NetApp’s much anticipated hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI), unveiled at the company’s annual user conference last week, takes a unique approach to HCI.
HCI combines scalable compute and storage in a single platform and manages them through a single software-defined management platform, usually a hypervisor.
Instead of running storage on a hypervisor, however, NetApp HCI disaggregates the storage and dedicates some of the nodes in the chassis for running SolidFire Element OS. Element OS is based on technology from NetApp’s acquisition of all-flash storage vendor SolidFire in 2016.
“We’ve purposefully taken a different approach to HCI,” said John Rollason, senior director, products and solutions marketing, next-generation data center at NetApp. “I was part of the SolidFire acquisition and a big part of that was SolidFire is a great foundation to build a very differentiated HCI platform.”
NetApp is arriving late to the HCI party. Dell EMC and Nutanix dominate the sector, with other major tech players including Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), Cisco, Lenovo, and Oracle angling for a piece of the pie.
But it’s a growing market — total HCI sales grew 48.5 percent, year-over-year during the second quarter of 2017, generating $763.4 million worth of sales, according to IDC. In fact, it’s the fastest growing segment in the data center space, projected by Gartner to be a $8.6 billion opportunity by 2020. And that bodes well for NetApp as it makes its HCI debut.
“Our approach is to bring to the enterprise, an enterprise-grade hyperconverged solution that deals with some of the challenges that first-generation hyperconverged solutions like vSAN and Nutanix have,” NetApp CEO George Kurian said on NetApp’s first quarter fiscal year 2018 earnings conference call.
Rollason said first-generation HCI systems have proven successful for single workloads or smaller projects. But they’re not up to snuff for enterprises looking to develop next-gen data centers.
“We really started looking at what are the limitations of that first generation of HCI players,” he said. “We saw that there were areas where people were struggling with performance—how do they consolidate workloads onto a platform rather than just buying a small box for a specific workload, which creates these challenges of siloed resources as you scale.”
NetApp designed its platform to scale beyond 4-8 node configurations, and it scaled compute and storage resources independently. “You can scale up to an 100 node system, and you can choose how you scale,” Rollason said. “So if you want to start with a 4-8 node system that is half and half compute and storage, you can do that. Then you can add storage nodes, or if you decide you need more compute, then you can add more compute nodes.”
This independent scaling also allows companies to avoid the “HCI tax,” which happens when the controller VMs gobble up system resources, which means they’re no longer available to run workloads, Rollason said.
The NetApp HCI platform performs better than its competitors, the company claims. “We guarantee performance from multiple applications running on the same infrastructure,” Rollason said. “It is designed so that you could have two different customers, two different business units, very different workloads — one high-end, business critical and another test-dev workload — both running on the same platform. You can really look at it as a data center infrastructure application.”
Hybrid Cloud Strategy
Additionally, the system integrates with the NetApp Data Fabric, which allows companies to move workloads between HCI and more traditional three-tier IT architecture. “For future, we can integrate with both public cloud and multi-cloud strategies,” Rollason added.
The company’s HCI system will be generally available at the end of the month. Early access customers have already deployed the platform, but the NetApp won’t say how many or give customer names.
Raymond James analyst Simon Leopold, in a research note, said while NetApp’s product “strays from true HCI,” it is “an innovative approach to addressing hybrid clouds.”
“We can see the appeal of being able to scale storage and compute independently, but retaining the ability for each to scale-out also allows for software defined management of each silo,” Leopold wrote. “The competition remains stiff, however, and with NetApp decidedly late to the game, we wonder how incremental its HCI solution will ultimately be.”