NetApp buys Solidfire but it has been a long and tortured road to all-flash

In case you missed it, the big storage vendor news during the holiday was NetApp’s acquisition of all-flash array maker SolidFire for $870 million.

The move brings to a conclusion several years of vacillation and false starts in NetApp’s stance towards flash storage and gives the company a solid all-flash presence in the market.

This is something it has arguably lacked. The history of NetApp’s relationship to flash is one that could be described as cool or cautious. Or alternatively, it could be described as confused and reactive.

We’ll look more at that below, but what the Solidfire deal gives NetApp is a well-regarded set of all-flash storage arrays.

Solidfire started out with all-flash targeted at cloud service providers and is Fibre Channel and iSCSI block storage. With cloud in mind, it provided automation and multi-tenancy with the ability for administrators to assign storage volumes with different characteristics to different customers.

More recently, Solidfire added advanced storage features such as replication and other data protection features to appeal more to the enterprise market.

Its four all-flash arrays are the SF2405, SF4805 and SF9605, that all offer 50,000 IOPS per 1U node with raw capacities of 2.4TB, 4.8TB and 9.6TB, respectively. The SF9010 also has 9.6TB raw capacity but with eight-core CPUs offers 75,000 IOPS per node.

With data reduction – data deduplication, compression and thin provisioning – effective capacity is upped by between 3x and 9x.

NetApp’s tortured journey to all-flash

So, NetApp has gained a solid offering of all-flash arrays that are suited to cloud provider and enterprise all-flash use cases.

But, its journey to this point has been interesting to say the least. Was NetApp just cautious, and hence a bit late to the all-flash market? Or has there been a history of confusion of vision and reacting slowly to the market?

Go back to the turn of the decade and NetApp was in a similar position to the other major storage vendors with regard to flash. In 2009 it offered a flash read cache with its FAS arrays and in 2010 offered flash drives with them too. In 2011 it offered them with its E-Series arrays as well.

That was the early days, but soon things got hotter in the all-flash market. In April 2012 EMC announced it would buy Israeli all-flash startup Xtremio and in August that year IBM announced it would buy solid state pioneer Texas Memory Systems.

This was when it started to look like a big six storage player needed to have all-flash arrays in its portfolio and to get that they had to buy one or build one or retro-fit spinning disk storage controllers for solid state and be clear about the performance limitations.

By late 2012 the elephant in the room for NetApp was, what would be its next move with regard to all-flash?

In Dublin in November CTO Jay Kidd told me NetApp had no plans to get into all-flash. He said the market wasn’t that big and that there were better places to put flash, such as at the server, with PCIe flash. All of which was in keeping with the NetApp attitude to flash hitherto.

Cue the deafening sound of back-pedalling, rowing back or whatever you want to call it. Within a couple of weeks the NetApp CTO’s office scheduled an interview with my US counterpart in which he went a long way to reversing the previous stance, saying it would be a milestone year for all-flash and that NetApp could buy or build an all-flash product.

Then, in early 2013, NetApp brought out its first all-flash array, albeit an E-Series box – designed for spinning disk – with flash drives fitted.

But at the same time FlashRay was unveiled – a dedicated flash environment based on NetApp’s Data Ontap operating system. Finally, it looked like NetApp would be building its flash future on in-house developed intellectual property.

By the end of 2014 the big six array makers had mostly decided on an approach to all-flash. The year before, EMC and IBM had got products they had acquired onto the market and Hitachi Data Systems (HDS) had built an all-flash module for its VSP arrays. Meanwhile, HP had brought all-flash to the market in its 3PAR arrays while Dell and Fujitsu were quite clear their approach would be to retrofit flash to spinning disk architectures, and that hybrid flash was their preferred approach.

By this time NetApp offered FAS filers as all-flash and had the E-Series too, but only a single-node selected customer beta array had emerged from the FlashRay venture with its Mar OS. Still, as we went through 2015 it looked like NetApp had settled on a three-way flash strategy – flash in FAS and E-Series plus FlashRay.

But things didn’t look good for FlashRay. By early 2015 its founder Brian Pawlowski had left NetApp and still there was no product on general release. Bear in mind this was now two years after IBM and EMC had brought all-flash, ground-up designed products to market.

Fast forward to December 2015 and NetApp announces its purchase of Solidfire and the scrapping of FlashRay.

Now, NetApp has a good offering of performance all-flash arrays that it can offer alongside the less-costly all-flash FAS and E-Series as well as the hybrid options those bring.

Better late than never, I suppose. But what NetApp to falter over flash? What lay behind the tardy decision to invest in and ultimate axing of FlashRay?

I can only suppose there was a background set of attitudes – and potentially conflicting ones – towards flash storage that hamstrung NetApp.

Early on, NetApp made it clear that all-flash was not really on the agenda for the company, with cache and server flash the preferred approaches. As we saw, by late 2012 NetApp execs downplayed flash but were clearly under pressure not to write off their potential involvement with it.

Then as the market hotted up NetApp was pulled along and FlashRay was conceived. But why so late? Why such apparent lack of commitment? Was there a background resistance to flash internally? Even in late 2014 we can still see some NetApp execs saying flash just isn’t that big a deal.

Perhaps it was a miscalculation over the likely timescale over which flash will be important to the world of storage. Perhaps there are or were different voices that competed over the nature and extent to which NetApp should be involved with flash storage.

Whatever the background reasons, at least now NetApp has a clear strategy with regard to flash, albeit two years later than its main competitors.