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NetApp hyper-converged entry: Better late than early?

NetApp is entering the hyper-convergence arena with the latecomer’s cry: We may be last into the market, but we’ll be the best.

Emboldened by the recent strong revenue growth of its late-to-market All Flash FAS (AFF) arrays, CEO George Kurian Wednesday night outlined plans to play rapid catch-up in hyper-convergence.

Kurian said a NetApp hyper-converged product will launch in the May to July timeframe. He gave few details, but said the system will be built on SolidFire all-flash storage and NetApp Data Fabric technology that links on-premises and cloud storage.

NetApp has been noticeably absent from the hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) market after its 2014 plans for an EVO:RAIL system in partnership with VMware never got off the ground.

Three months ago, Kurian indicated there was no NetApp hyper-converged strategy. He said NetApp addressed the advantages of hyper-convergence through its FlexPod converged infrastructure partnership with Cisco. FlexPods bundle storage, compute and virtualization as separate pieces rather than in the same chassis. Kurian has also pointed to NetApp’s cloud-centric SolidFire arrays as an answer for customers who want hyper-convergence.

How will NetApp handle hyper-convergence?

During NetApp’s quarterly earnings call Wednesday night, Kurian talked less about what a NetApp hyper-converged infrastructure might look like than what is missing from current HCI appliances.

“We will do what has not yet been done by the immature first generation of hyper-converged solutions — bring hyper-converged infrastructure to the enterprise by allowing customers to run multiple workloads without compromising performance, scale or efficiency,” he said.

What will NetApp do differently and better? Kurian said the vendor will have the first fully cloud-integrated hyper-converged system that moves data across tiers on-premises and in the public and private clouds. That is something executives at HCI market-leader Nutanix say they are working on now.

Kurian characterized current hyper-converged products as “first-generation,” lacking enterprise data management and consistent performance. He said that relegates them to departmental use and the low-end of the market, a statement that almost all the current hyper-converged vendors would dispute.

Along with Nutanix, server vendors make up most of the HCI market. Dell EMC, Cisco, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (with its recent SimpliVity acquisition) and Lenovo all sell HCI appliances.

Kurian said he doesn’t mind playing catch up.

“There have been lots of companies that have gone after the early-adopter segment with a subset of the features that enterprise customers really want and have failed in the long run,” he said. “And so, first to market doesn’t necessarily mean the big winner, right?”

Kurian points to NetApp’s all-flash arrays to back up his theory. NetApp lagged behind other large vendors as well as startups in offering mainstream all-flash arrays. It never got its home-grown FlashRay product out the door as a GA product, and only found success on its second attempt to build FAS into an all-flash option.

Kurian said NetApp’s all-flash arrays grew 160% year-over-year to approximately $350 million last quarter. That includes AFF, the EF Series for high-performance computing and SolidFire. But that still leaves NetApp well behind market leader EMC, which claims its all-flash XtremIO array generated more than $1 billion in bookings in 2016.

NetApp won’t be first with all-flash hyper-converged either. Most vendors in the market have all-flash options, and Dell EMC claims 60% of its VxRail customers deploy all-flash appliances. Cisco added an all-flash version of its HyperFlex HCI appliance this week.

In a blog posted soon after the earnings call, John Rollason, NetApp’s director of product marketing for next generation data center, echoed Kurian’s comments about current HCI systems. Rollason criticized hyper-converged systems for having fixed ratios of compute-to-storage resources, and lacking performance guarantees for mixed workloads and mature data services. He said they were limited to eight-node clusters that result in silos. While not all of those criticisms are valid for all hyper-converged systems, Rollason’s and Kurian’s comments provide hints as to what NetApp will try to do. It is pledging hyper-converged systems that scale higher with predictable performance aimed for enterprise.

Who will NetApp partner with?

We don’t yet know what NetApp will do for virtualization and compute. You can expect a NetApp hyper-converged system to incorporate VMware. It has had a good working relationship with VMware, despite VMware’s being owned by NetApp storage rival EMC and now Dell.

NetApp will also need a server partner. NetApp FlexPod partner Cisco is a possibility. Cisco has its own HyperFlex HCI appliance and added an all-flash version this week, but allows several HCI software applications, including VMware’s vSAN, to run their software on its UCS servers. NetApp can also go the OEM route that EMC went before getting bought by Dell. EMC’s first hyper-converged systems used servers from Quanta before switching to Dell PowerEdge in September.

NetApp promises more details soon. Whatever it plans, it will have to be good to make up for being late.

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