NetApp hopes to catch virtualisation, cloud computing wave

Aims to catch up to EMC and Data Domain

The Pitch Having data in silos makes storage complex, says Manish Goel, NetApp's executive vice president of product operations. Goel says the company's software allows enterprises to manage different types of storage systems, such as network-attached storage (NAS) and fibre channel storage area networks (SANs), as a single infrastructure. NetApp bets that its approach will give it an edge as customers deploy virtual storage or move their data to cloud providers.

To better serve these customers, NetApp last year released Data OnTap 8, an operating system designed to make a company's storage platforms scale more easily to many petabytes while still being managed as a single system. With its planned acquisition of Bycast, NetApp is taking aim now at what it sees as a fast-growing market: multi-petabyte global repositories of unstructured data such as video. Bycast will bring technology that lets companies expand such repositories, as well as software for searching the data, Goel says.

The catch While NetApp has found a ready market in midsize companies, most large enterprises are heavily invested in SANs, which store data in blocks and typically connect to servers via fibre channel networks. NetApp offers fibre channel, but EMC, with roughly four times the revenue, dominates this lucrative market. Meanwhile, EMC has also made inroads into NetApp's own NAS territory. Last year, after NetApp made a deal to buy Data Domain, a maker of backup appliances that support data deduplication, EMC bid up the sale price until NetApp bowed out. Deduplication is popular for eliminating multiple copies of bits in different versions of stored files in order to ease the rapid growth of storage requirements.

NetApp already offers deduplication tools and says that the acquisition was intended to expand into a new market. But some analysts say NetApp's tools need improvement. It's not as effective as products by Data Domain or other vendors, says Taneja Group analyst Arun Taneja. "They need to have something very quickly, because EMC is enjoying a huge time advantage," Taneja says.

The score Other analysts, however, see NetApp leading a trend away from the relatively expensive, specialized SANs and toward iSCSI, a technology that uses IP-based networks to enable enterprises to link every storage device with every server. This approach is better suited to virtualization than SAN is because it allows storage to share the same network as other data center components, and it also uses less-expensive equipment, says Nemertes Research analyst Andreas Antonopoulos. The virtualization trend should play to NetApp's traditional strengths, he adds. "They were always the company of less-expensive, ubiquitous storage."

Goel says NetApp has rejected the approach of large vendors such as Hewlett-Packard and IBM to sell multiple data center components. Instead, NetApp plans to stay focused on storage, a strategy executives believe will help it to innovate. Like EMC, however, NetApp has formed partnerships with big data-center suppliers, including Cisco, VMware and Microsoft, to cement its place in this rapidly converging world.

Read more about green data center in CIO's Green Data Center Drilldown.

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