No clear winner in storage race

There are various questions vexing my mind at the moment. What's best, unified storage or point products? Is it better to have a unified storage product line or point products? Are resellers better off with a NetApp or an EMC?


by Chris Mellor


There are various questions vexing my mind at the moment.

What’s best, unified storage or point products?

Is it better to have a unified storage product line or point products? Are resellers better off with a NetApp or an EMC?


EMC has point products: Symmetrix; CLARiiON; Celerra; and Centera, and has had terrific success with them. NetApp has a unified product line in which different products are personalities layered onto the same underlying products. Customers can be really enthusiastic about this and NetApp has pretty consistently grown at 20 percent plus a year. But EMC is a much larger company than NetApp and has arguably outsold it in the NAS space, NetApp’s home turf.


NetApp provides a single, well, nearly single, O/S code base in ONTAP and must be easier for integrators and resellers to work with because every NetApp product shares a huge amount of commonality. Not so with EMC where Centera expertise doesn’t mean you’ll be a wow with EMC’s disk library.


A problem is that as NetApp’s code expands to include more functions, the testing and co-ordination of new features with existing ones becomes more laborious and time-consuming.


Meanwhile EMC buys products and technologies left, right and centre and brings them to market quickly. When NetApp bought Spinnaker EMC wasn’t in the server virtualisation market at all. Now its VMware acquisition leads it and NetApp, like every other storage player, changes its products to work better with VMware.


EMC has also proved lightning quick with its adoption of flash solid-state disk as a top performance tier of storage in its Symmetrix arrays.


There are examples that go the other way though. If EMC relies more on buys to add needed technology than on internal development then the result can be an impasse when there is no suitable technology buy. Take thin provisioning. EMC has announced an intention but not actually delivered it. The firmware/software implementations of Symmetrix, CLARiiON, Celerra and Centera are so different that no one thin provisioning technology could be injected into each product line.


It is much easier for NetApp with its single ONTAP environment. Stick a thin provisioning into it and every NetApp product using ONTAP gets thin provisioning capability: filers; Fibre Channel SAN storage, iSCSI SAN storage; etc. Oh, and NetApp has had it for some time anyway, only it was called Flexvols.


Another example is de-duplication. EMC bought Avamar for this technology. NetApp preferred to add it as an ONTAP feature and came up with A-SIS in May last year. It is now being treated as a pretty standard ONTAP feature and NetApp is suggesting it can be used for general, non-transaction-intensive storage and not just for shrinking backup data.


EMC tends to buy it where it can and develop it where it can’t and its individual product silos can hinder the spread of a new horizontally-applicable storage technology across its product line. NetApp can either make it or buy but will always want to integrate the technology into ONTAP, which can be a slow process or a very quick one.


Power-down technology, which slows the spin speed of non-active disks and so saves energy costs, has been endorsed as a goal by EMC. Considering the multiple storage array operating environments it has then it will appear at a patchy rate across its product lines. NetApp signed an OEM deal with Xyratex in January and that company says it will add a power-down capability to its array hardware and software. It’s quite reasonable to expect NetApp to consequently bring power-down technology to its customers more quickly than EMC and more evenly across its product lines.


There doesn’t seem to be a clear winner here. NetApp is a better environment for your developers to work in as they can transfer NetApp skills across NetApp products, from FAS to NearStore for example. EMC might be a better overall business environment for you to operate in as there are so many more pies to choose from. Documentum and VMware are technology areas where NetApp doesn’t play. Centera leads its content-addressed storage market. NetApp has no backup software products and we might judge that RSA has a brighter future than Decru. NetApp has no cloud computing initiatives whereas EMC is bursting out all over with cloud ideas, ranging from the Mozy acquisition to setting up a new division headed up by ex-Microsofty Paul Maritz whose Pi company it bought.


You can be pretty confident that NetApp’s more unified environment enables you to make more efficient use of your developers and support people and spread NetApp use inside your customers. But you can be equally confident that a relationship with EMC brings you wider business opportunities and the lack of a unified environment hasn’t held it back as a business.


It looks like you have to choose your own horse, based on your own priorities here. For lovers of wider business opportunities it looks like EMC is better. For supporters of efficient developer and support staff use and sideways extension of products inside a customer then NetApp could be a better choice.

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