NetApp's FlashRay; an OS waiting for some hardware?


It’s been an interesting week for NetApp-watchers. On Tuesday we learned of the company’s latest moves in the flash array space; the EF540 flash array and FlashRay, a new operating system (OS) that’s optimised for flash. All of which screamed (to investors and potential customers), “We have a flash array too now! You can get it from us, not the upstart startups or our larger competitors.”

Having said that, there’s no doubt these represent progress for NetApp, which has had an odd relationship with solid state. For a long time NetApp’s stance was that cache was the only place for flash, and it would not form a distinct tier in your storage infrastructure.

Tuesday’s announcements are the manifestation of a Damascene conversion on the flash question for NetApp that had taken place over the past year. Now it seems flash is built firmly into the future of the company. Well, reasonably firmly; the EF540 actually looks like a rush to get something to market to position NetApp against the competition.

Let’s deal with this first. Late last year there was some confusion at NetApp towers about whether the company would develop and all-flash array at all. First, CTO Jay Kidd told me NetApp wouldn’t be playing in the all-flash market because it wasn’t a big market and there were other ways to introduce flash into the server-storage infrastructure.

After that article was published you could hear the sound of NetApp backpedalling from several thousand miles away. I don’t know whether Kidd was off-message, still expounding the no-flash-tier mantra, or simply had demonstrated some extreme failure to communicate properly.

Still, things were put back on-message three weeks later in this interview with our sister publication, where Kidd said NetApp had plans for an all-flash array in 2013. Although, why Kidd didn’t mention the EF540 in November is a mystery, especially as it had been sold in a limited release prior to that.

Such twists and turns aside, questions must be raised about the EF540. Sure, it’s an all-flash array, and it can give up to 300,000 IOPS, but it uses the existing E-Series operating system, SANtricity, which is not built for flash and neither is the controller hardware built for flash.

Is this a problem? More than likely not in the short-term. NetApp’s all-flash start-up competition, like Violin Memory and Whiptail boast huge IOPS, into the millions, which is probably silly and un-necessary for all but the most extreme use cases on the planet. I mean, with virtual desktop I/O requirements of something between 10 and 200 IOPS per seat the EF540 has plenty to give.

But in the longer term the EF540 must have limited life. Leaving aside whether it relies on throwing sheer TB at getting the throughput it does, its OS and its controller hardware are not built for flash. The OS doesn’t optimise operations for the vagaries of flash and its wear characteristics and the controller hardware/backplanes etc are not built for the speed of flash.

That NetApp has announced the flash-optimised FlashRay is a tacit admission of those points.

But what is FlashRay and what will be its significance for NetApp? Well, facts about FlashRay were thin on the ground in Tuesday’s announcements, but it appears to be a flash-optimised storage operating system. And apart from the flash-optimisation bit it sounds almost exactly like NetApp’s existing OS, Data ONTAP. Indeed, Lawrence James, UK products, alliances and solutions manager for NetApp, told me that FlashRay is “ground-up developed, but will inherit features” from ONTAP. Hmmm.

Leaving that bit of speculation aside, NetApp’s launch of FlashRay has potential implications for its existing storage hardware range. FlashRay undoubtedly represents a progressive move by NetApp, but what hardware will it be allied with? After all, the new OS may well be flash-optimised, but the controller hardware on the FAS and E-Series families are not. So, will we see a new family of NetApp arrays, or will FlashRay be ported to FAS arrays with upgraded hardware?

They are interesting times indeed for NetApp watchers.