NetApp is biting HCI bullet at the right time: John Rollason

By Yogesh Gupta Nov 28th 2017
NetApp is biting HCI bullet at the right time: John Rollason

Our HCI blueprint is well-etched and feature-rich based on the authority in data management over past two decades says John Rollason, Senior Director at NetApp.

 

HCI is the blue-eyed technology on the enterprise horizon in 2017. Like most vendor companies, the storage giant NetApp has joined the bandwagon with its new hyper converged portfolio. IDG India spoke to John Rollason, Senior Director, Product & Solutions Marketing, Next Generation Data Center, NetApp on his India visit on company’s foray into HCI, the road ahead, and the future of hybrid cloud.

Edited Excerpts.

Hyper Converged Infra has a marketing spin to Converged Infra like the terms next gen firewall and firewall. Hyper can implicate different connotations to the end customers and their IT infra?

We definitely see the market trend with the end customers and the partners wherein the organizations desire to move for more simple and programmable IT infra. Many of them have moved to converged infra (CI), and hyper converged is the natural extension. CI is bundling the separate components with a management layer to make it faster to market, with lower risk, and more predictive in nature.

Hyper Converged Infra(HCI) moves a step further to package everything into a single appliance in effect, that has storage, compute, networking as well as management wrapped around to benefit the customers on their consolidation journey in multiple ways.

Does that mean every modern business will need enterprise scale HCI? Will they lose competitive edge or be dead with the siloed IT environment of the past? 

That’s a bit of an excessive statement that anyone not buying HCI will be out of business. Generally companies continue to build a more traditional way of configuring infra, upgrading and migrating every three years. 

“There is no single definition of hyper converged infra. The customers honestly don’t care much on how the industry define or project HCI as long as the new technology’s promise of simplifying and optimizing IT infra to accelerate their business is fulfilled.”

John Rollason

Senior Director, NetApp

Some migrate from the previous version of infra to the next one, and at times these things turn out to be clearly counterproductive that distract CIO teams from focusing more on business outcome IT.

The core efficiency levels remain low anywhere around 15% utilization levels on an average for some of the traditional architectures. HCI promises a simpler cloud-like infra consolidation that helps increase the efficiency in the datacenter and hence the IT team can focus more on business. Some of the promises of a true hyper converged infra are not yet made and that’s our next big opportunity in HCI domain. The HCI market undoubtedly is growing fast with the global market expected to touch 10 billion dollar mark in the next two to three years.

The traditional architectures are definitely not dead. HCI will not take over them in entirety in near future. But the organizations need to move from the traditional architecture to keep pace with the new demands of the modern business and thus tweak their Infra as and when needed.

The launched NetApp HCI calls itself as the industry’s first enterprise-scale hyper converged solution. But the space is crowded with Nutanix, Simplivity and traditional tech giants like DELL EMC, CISCO, HPE to name a few?

NetApp is definitely not the first to invent HCI. You could argue that we have the most successful CI platform with FlexPod that has a good market share in Converged Infra marketplace. We decided to enter high growth HCI market backed by our 25 years of data management experience and other capabilities.

The reason for the claim of enterprise scale HCI is based on our hard and solid research in the market. Organizations like the promise of HCI that delivers simplicity and consolidation. But there are inefficiencies in some of the first generation infra architectures in the market. For example when the scale is achieved, the technology practically cannot scale beyond 8 nodes as they have been focused on particular App (traditionally VDI) or they build multiple silos. To reduce the inefficiency, the silos of storage and compute are replaced with new silos of HCI; but they don’t talk to each other.

NetApp’s HCI platform is designed and tested for enterprise scale that extends up to 100 nodes which most first gen platforms don’t have. We guarantee the same peak performance after the consolidation of various apps from one architecture. Secondly, it is possible to scale compute and storage, CPU capacity independently. As companies grow they can scale IT infra and they don’t have to pay for license as per CPU for Apps they don’t need. And from architectural perspective we decided from day one to address API driven world of infrastructure.

NetApp's HCI solution however seems to be more converged than hyper converged as per analysts’ definition because the boxes just add compute nodes and networking to SolidFire (storage) nodes. Comment.

There is no single definition of hyper converged infra. To be honest, the customers don’t care much on how we as the industry define or project HCI. Most companies want simplicity which is the key catalyst of HCI and hence we decided not to make our offerings as tightly coupled. NetApp deployment engine (which is brand new) strips down HCI deployment from 400 steps to 30 which saves large amount of time for IT teams. We have taken the best chunks of how CIOs and IT decision makers perceive HCI, and packaged it into our next gen HCI solutions.

Most of first gen HCI platforms typically uses around 20 to 30 percent of the resources on the traditional architecture. A machine managing 100 VMs for example in reality supports only 70 and this has been a big limitation of traditional HCI. NetApp HCI platform for 80 VMs in practicality gives 80 VMs that deliver the capacity performance.

Would the hardware appliances in HCI world act more as – for lack of better word – dumb boxes?

The NetApp’s HCI packaging is very elegant and quite simple with 4 nodes in 2u package that can be scaled as the company grows. The hardware packaging is important as it promises reliability, assurance and capabilities of the data management components. However everything has absolute intrinsic value - API integration, data management layer and other software layers. Hardware is undoubtedly crucial but we at NetApp believe the management software layer/s will be the real game changer for HCI vendors to outdo each other and deliver customer delight.

Nutanix CEO Dheeraj Pandey recently told me in an interview that the end-customers don’t talk much about the half-a-decade old ‘datacenter in a rack’ concept like vBlock or FlexPod.

