via servers and as cache next to the CPU.

In fact, the latest FAS hybrid flash systems use NVMe for flash cache.

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The problem with the Solidfire architecture is that the drive is so far removed, logically, from a host IO operation, that NVMe drives likely won't make a lot of difference in IO performance as observed from attached hosts. It appears from observation that the Solidfire array spends a lot of time and power assembling and disassembling IO operations and generally achieves only a fraction of the performance expected from solid state drives as observed from the host.
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You could argue the same thing about any flash array which interposes a network (FC or Ethernet) to transport SCSI commands to a controller that sits between the media and the application host. That pretty much defines what a flash array is. For the next couple of years, throwing a bunch of NVMe drives into an array doesn't make a lot of sense which makes me wonder why Pure spends so much time banging on about it today. Having said that when NVMe attached SSDs get cost competitive with SAS attached SSDs and hosts all start getting RDMA capable adapters and start using NVMeF protocols it starts making more sense again. Having said that, if you really want ultimate performance, forget NVMe and start looking at NVDIMM 
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