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Q&A: NetApp’s storage play in the age of cloud

Storage supplier’s Asia-Pacific general manager reveals the changes that are taking place within the company to keep up with the changing tech landscape

Once late to the growing market for flash storage, storage appliance pioneer NetApp is now keeping its finger on the pulse of the transformative forces that continue to shape the IT industry.

Following its acquisition of SolidFire in 2016, NetApp has become one of the biggest suppliers of all-flash storage systems – but its work does not end there. The company continues to invest in emerging areas, such as data management in a multi-cloud world and hyper-converged infrastructure, which promise to further eliminate IT complexity. 

In an interview with Computer Weekly, Rick Scurfield, NetApp’s Asia-Pacific senior vice-president and general manager, reveals the changes that are taking place in the company, his views on the impact of cloud on storage and data management, and storage trends in the region.

How is NetApp doing in Asia-Pacific, a diverse region with varying rates of growth across countries? What are the main growth areas? Any specific industries that have contributed to NetApp’s growth in the region?

Scurfield: There are a couple of growth areas. One, our existing customers are migrating to flash storage and cloud-based architectures as part of their tech refresh cycles. Second, we’ve added more net-new customers in our latest quarter, and a lot of that was due to competitive take-outs, and having more companies looking at flash technology and FlexPod, our converged infrastructure stack that we developed with Cisco. Others are also looking at our cloud architectures to see how they can move from in-house, on-premise architectures to the cloud. As for industries, growth varies across different times of the year. In the first quarter of fiscal 2018, we had a lot of government business in Australia. In India, we grew our business by 50% across the board, including large banking customers that are building cloud-based architectures. Our enterprise and medium-sized business segments also did well. From a product perspective, we’ve had tremendous growth in flash and we’re just starting to see adoption of hybrid cloud data services through our partnership with Microsoft.

NetApp first started selling storage to engineers in its early years. How has the company evolved itself to keep up with changes in the industry?

Scurfield: Over the past 25 years, we’ve always been focused on technology innovation. We’ve had a history of success with network attached storage, a segment that we created, as well as file services. And over the last 15 years, we did really well to predict where the industry was heading. For instance, we saw that we had to get into the enterprise with storage area network (SAN)-based architectures, and we decided to do it through software, not hardware. That decision opened up other innovations, such as unified storage. Where we had not done well was when we were late to the market in areas such as flash, which we thought was just going to be a niche technology for high-performance computing. But as soon as we recognised that miss, we could quickly bring flash into our architecture because of our software-defined approach.

How has the rise of cloud computing changed the company?

Scurfield: The cloud has changed the way organisations look at their architectures. One of the things we’ve done is to recognise that not all data is not going to be stored on-premise, and that’s why we’re making a shift to data management to help customers manage their data and workloads on multiple cloud services or in a hybrid environment. But what we’re seeing in this part of the world is that although there’s much talk about multi-cloud, companies are only using a single cloud for specific workloads. That will change over the next three to five years as more customers see how they can utilise a multi-cloud environment and seamlessly move data across clouds. Companies in Australia are more advanced than others in the region in multi-cloud adoption. Those in ASEAN are still behind because their infrastructure and service providers are just not there yet.

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NetApp often sells to infrastructure teams. With the company now touting data management capabilities, are there changes in the way you approach customers who may not be storage engineers?

Scurfield: You’re right that we have the traditional datacentre guys who buy storage from us and they tend to be engineers. With next-generation, software-defined datacentres, we have to go after the departmental and DevOps people. To do that, we’ve reorganised ourselves and gone beyond having a single sales representative or team going after infrastructure buyers. We now have product line sales representatives and specialists in systems management software and object storage technologies. We’ve greatly expanded the portfolio because of the changing characteristics of buyers. This has also changed our partner ecosystem, where we are looking for new channel partners that understand next-generation datacentres.

NetApp isn’t the only company with data management offerings. How do you differentiate yourselves from others, such as Veritas?

Scurfield: Competition is always a good thing because that means the market is big enough for multiple players who compete and cooperate at the same time. Veritas, along with other suppliers in the backup space, is a partner of ours. Together, we look at how we can meet our customers’ requirements and that is good for customers.

Do you think organisations will run their IT operations completely on the public cloud? There are some suggestions that this is the way of the future because nobody wants to buy and manage boxes any more.

Scurfield: I’ve been in the industry for over 25 years and have seen people move their systems to the mainframe. Then the client-server architecture came along, followed by virtualisation, and now it’s about the cloud. The industry propagates a lot of these things, depending on who you talk to. A cloud service provider would say the cloud is the future, while those that don’t have a robust product line or architecture will say it’s still 10 years out. That said, I think there will be companies and industries that will go fully on the cloud, but there will also be others that will still want to keep their data and see their systems running in their own datacentres. Ten years later, we could well be having a different conversation, beyond hyper-scale and multi-cloud.

There’s a lot of chatter in the market about hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI). What are your views on how the HCI market is playing out?

Scurfield: The first-generation HCI products were very good at workloads like VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure) and small and medium-sized workloads. When brought out our HCI product, we wanted to make sure that it was scalable and flexible across different layers of the HCI architecture. While there is a market for HCI because of its simplicity and ease of use, we also see a need for innovations on the storage side and best-of-breed solutions. So, we will try to be responsive to the needs of different customers.

The IT industry has seen several large mergers and acquisitions throughout history. Is there a possibility that NetApp could get acquired one day?

Scurfield: If Dell can buy EMC, anything can happen. There are tremendous numbers of acquisitions of small companies, as well as consolidation among larger ones. The good thing is, customers understand that technology companies get acquired to improve the products and innovations they have.

Do you think industry consolidation is necessarily a good thing for customers who are increasingly tied to a technology stack from a single supplier?

Scurfield: Any company that I had worked for is always a best-of-breed company. I don’t think it’s good for a customer to go to a one-stop shop, because best-of-breed always brings more innovation. That’s why the industry is so broad right now and has so many players in it.

One last question – what keeps you up at night?

Scurfield: The excitement and competitiveness of the IT space means you’ll never shut down. You don’t want to sleep because you might miss something. If you take break for a minute, someone’s going to come in and take that minute from you. That wakes me up in the morning and keeps me in the game.

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