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FlexPod SF converges NetApp SolidFire onto Cisco hardware

SUNNYVALE, California — NetApp today launched its second SolidFire-based converged product this month, this time in partnership with Cisco.

The FlexPod SF extends the FlexPod converged infrastructure  reference architecture lineup that combines NetApp storage with Cisco UCS servers and switching. But instead of using NetApp FAS storage, FlexPod SF runs the SolidFire Element OS on Cisco rack servers for the storage piece of the infrastructure. FlexPod SF also includes Cisco UCS blade servers and Nexis Ethernet switching in the iSCSI scale-out block storage system.

NetApp acquired all-flash vendor SolidFire in February 2016. Earlier this month, it formally launched the NetApp HCI hyper-converged system built on SolidFire flash storage.

FlexPod SF is the first FlexPod product using Cisco hardware for storage. It is also the first time NetApp will sell SolidFire on hardware outside of the Dell-based servers that SolidFire has used since its launch in 2012.

FlexPod SF consists of a NetApp SF9608 storage node built on a Cisco C220 M4 rack server chassis with eight Samsung 960 GB solid-state drives, Cisco UCS B-series M4 blade servers and Nexus 9000 10-Gigabit Ethernet switching for iSCSI connectivity. A cluster requires at least four nodes and scales in one-node increments after that. The original four-node cluster scales to roughly 30 TB of flash storage capacity. The SF9608 nodes will only be sold as part of FlexPod systems.

FlexPod SF will beat NetApp HCI to market. The FlexPod SF systems will be available by the end of this month while NetApp HCI won’t be generally available until after October.

Blurring the lines between converged and hyper-converged

In some ways, the FlexPod SF and NetApp HCI have similar architectures. Both use FlexPod Element software and all-flash storage nodes. Both require four-node minimums. The major difference is all the hardware in FlexPod SF comes from Cisco, while NetApp HCI uses NetApp storage hardware and off-the-shelf servers. Both systems count on SolidFire APIs, multitenancy and quality of service to allow developers and business owners to manage them, often for cloud-native applications.

While NetApp got into the converged infrastructure market early with FlexPod, it is late to hyper-converged. Now it is counting on NetApp HCI to play catch-up in hyper-convergence as it did with All-Flash FAS (AFF) in the all-flash array market. But NetApp HCI probably doesn’t meet a purist’s definition of hyper-convergence because the storage does not run through a hypervisor.

Dave Hitz, NetApp founder and executive vice president, said the distinction between what NetApp calls a hyper-converged infrastructure and a converged infrastructure is artificial.

“What’s the difference? The real question is ‘What problem are you trying to solve?’” he said during a press event at NetApp headquarters to launch FlexPod SF. “In the early days of hyper-converged, it meant every node had storage and compute. The interesting thing about having every node do both is, it lets you have a lower entry point. But as clusters get bigger, the customer says ‘I need more storage but I have enough compute.’ Those items scale very differently, depending on the problem.

“I don’t think market analysts should be telling engineers how to do their jobs. They shouldn’t be saying things like, ‘You need to make sure every node can be both storage and compute.’ They should be saying ‘A good way to make the minimum configuration cheaper is to make every node do storage and compute’. But why are they calling that a different market segment? My personal view is that hyper-converged and converged will merge over time as a single segment.”

Hitz said customers who have standardized on Cisco UCS hardware and management would likely favor FlexPod SF while those who are not big Cisco fans would pick NetApp HCI. Support is another issue that separates the two.

“The legitimate concern with [traditional] FlexPod is it has hardware from Cisco and hardware from NetApp, and  who do you call?” for support, Hitz said. “With the SolidFire FlexPod, all the hardware’s from Cisco. Does that make it converged or hyper-converged? I don’t even care. I’m not interested in having that discussion.”

Cisco has its own HCI product, HyperFlex, which means it will compete with NetApp on one converged platform while partnering on another. But NetApp and other storage vendors are trying to solidify their partnerships with Cisco in anticipation of the Dell EMC-Cisco vBlock CI partnership blowing up. EMC and Cisco have sold Vblocks with EMC storage and Cisco servers and switching since 2010 but the Dell merger brought EMC its own server platform to use in CI configurations.

NetApp claims it has sold more than $8 billion worth of FlexPod systems with more than 8,400 customers and more than 4,000 PB of storage capacity.

John Rollason, senior director of products for NetApp’s next-generation data center storage, FlexPod SF could bring NetApp and Cisco towards a true hyper-converged partnership. “It’s a step in that direction,” he said. “This is the first entirely Cisco hardware stack for a converged infrastructure.”

With FlexPod SF and NetApp HCI, NetApp is positioning SolidFire as the flash storage building block for next-generation data centers. NetApp has moved into second behind Dell EMC in all-flash storage according to market research firms, but most of its all-flash sales are AFF arrays. NetApp CEO George Kurian said he would like to double SolidFire sales over the next year.

Pointing out NetApp has added around 400 new SolidFire sales since the acquisition, Kurian said that’s around one per day. “Next year we want to close two SolidiFire customers a day,” he said.



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