NetApp: NAS pioneer well set for the cloud revolution

In this storage profile, we look at NetApp, which built a reputation in file access storage but seems to be set fair to navigate a future of hybrid cloud, cloud-native and containerisation

In this storage supplier profile, we look at NetApp, which made its name synonymous with the network-attached storage (NAS) filer for the first decade or two of its existence. Since it was founded, NetApp has been on an upward revenue trajectory, with the only wrinkle coming when it was a little late to the flash storage revolution early in the last decade.

But it has since built itself out, with a keen eye on a cloud-focused future, which started with array connectivity to the cloud and now encompasses containerisation and the ability for customers to work seamlessly across on-premise and cloud locations, notably with the 2022 launch of BlueXP. It has also embraced consumption models of storage purchasing, with Keystone.

In this article, we look at NetApp, its origins, its key storage products, and its approach to the cloud, containers and consumption models of storage purchasing.

Where did NetApp come from?   

NetApp was founded in 1992 as Network Appliance, received venture capital funding in 1995, and had its initial public offering in 1995. It grew massively during the 1990s dot com bubble years, then suffered a big decline in 2002 as that bubble burst, but has seen revenues increase since then.

An early competitor to NetApp was Auspex Systems, which introduced the first NAS product. NetApp later became synonymous with the NAS filer, and by 2003, Auspex had become defunct and Network Appliance had gained its patents.

It officially became NetApp in 2008. Acquisitions over the years reflect the company’s evolution, with for example:

  • Spinnaker Networks acquired in 2004, which provided clustered NAS functionality.
  • Bycast in 2010, which gave it what became StorageGrid object storage.
  • Engenio in 2011, which brought in the E-Series array product line.
  • Solidfire and its family of all-flash arrays in 2015, as flash storage took off and NetApp came late to the party.
  • Then, reflecting NetApp’s recent evolution towards cloud storage, data management and containerisation, purchases included Greenqloud in 2017 (cloud services and orchestration), StackPointCloud in 2018 (Kubernetes as a service), Spot in 2020 and CloudCheckr in 2021 (cloud cost optimisation), and Instaclustr in 2022 (cloud database provision).

How does NetApp rank against other storage players?

By the second quarter of 2021, IDC ranked third among the big six storage array makers with market share of just under 10%, a little ahead of Huawei with 9%. NetApp was behind Dell (27%) and HPE (11%).

NetApp was ranked 411th in the 2014 Fortune 500, and by 2018 had dropped to 495th, before dropping out in more recent years.

In 2001, NetApp had revenues of just under $1bn. That increased to $6.29bn by 2014, with growth in the 20- and 30-something per cent range in some years. But, from its 2014 high point, revenues declined, only to begin recovery as it adapted to the changes in the market brought by all-flash arrays and the growing trend towards cloud.  

What are NetApp’s key storage products?

The key lineage in NetApp’s on-premise storage hardware lies in the AFF series, which stands for “all-flash FAS”. FAS was the acronym for “fabric-attached storage”, more colloquially known as a filer – ie a NAS box – in NetApp-speak.

AFF arrays range in maximum capacity from the A150 with 26PB (petabytes) to around 700PB in the flagship A900, and come with NVMe flash, NVMe-over-Fibre Channel and TCP connectivity, as well as NAS capability via NFS, CIFS and limited S3 connections.

In March 2023, NetApp added a new all-flash quad-level cell (QLC)-based storage array line, the all-flash FAS C-Series. The three arrays available at launch included AFF C250, AFF C400 and AFF C800 – with the C250 considered the low-end model and the C800 the high-end model.

In May 2023, NetApp added its all-flash SAN array (ASA), part of a recent foray into block storage. NetApp rolled out five versions of the ASA that use triple-level cell (TLC) flash and range from 13PB to 351PB of effective capacity after compression.

NetApp’s EF series dates back to its acquisition of Engenio in 2011, whose arrays were designed for spinning disk. They run the SanTricity operating system, which is a legacy of that pedigree. Sticking flash in these was, in fact, NetApp’s first foray into the flash array market, with the EF540 in 2013.

