NetApp V-Series will test vendor cooperation

NetApp V-Series can virtualize competitors' storage arrays, but what happens when a virtualized array fails? Who is at fault?

Network Appliance Inc. (NetApp) has announced its V-Series appliance -- offering users a way to virtualize back-end storage arrays from different vendors and apply NetApp functionality to these products. But its success will depend on the cooperation the company can build with its competitors.

"Interoperability is the rock upon which all these dreams of virtualization could come crashing down," said Richard Villars, senior analyst with International Data Corp. (IDC). The question for any product that virtualizes a third-party array, is what happens when that third-party product fails? Who does the user call, and who is responsible for fixing the problem?

"For virtualization, we take full responsibility for the testing and certification, and we take the first call and coordinate solving the issue," said Jeff Hornung, vice president and general manager of enterprise file services at NetApp. "If it's a sticky wicket situation and we don't know who's at fault, we will troubleshoot between the companies." He said NetApp has "cooperative support agreements" with IBM (Shark and FastT products), HDS (Thunder, Lightning and TagmaStore arrays) and HP and Sun's rebranded version of the TagmaStore.

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In an e-mail responding to this question of cooperative support, an IBM spokesman said: "IBM supports all IBM equipment through IBM Global Services. If there were a problem with IBM equipment, we will help troubleshoot." Other vendors did not respond by press time.

IDC's Villars expects to see a growing maturity in the storage industry around interoperability. "It's a new concept for the storage vendors that they will lose more by making interoperability hard."

EMC has long refused to sign a cooperative support agreement with NetApp, and there's no change with the announcement of the V-Series. Villars said he believes this will change once EMC launches its Storage Router midyear. "When both sides have something to gain, cooperation occurs," he said.

In the meantime, IDC and other analyst firms like the Taneja Group recommended that to avoid the finger-pointing, a fabric-based virtualization approach is the way to go. "If you buy virtualization from your disk supplier, their desire to make it interoperable with other disk suppliers is more questionable," Villars said.

He added that at least with the V-Series, NetApp already has support agreements in place with IBM and HP. for the gFiler.

V-Series is the gFiler rebranded

The V-Series is a re-branding of NetApp's gFiler NAS gateway, only it now supports the company's latest operating system, Data ONTAP 7G, launched in November 2004. With the addition of Data ONTAP 7G, the gFiler is no longer limited to provisioning just NAS storage services. It now supports NAS, SAN and iSCSI systems in a single model.

Support for SAN and NAS in an integrated operating system is a strong selling point for NetApp, according to Villars. "The maturity and integration of its software is a strong selling point... It is thoroughly tested and adding functionality is rational and regular," he said. "It's an integrated operating system versus packaging together standalone utilities, which takes work to connect together and often throws up inconsistencies."

Conversely, he questioned the scalability and performance capabilities of the V-Series. "Do people believe NetApp's hardware is scalable enough to front-end all their storage arrays in a tiered environment, versus for example, the TagmaStore throughput capabilities from HDS? Is the V-Series up to the performance task?" he asked. "All they did was peel the label off the gFiler, which is a network-based storage controller that integrates with NetApp's storage software functions."

The TagmaStore, for example, can support multiple petabytes of storage behind a single unit, whereas the V-Series scales to 64 terabytes on a NetApp FAS980 cluster. NetApp claims the V-Series will eventually be integrated with its distributed file system software from Spinnaker, the company it acquired in 2003. But this won't be available until sometime in 2006.

Hitachi gFiler OEM deal dies

For now, users can still buy the gFiler from HDS, but this OEM relationship is expected to fade out by the end of the year, according to NetApp's Hornung. "It was a bit challenging for Hitachi to develop all the core competencies needed to sell the gFiler," he said. NetApp expects this relationship to shift into a support agreement similar to the models it has with IBM and HP, he added.

The V-Series is priced at the same rate as the gFiler, which starts at $30,000 and goes up to hundreds of thousands, depending on the software the user requires. Existing gFiler users can upgrade to a V-Series free of charge.

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