The gentleman of the company that offers only hyper converged, saying that everything else is over in converged space is surprise, to say the least. The CI market has flattened and the next big growth is really in HCI space. However there is a huge market for converged infra and it will be many years before HCI reaches that market size of converged infra.

“Hardware is undoubtedly crucial but the management software layer will be the real game changer for HCI vendors to outdo each other and deliver customer delight.”

 FlexPod as CI solution continues to grow well for NetApp. Some organizations want more configurable infra and HCI is great for them. It’s almost like Apple and iOS, as some want to configure their own services while others want to just work with the device. There is market for both CI and HCI. Like HCI, there exists a huge market for appliances for each of those models. The enterprise storage market itself is bigger than HCI market for many years to come.

NFLEX by NetApp allows us to take advantage of the alliance with leading tech vendors like Fujitsu and Extreme Networks.  Similar to FlexPod, NFLEX is packaged differently as it leverages the capabilities of Fujitsu platform. We believe in offering the choice of consumption models – cloud as a service, CI (NFlex / FlexPod) and HCI appliances – which is a differentiator for our customers compared to other vendors.

But many consumption models by a single vendor might confuse the CIOs and possibly lead them to make a wrong choice of technology.

Not really. We are in the phase of technology cycle where changes happen on the fly and hence different consumption models is the order of the day for the technology vendors. There are Applications that will never fit HCI or cloud infra. There are use cases like SAP or Oracle environment wherein configurability becomes important and hence converged infra becomes a better choice.

The big differentiator is NetApp Data Fabric that simplifies and integrates data management across cloud and on-premises to accelerate digital transformation at the customer end.The data fabric now allows the information on new HCI silo to move back to cloud. Data portability has been built into the data fabric from day one to support new architectures like HCI.

Any Dos and Don’ts for CIOs and IT decision makers to take the right calls on HCI journey?

The CIOs need to first ask themselves what they are buying the infrastructure for. A small edge single application deployment has a different set of criteria. But if you are opting for HCI to address the mission critical core of your datacenter, then the areas often overlooked are the scaling inefficiencies existing in the traditional architectures. Like switching on the data services reduces the CPU power from the machine or for example the licensing costs. For the model wherein the license of the App is per CPU, too many spare CPUs due to fixed configuration is a costly affair. Hence NetApp offers that option to scale storage as and when independently which is big advantage for CIOs from TCO perspective.

Another criteria CIOs must consider on HCI strategy is - how far they expect the infra to scale. SMB customer buying one platform for entire datacenter is a different challenge than the large datacenter of an enterprise customer. The scale is really important. Many CIOs and IT buyers deliberate the perils of lock-in to a service, stack, hyper V or service cloud. But being locked to one vendor on HCI platform offers the continuity, scalability and the simplicity to overall IT infra versus grappling with many vendor technologies in the environment.

Your traditional storage customers would be the first touch point for the new HCI offerings. Any early adopter verticals you could spot?

It's early days for NetApp’s HCI products introduced few weeks ago. But we foresee the acceptance across most of the verticals. Most companies are interested in the value prop of HCI around simplicity and consolidation in terms of internal clouds at their infra. Service providers have been early adopters of new technologies as they scale and automate their operations. Government and public institutions are keen on HCI as they like simplicity and importantly the scale for their vertical size. Manufacturing, automotive and financial services are showing interest too.

Another new opportunity is in compute which is part of our HCI offerings. This allows us to have conversations in the existing accounts and the new buyers to address the certain parts of the datacenter wherein we didn’t have presence. These are the new type of buyers for the overall infrastructure and not specifically for the traditional storage.

What business climate and technology trends will accelerate the companies towards HCI in 2018 and beyond?

The whole world is driven by the digital transformation wave. The shift towards data centric business is a real trend as the companies realize that data is the business. The growing data with Cloud, and IoT will continue to accelerate the data (or storage) business. The impact of the cloud is another big trend on how the organizations experience the platform and the services from the cloud players be it hybrid cloud, multi-cloud and other form factors. We partner with Microsoft, Google, AWS to name a few. We are building internal private clouds as well, for customers with HCI platform.

JOHN’S BIG ‘DIGITAL’ TRENDS

1

Move towards a data centric business

2

Impact of the cloud & cloud services

3

Emergence of API driven Infrastructure

4

Shift to Agile development & DevOps

5

Software-defined world is a reality

App development and DevOps is of great interest to the companies especially in regions of US and EMEA as lot of transformation inside those organizations is driven by that shift of DevOps methodology to get Apps and services out into the market.

Software controlling the hardware in the datacenter or the software-defined world is definitely attaining maturity. NetApp is headed in that direction too. All HCI solutions are industry standard components that are packaged as a platform with the software IP running through the solution. Many people get confused with software-defined and software-only because both are different. We can deliver our software platform as software only but for the scale and the profile there is need of hardware for the experts in infra space to do integration, testing, validating, and architecture. NetApp in fact is moving a step beyond and focusing on API defined infra which is more important than hardware and / or software per se.

Lastly, NetApp with innovations across hybrid cloud and HCI till date is referred as a storage giant.

We don’t mind being called by that name because the storage market is a great place to be in. NetApp is definitely moving its strategy with HCI including a good range of cloud services. Storage remains the main part of our business as we talk more about data and data-driven enterprises. Modern companies want that NetApp to be the data authority of their IT infra. We have that unique capability with NetApp’s open standards and the choice of consumption models we offer to organizations. Hybrid cloud is another big focus as we have the rich set of data services that integrates the storage boxes in datacenter to cloud and other new technology platforms.

Infact, NetApp of future can be defined as the data authority of the hybrid cloud world.

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