NetApp + SolidFire…or SolidFire + NetApp?

So what just happened?

First- we just saw AMAZING execution of an acquisition.  No BS.  No wavering.  NetApp just GOT IT DONE, months ahead of schedule.  This is right in-line with George Kurian’s reputation of excellent execution.  This mitigated any doubt, any haziness, and gets everyone moving towards their strategic goals.  When viewed against other tech mergers currently in motion, it gives customers and partners comfort to know that they’re not in limbo and can make decisions with confidence.  (Of course, it’s a relatively small, all-cash deal- not a merger of behemoths).

Second -NetApp just got YOUNGER.  Not younger in age, but younger in technical thought.  SolidFire’s foundational architecture is based on scalable, commodity-hardware cloud storage, with extreme competency in OpenStack.  The technology is completely different than OnTAP, and provides a platform for service providers that is extremely hard to match.   OnTAP’s foundational architecture is based on purpose-built appliances that perform scalable enterprise data services, that now extend to hybrid cloud deployments.  Two different markets.  SolidFire’s platform went to market in 2010, 19 years after OnTAP was invented – and both were built to solve the problems of the day in the most efficient, scalable, and manageable way.

Third – NetApp either just made themselves more attractive to buyers, or LESS attractive, depending on how you look at it.

One could claim they’re more attractive now as their stock price is still relatively depressed, and they’re set up to attack the only storage markets that will exist in 5-10 years, those being the Enterprise/Hybrid Cloud market and the Service Provider/SaaS market.  Anyone still focusing on SMB/MSE storage in 5-10 years will find nothing but the remnants of a market that has moved all of its data and applications to the cloud.

Alternatively, one could suggest a wait-and-see approach to the SolidFire acquisition, as well as the other major changes NetApp has made to its portfolio over the last year (AFF, AltaVault, cloud integration endeavors, as well as all the things it STOPPED doing). [Side note: with 16TB SSD drives coming, look for AFF to give competitors like Pure and xTremeIO some troubles.]

So let’s discuss what ISN’T going to happen.

There is NO WAY that NetApp is going to shove SolidFire into the OnTAP platform.  Anyone who is putting that out there hasn’t done their homework to understand the foundational architectures of the VERY DIFFERENT two technologies.  Also, what would possibly be gained by doing so?   In contrast, Spinnaker had technology that could let OnTAP escape from its two-controller bifurcated storage boundaries.  The plan from the beginning was to use the SpinFS goodness to create a non-disruptive, no-boundaries platform for scalable and holistic enterprise storage, with all the data services that entailed.

What could (and should) happen is that NetApp add some Data Fabric goodness into the SF product- perhaps this concept is what is confusing the self-described technorati in the web rags.  NetApp re-wrote and opened up the LRSE (SnapMirror) technology so that it could move data among multiple platforms, so this wouldn’t be a deep integration, but rather an “edge” integration, and the same is being worked into the AltaVault and StorageGRID platforms to create a holistic and flexible data ecosystem that can meet any need conceivable.

While SolidFire could absolutely be used for enterprise storage, its natural market is the service provider who needs to simply plug and grow (or pull and shrink).  Perhaps there could be a feature or two that the NetApp and SF development teams could share over coffee (I’ve heard that the FAS and FlashRay teams had such an event that resulted in a major improvement for AFF), but that can only be a good thing.  However the integration of the two platforms isn’t in anyone’s interests, and everyone I’ve spoken to at NetApp both on and off the record are adamant that Netapp isn’t going to “OnTAP” the SolidFire platform.

SolidFire will likely continue to operate as a separate entity for quite a while, as sales groups to service providers are already distinct from the enterprise/commercial sales groups at NetApp.  Since OnTAP knowledge won’t be able to be leveraged when dealing with SolidFire, I would expect that existing NetApp channel partners won’t be encouraged to start pushing the SF platform until they’ve demonstrated both SF and OpenStack chops.  I would also expect the reverse to be true; while many of SolidFire’s partners are already NetApp partners, it’s unknown how many have Clustered OnTAP knowledge.

I don’t see this acquisition as a monumental event that has immediately demonstrable external impact to the industry, or either company.  The benefits will become evident 12-18 months out and position NetApp for long-term success, viz-a-viz “flash in the pan” storage companies that will find their runway much shorter than expected in the 3-4 year timeframe.  As usual, NetApp took the long view.  Those who see this as a “hail-mary” to rescue NetApp from a “failed” flash play aren’t understanding the market dynamics at work.  We won’t be able to measure the success of the SolidFire acquisition for a good 3-4 years; not because of any integration that’s required (like the Spinnaker deal), but because the bet is on how the market is changing and where it will be at that point – with this acquisition, NetApp is betting it will be the best-positioned to meet those needs.

 

NetApp + SolidFire…or SolidFire + NetApp?