A tale of two storage companies – NetApp and Vantara (HDS-Insight Grp-Pentaho)

It was the worst of times. The industry changes had been gathering for a decade almost and by this time were starting to hurt.

The cloud was taking over all new business and some of the old. Flash’s performance was making high performance easy and reducing storage requirements commensurately. Software defined was displacing low and midrange storage, which was fine for margins but injurious to revenues.

Both companies had user events in Vegas the last month, NetApp Insight 2017 last week and Hitachi NEXT2017 conference two weeks ago.

As both companies respond to industry trends, they provide an interesting comparison to watch companies in transition.

Company role

  • NetApp’s underlying theme is to change the world with data and they want to change to help companies do this.
  • Vantara’s philosophy is data and processing is ultimately moving into the Internet of things (IoT) and they want to be wherever the data takes them.

Hitachi Vantara is a brand new company that combines Hitachi Data Systems, Hitachi Insight Group and Pentaho (an analytics acquisition) into one organization to go after the IoT market. Pentaho will continue as a separate brand/subsidiary, but HDS and Insight Group cease to exist as separate companies/subsidiaries and are now inside Vantara.

NetApp sees transitions occurring in the way IT conducts business but ultimately, a continuing and ongoing role for IT. NetApp’s ultimate role is as a data service provider to IT.

Customer problem

  • Vantara believes the main customer issue is the need to digitize the business. Because competition is emerging everywhere, the only way for a company to succeed against this interminable onslaught is to digitize everything. That is digitize your manufacturing/service production, sales, marketing, maintenance, any and all customer touch points, across your whole value chain and do it as rapidly as possible. If you don’t your competition will.
  • NetApp sees customers today have three potential concerns: 1) how to modernize current infrastructure; 2) how to take advantage of (hybrid) cloud; and 3) how to build out the next generation data center. Modernization is needed to free capital and expense from traditional IT for use in Hybrid cloud and next generation data centers. Most organizations have all three going on concurrently.

Vantara sees the threat of startups, regional operators and more advanced digitized competitors as existential for today’s companies. The only way to keep your business alive under these onslaughts is to optimize your value delivery. And to do that, you have to digitize every step in that path.

NetApp views the threat to IT as originating from LoB/shadow IT originating applications born and grown in the cloud or other groups creating next gen applications using capabilities outside of IT.

Product direction

  • NetApp is looking mostly towards the cloud. At their conference they announced a new Azure NFS service powered by NetApp. They already had Cloud ONTAP and NPS, both current cloud offerings, a software defined storage in the cloud and a co-lo hardware offering directly attached to public cloud (Azure & AWS), respectively.
  • Vantara is looking towards IoT. At their conference they announced Lumada 2.0, an Industrial IoT (IIoT) product framework using plenty of Hitachi software functionality and intended to bring data and analytics under one software umbrella.

NetApp is following a path laid down years past when they devised the data fabric. Now, they are integrating and implementing data fabric across their whole product line. With the ultimate goal that wherever your data goes, the data fabric will be there to help you with it.

Vantara is broadening their focus, from IT products and solutions to IoT. It’s not so much an abandoning present day IT, as looking forward to the day where present day IT is just one cog in an ever expanding, completely integrated digital entity which the new organization becomes.

They both had other announcements, NetApp announced ONTAP 9.3, Active IQ (AI applied to predictive service) and FlexPod SF ([H]CI with SolidFire storage) and Vantara announced a new IoT turnkey appliance running Lumada and a smart data center (IoT) solution.

Who’s right?

They both are.

Digitization is the future, the sooner organizations realize and embrace this, the better for their long term health. Digitization will happen with or without organizations and when it does, it will result in a significant re-ordering of today’s competitive landscape. IoT is one component of organizational digitization, specifically outside of IT data centers, but using IT resources.

In the mean time, IT must become more effective and efficient. This means it has to modernize to free up resources to support (hybrid) cloud applications and supply the infrastructure needed for next gen applications.

One could argue that Vantara is positioning themselves for the long term and NetApp is positioning themselves for the short term. But that denies the possibility that IT will have a role in digitization. In the end both are correct and both can succeed if they deliver on their promise.



What is cloud storage good for?

Facebook friend carrousel by antjeverena (cc) (from flickr)
Facebook friend carrousel by antjeverena (cc) (from flickr)

Cloud storage has emerged  as a viable business service in the last couple of years, but what does cloud storage really do for the data center.  Moving data out to the cloud makes for unpredictable access times with potentially unsecured and unprotected data.  So what does the data center gain by using cloud storage?