There are two arrays in the current series, the EF300 and EF600, which offer up to 670,000 IOPS and two million IOPS respectively. That level of performance comes with options for 96 SAS drives while lower input/output (I/O) rates are presumably achieved with nearline-SAS hard disk drives (HDDs), which can also be used in EF series arrays. Maximum raw capacity goes up to around 1.8PB with solid-state drives (SSDs).

NetApp’s core object storage offer is StorageGrid. This is a software-defined product that can run on-premise or in the cloud, but is also available in all-flash and HDD-equipped SGF StorageGrid appliances.

NetApp’s OnTap storage operating system runs through nearly all its arrays and also runs as a virtual appliance in cloud scenarios. OnTap had reached version 9.12.1 at the time of writing. The OS dates back to 1992 when it was developed by NetApp’s founders. It has undergone many iterations over the years to include deduplication, compression, snapshots, cloning, thin provisioning, clustered NAS, WORM (write once, read many) and high-availability capability.

OnTap has largely been geared towards file storage, with limited S3 capability added more recently. Cloud Volumes OnTap is a virtual storage appliance that can be run in the hyperscaler clouds such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Platform (GCP).

What markets and workloads does NetApp target?

NetApp’s customers are spread across all sectors. The company can supply storage, data management and cloud solutions to all verticals.

How does the cloud fit NetApp’s strategy?

NetApp has placed a big bet on the future of IT being a future in the cloud. Its storage array hardware allows for connectivity to the major public clouds, while its storage is also available in AWS, Azure and GCP.

These services include, for example:

  • Amazon FSx for NetApp OnTap, which is delivered on AWS services and lets customers access data over NFS, SMB and iSCSI.
  • Azure NetApp Files, which is used as shared file storage in scenarios such as migration of Linux and Windows applications, SAP Hana, databases, high-performance compute (HPC) and apps, and enterprise web applications.
  • Google Cloud NetApp Volumes, which is a fully managed file storage service in Google Cloud aimed at file sharing, business applications, remote data replication, and comprehensive data protection.

To manage on-premise and cloud resources, NetApp’s BlueXP provides an overview of its NAS or S3 storage in one web interface with the ability to migrate data across any NetApp service. Other functionality includes issue remediation suggestions, such as scheduling snapshot backups and highlighting configurations that are vulnerable to ransomware attacks. BlueXP is free for all new and existing NetApp storage customers. 

Other cloud-focused additions of recent years include:

  • Spot by NetApp, which includes products that support cloud operations and automation, performance and optimisation. Other Spot by NetApp products include CloudCheckr, which monitors cloud costs and purchases, and Ocean suite orchestration and provisioning for Kubernetes workloads.
  • Instaclustr, which provides a platform for management of open source databases, pipeline and workflow applications that include PostgreSQL, event streaming product Apache Kafka, Apache’s NoSQL database Cassandra, in-memory datastore Redis, and (Uber-designed) business logic orchestrator Cadence.

What is the NetApp container strategy?

NetApp announced Astra Data Store in 2021. This was its first data store and resource pool for containers and virtual machines (VMs), but in late 2022 it was folded into BlueXP, which acts as a control plane across Astra and NetApp’s on-premise and cloud storage products. 

Astra Control provides data protection features such as snapshots that allow customers to roll back Kubernetes clusters to a previous state if something goes wrong. Entire applications and their data can be cloned and moved between Kubernetes clusters, too.

Meanwhile, Astra Trident provides orchestration and data connectivity for Kubernetes applications via a Kubernetes Container Storage Interface (CSI) driver. 

What consumption models of purchasing does NetApp offer?

NetApp’s consumption model offer is Keystone, which offers hardware in various non-capital expenditure formats on-premise as well as in the cloud.

Keystone payment options range from pay upfront for hardware (Flex Pay), through Flex Subscription pay-as-you-go, which includes cloud capacity, and Flex Utility, which aligns costs to usage.

A range of service levels is available, with billing for predicted committed capacity, plus pay-per-use burst capacity and bundle pricing that includes hardware, core OS and file, block, object and cloud storage services.

NetApp’s Active IQ dashboard allows customers to monitor and manage storage, set data protection policies, and review burst capacity, usage and billing.

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