NetApp Acquires SolidFire – Flash Strategy Take 5

It’s truly been a blessed holiday season for the Pure Storage team. Our celebrations kicked-off early in October, following our IPO and ushering in the next chapter in our story with a $500M fundraise to fuel our continued growth as an independent public company. Shortly thereafter, Dell announced acquisition plans for our largest competitor EMC illustrating the contrast between ever-consolidating “Big IT” and best-of-breed innovation. In November and early December Pure Storage announced an industry-leading NetPromoter score of 79, shipped product and solution enhancements, and released record-setting Q3 earnings. Topping it all off is today’s announcement: NetApp’s acquisition of SolidFire.

What’s to be excited about?

SolidFire is one of the last early-stage all-flash array companies having notable traction in the market to be acquired by “Big Storage”, marking what we believe will be the end of the consolidation phase of this market. So what does the future hold? Pure Storage looks forward to competing with contenders in “Big Storage” as all-flash becomes the norm for all Tier-1 workloads. Read more thoughts on this next phase in a separate blog from our CEO, Scott Dietzen.

We hold the folks at SolidFire in very high regard and hope the founders and management team are pleased with this outcome. At the same time, at Pure we remain supremely confident that we are offering customers the best technology, the best support, the lowest total cost of ownership, and the best long-term protection on their investment.

Before we go on, let’s quickly review the evolution of NetApp’s Flash strategy over the past few years:

  • Strategy 1: PAM, FlashCache, and Tiering. Like all disk vendors, NetApp spent much of the late 2000s in convinced that flash would not supplant disk. With EMC off to an early start with EFDs, NetApp brought out their PAM cards in 2008, FlashCache (PAM II) in 2009, and added SSDs caching/tiering to their systems by 2010. But unlike EMC, who pushed all-flash retrofits of their legacy disk platforms, NetApp seemed insistent that OnTap wasn’t built for flash, and stopped short of actively promoting all-flash configurations.
  • Strategy 2: EF-Series. As part of their Engenio acquisition, NetApp acquired a basic all-flash appliance – the EF-540 (by basic we mean lacking many data management features). They announced this in early 2013 as the “Top of the Enterprise Class”. Then next came…
  • Strategy 3: FlashRay. Not content with EF-Series which lacked critical capabilities like data reduction, NetApp also announced their active development of the FlashRay platform – an all-flash array being developed from scratch with a new OS and promised to ship GA in early 2014. Well, FlashRay proved to be late, and EF-Series seems to have failed to get the hoped for traction with the field or channel.
  • Strategy 4: All-Flash FAS. With FlashRay missing dates, NetApp quietly introduced their own ONTAP retrofit: All-Flash FAS. AFF was touted with increasing vigor in 2015, with key innovations of MarsOS added to it, inline compression and eventually deduplication, and a dramatic price reduction to re-ignite a second look from the NetApp faithful. But with three all-flash arrays, NetApp was not done quite yet…
  • Strategy 5: SolidFire. With 2016 nearing, a new chapter in the NetApp flash strategy is born via the acquisition of SolidFire—their fifth flash strategy, fourth all-flash array, and fourth storage OS. With the SolidFire acquisition, FlashRay is being phased out, but that still leaves NetApp customers and partners with a range of questions, including which storage product to bet on for which use cases, and how they will fit together in the years to come (as is generally the case of any acquisition with overlapping products). In our view, at least, customers and partners should be asking:

Three overlapping products and storage OSes represent a substantial investment for a company long known for being focused on one. Will all three live for the long-term or will there be further consolidation?

And if there is future consolidation, what will the migration path be? What assurances are being made to protect customer and partner investment for the long haul?

Service providers & cloud vendors have been a key target market for NetApp for over a decade. With SolidFire on boarded, which technology provides the more cloud-friendly roadmap? After all, enterprise and service provider data centers all aspire to the simplicity and low cost elastic scaling of the cloud.

Will file protocols be coming to the SolidFire platform? If so – will they be natively integrated and interoperable with file on the FAS platform? For customers and partners deeply invested with NetApp’s ecosystem of management tools, snapshot and replication formats, and SnapManagers – will they be able to leverage this investment?

How does performance, scale, cost, reliability, and data reduction effectiveness differ between SolidFire and All-Flash FAS? Which is right for which workloads today and tomorrow?

No doubt it will take time for NetApp to sort out the long-term positioning, integration and roadmaps… Until then customers and partners need to be careful.

The Differences Between Pure and SolidFire

Finally, if the NetApp acquisition motivates you to take a deeper look at SolidFire – here’s our quick take at why Pure Storage is currently the better product – whether you are a service provider, public or private cloud, SaaS provider, or a traditional enterprise IT shop. Here are some of the key advantages, but of course don’t take our word for it – we always encourage customers to try out the technology in their own data centers:

  1. Simplicity is a core tenet of operating at cloud-scale. Everything from Pure’s integrated single-appliance deployment to SaaS-based cloud administration to comprehensive REST and programmatic interfaces to effortless online hardware and software upgrades are designed to reset the bar in storage simplicity.
  2. Better data reduction. SolidFire uses a fixed 4K block size, while Pure implements a variable block size for data reduction, yielding better head-to-head results.
  3. Better RAID and data protection. SolidFire’s simple mirroring scheme and independent metadata yield some of the lower usable capacity rates in the industry, and still don’t protect against dual- (or overlapping) drive failure. Lose any two components in the SolidFire system (say an SSD in one node while a controller or SSD fails in another) and you’ll be at risk of data loss. Pure’s RAID-3D protects against dual-drive failure with much lower overhead.
  4. Independent capacity & performance scale. The SolidFire scale-out approach forces capacity and performance expansion to be done in parallel – often resulting in over-buying of additional performance (controllers) to simply expand capacity or vice versa. Pure’s modular hardware approach allows performance and capacity to be scaled independently as necessary.
  5. Overall Efficiency. Couple better data reduction with better, lower-overhead RAID, and the efficiency of the Pure architecture together result in better overall efficiency. Pure customers buy less and store more.
  6. Native Fibre Channel. SolidFire implements a gateway approach to deliver Fibre Channel, reducing performance and increasing processing overhead.
  7. Maximum performance. The Pure Storage FlashArray was designed to deliver predictable performance – without tuning or worry. Although SolidFire markets extremely high performance, Volumes are pinned to a given controller – meaning that a single volume can only use 1/n of the performance of the array (where n = number of nodes). Want maximum performance for your database? LUNs must be exported from each node and aggregated at the host… complex! IOPS also degrade by IO size – given optimization for the 4K architecture…meaning applications must be 4K-aligned for maximum performance. None of this matters with Pure Storage.
  8. Performance through failure. Pure was designed to maintain performance through drive failures, controller failures, and software and hardware upgrades, enabling maintenance without downtime or performance degradation. SolidFire’s own performance guide stipulates a 20-50% performance reduction during these events.
  9. Customer satisfaction. Pure Storage has the highest customer satisfaction of all B2B Technology companies, as measured by Satmetrix 2015 Net Promoter Score Global B2B Benchmarks.
  10. Evergreen Storage & Forever Flash. Pure pioneered business model innovation in the storage space, and has innovated around all-inclusive software, flat maintenance, forever flash wear coverage, and included controller upgrades with every three years of maintenance extension. SolidFire and NetApp have both mirrored aspects of this model – yet neither have matched it.

Now on to 2016. Clearly the innovation ahead will be even more crucial to determining the winning cloud and solid-state centric storage of the future. We can’t wait.