  • Speed – it  often takes a long time (day-weeks-months) to add storage to in-house data center infrastructure.  In this case, having a cloud storage provider where one can buy additional storage by the GB/Month may make sense if one is developing/deploying new applications where speed to market is important.
  • Flexibility – data center storage is often leased or owned for long time periods.  If an application’s data storage requirements vary significantly over time then cloud storage, purchase-able or retire-able on a moments notice, may be just right.
  • Distributed data access – some applications require data to be accessible around the world.  Most cloud providers have multiple data centers throughout the world that can be used to host one’s data. Such multi-site data centers can be often be accessed much quicker than going back to a central data center.
  • Data archive – backing up data that is infrequently accessed wastes time and resources. As such, this data could easily reside in the cloud with little trouble.  References to such data would need to be redirected to one’s cloud provider but that’s about all that needs to be done.
  • Disaster recovery – disaster recovery for many data centers is very low on their priority list.  Cloud storage provides an easy, ready made solution to accessing one’s data outside the data center.  If you elect to copy all mission critical data out to the cloud on a periodic basis, then this data could theoretically be accessed anywhere, usable in many DR scenarios.

Probably some I am missing here but these will do for now.  Most cloud storage providers can provide any and all of these services.

Of course all these capabilities can be done in-house with additional onsite infrastructure, multi-site data centers, archive systems, or offsite backups.  But the question then becomes which is more economical.  Cloud providers can amortize their multi-site data centers across many customers and as such, may be able to provide these services much cheaper than could be done in-house.

Now if they could only solve that unpredictable access time, …

Storage strategic inflection points

EMC vs S&P 500 Stock price chart
EMC vs S&P 500 Stock price chart - 20 yrs from Yahoo Finance

Both EMC and Spectra Logic celebrated their 30 years in business this month and it got me to thinking. Both companies started the same time but one is a ~$14B revenue (’09 projected) behemoth and the other a relatively successful, but relatively mid-size storage company (Spectra Logic is private and does not report revenues). What’s the big difference between these two. As far as I can tell both companies have been adequately run for some time now by very smart people. Why is one two or more orders of magnitude bigger than the other – recognizing strategic inflection points is key.

So what is a strategic inflection point? Andy Grove may have coined the term and calls a strategic inflection point a point “… where the old strategic picture dissolves and gives way to the new.” In my view EMC has been more successful at recognizing storage strategic inflection points than Spectra Logic and this explains a major part of their success.

EMC’s history in brief

In listening this week to Joe Tucci’s talk at EMC Analyst Days he talked about the rather humble beginnings of EMC. It started out selling furniture and memory for mainframes (I think) but Joe said it really took off in 1991, almost 12 years after it was founded. It seems they latched onto some DRAM based SSD like storage technology and converted it to use disk as a RAID storage device in the mainframe and later open systems arena. RAID killed off the big (14″ platter) disk devices that had dominated storage at that time and once started could not be stopped. Whether by luck or smarts EMC’s push into RAID storage made them what they are today – probably a little of both.

It was interesting to see how this played out in the storage market space. RAID used smaller disks, first 8″, then 5.25″ and now 3.5″. When first introduced, manufacturing costs for the RAID storage were so low that one couldn’t help but make a profit selling against big disk devices that held 14″ platters. The more successful RAID became, the more available and reliable the smaller disks became which led to a virtuous cycle culminating in the highly reliable 3.5″ disk devices available today. Not sure Joe was at EMC at the time but if he was he would probably have called that transition between big platter disks and RAID a “strategic inflection point” in the storage industry at the time.

Most of EMC’s competitors and customers would probably say that aggressive marketing also helped propel EMC to be the top of the storage heap. I am not sure which came first, the recognition of a strategic inflection like RAID or the EMC marketing machine but, together, they gave EMC a decided advantage that re-constructed the storage industry.

Spectra Logic’s history in brief

As far as I can tell Spectra Logic has been in the backup software for a long time and later started supporting tape technology where they are well known today. Spectra Logic has disk storage systems as well but they seem better known for their tape and backup technology.

The big changes in tape technology over the past 30 years have been tape cartridges and robotics. Although tape cartridges were introduced by IBM (for the IBM 3480 in 1985), the first true tape automation was introduced by Storage Technology Corp. (with the STK 4400 in 1987). Storage Technology rode the wave of the robotics revolution throughout the late 80’s into the mid 90’s and was very successful for a time. Spectra Logic’s entry into tape robotics was sometime later (1995) but by the time they got onboard it was a very successful and mature technology.

Nonetheless, the revolution in tape technology and operations brought on by these two advances, probably held off the decline in tape for a decade or two, and yet it could not ultimately stem the tide in tape use apparent today (see my post on Repositioning of tape). Spectra Logic has recently introduced a new tape library.

Another strategic inflection point that helped EMC

Proprietary “Open” Unix systems had started to emerge in the late 80’s and early 90’s and by the mid 90’s were beginning to host most new and sophisticated applications. The FC interface also emerged in the early to mid 90’s as a replacement to HPC-HPPI technology and for awhile battled it out against SSA technology from IBM but by 1997 emerged victorious. Once FC and the follow-on higher level protocols (resulting in SAN) were available, proprietary Unix systems had the IO architecture to support any application needed by the enterprise and they both took off feeding on each other. This was yet another strategic inflection point and I am not sure if EMC was the first entry into this market but they sure were the biggest and as such, quickly emerged to dominate it. In my mind EMC’s real accelerated growth can be tied to this timeframe.

EMC’s future bets today

Again, today, EMC seems to be in the fray for the next inflection. Their latest bets are on virtualization technology in VMware, NAND-SSD storage and cloud storage. They bet large on the VMware acquisition and it’s working well for them. They were the largest company and earliest to market with NAND-SSD technology in the broad market space and seem to enjoy a commanding lead. Atmos is not the first cloud storage service out there, but once again EMC was one of the largest companies to go after this market.

One can’t help but admire a company that swings for the bleachers every time they get a chance at bat. Not every one is going out of the park but when they get ahold of one, sometimes they can change whole industries.

Sidekick's failure, no backups

Sidekick 2 "Skinit" by grandtlairdjr (cc) (from flickr)
Sidekick 2 "Skinit" by grandtlairdjr (cc) (from flickr)

I believe I have covered this ground before but apparently it needs reiterating. Cloud storage without backup cannot be considered a viable solution. Replication only works well if you never delete or logically erase data from a primary copy. Once that’s done the data is also lost in all replica locations soon afterwards.

I am not sure what happened with the sidekick data, whether somehow a finger check deleted it or some other problem but from what I see looking in from the outside – there were no backups, no offline copies, no fall back copies of the data that weren’t part of the central node and it’s network of replicas. When that’s the case disaster is sure to ensue.

At the moment the blame game is going around to find out who is responsible and I hear that some of the data may be being restored. But that’s not the problem. Having no backups that are not part of the original storage infrastructure/environment are the problem. Replicas are never enough. Backups have to be elsewhere to count as backups.

What would have happened if they had backups is that the duration of the outage would have been the length of time it took to retrieve and restore the data and some customer data would have been lost since the last backup but that would have been it. It wouldn’t be the first time backups had to be used and it won’t be the last. But without backups at all, then you have a massive customer data loss that cannot be recovered from.

This is unacceptable. It gives IT a bad name, puts a dark cloud over cloud computing and storage and makes the IT staff of sidekick/danger look bad or worse incompetent naive.

All of you cloud providers need to take heed. You can do better. Backup software/services can be used to backup this data and we will all be better served because of it.

BBC and others now report that most of the Sidekick data will be restored. I am glad that they found a way to recover their “… data loss in the core database and the back up.” and have “… installed a more resilient back-up process” for their customer data.

Some are saying that the backups just weren’t accessible but until the whole story comes out I will withhold judgement. Just glad to have another potential data loss be prevented.

What's holding back the cloud?

Cloud whisps by turtlemom4bacon
Cloud whisps by turtlemom4bacon

Steve Duplessie’s recent post on how the lack of scarcity will be a gamechanger got me thinking. Free is good but the simplicity of the user/administrative interface is worth paying for. And it’s that simplicity that pays off for me.

Ease of use

I agree wholeheartedly with Steve about what and where people should spend their time today. Tweetdeck, the Mac, and the iPhone are three key examples that make my business life easier (most of the time).

  • TweetDeck allows me to filter who I am following all while giving me access to any and all of them.
  • The Mac leaves me much more time to do what needs to be done and allows me to spend less time on non-essential stuff.
  • The iPhone has 1000’s of app’s which make my idle time that much more productive.

Nobody would say any of these things are easy to create and for most of them (Tweetdeck is free at the moment) I pay a premium for these products. All these products have significant complexity to offer the simple user and administrative interface they supply.

The iPhone is probably closest to the cloud from my perspective. But it performs poorly (compared to broadband) and service (ATT?) is spotty.  Now these are nuisances in a cell phone which can be lived with.  If this were my only work platform they would be deadly.

Now the cloud may be easy to use because it removes the administrative burden but that’s only one facet of using it. I assume using most cloud services are as easy as signing up on the web and then recoding applications to use the cloud provider’s designated API. This doesn’t sound easy to me. (Full disclosure I am not a current cloud user and thus, cannot talk about it’s ease of use).

Storm clouds

However, today the cloud is not there for other reasons – availability concerns, security concerns, performance issues, etc. All these are inhibitors today and need to be resolved before the cloud can reach the mainstream or maybe be my platform of choice. Also, I have talked before on some other issues with the cloud.

Aside from those inhibitors, the other main problems with the cloud are lack of applications I need to do business today.  Google Apps and MS Office over the net are interesting but not sufficient.  Not sure what is sufficient and that would depend on your line of business but server and desktop platforms had the same problem when they started out. However servers and desktops have evolved over time from killer apps to providing needed application support. The cloud will no doubt follow, over time.

In the end, the cloud needs to both grow up and evolve to host my business model and I would presume many others as well. Personally I don’t care if my data&apps are hosted on the cloud or hosted on office machines. What matters to me are security, reliability, availability, and useability. When the cloud can support me in the same way that the Mac can, then who hosts my applications will be a purely economic decision.

The cloud and net are just not there yet.