Can VSA help NetApp?

Almost a year ago, I had an interview with VMware Malaysia for a Senior SE position. They wanted a pre-sales guy who knows Oil & Gas and a strong technology background. I had a strong storage background, and I was involved in Oil & Gas upstream since my NetApp and EMC days.

I thought I was their guy having being led to believe (mostly by my own self-belief) to be so. I didn’t get the job but I did not find out the reason why I lost the opportunity. But I remembered well that I brashly mentioned to the Australian interviewer over the phone that VMware could become the next “storage technology” company. At that time, VMware just launched their VMware 5.0 and along with it, their vSphere Storage Appliance (VSA). This was a turning point of the virtual storage appliance space.

My friend, whose company is a VMware partner, said that the list price for the vSphere VSA was USD5,000.00 a pop. The price wasn’t too bad to the small-medium-enterprise businesses in Malaysia, minus the hardware and storage capacity cost. But what intrigued me back then was this virtual storage appliance concept was disruptive.

VMware could potentially take large JBOD farms, each for the minimum of 3 physical ESXi nodes and build a shared storage using the vSphere Storage Appliance (VSA). Who needs shared iSCSI or Fibre Channel LUNs anymore if VMware had its way?

But VMware still pretty much depended on their storage partners, especially its master, EMC and so I believe VMware held back pushing VSA for the reason of allowing its storage partner ecosystem to thrive. And for that reason, the vSphere Storage API such as VAAI and VASA were developed since vSphere 4 to enhance the deeper integration of these storage vendor’s technology into the VMware world.

But of course, long before the VMware’s VSA venture, HP LeftHand already had one on the cards. The LeftHand Virtual SAN Appliance (also VSA) was already getting rave comments from their partners and customers, impressed with how they were able to showcase HP LeftHand storage solution and technology brilliantly. Eventually, HP recognized the prowess of the LeftHand VSA and started marketing it as HP StoreVirtual VSA. I don’t hear much about the HP LeftHand (since has been renamed as P4000) VSA nowadays, seeing the HP guys in Malaysia preferring to pitch the physical storage than the virtual storage software.

NetApp, back in Q1 of 2012, also decided to go down the path of virtual storage appliance, announcing the ONTAP-v to the world here. It was initially resold through the Fujitsu partnership, but the Q1 announcement expands the ONTAP-v to a larger set of server vendors as shown below. The key component is to have a qualified RAID controller in each of the server vendors.

Let’s look at bit deeper into NetApp ONTAP-v. ONTAP-v is part of the ONTAP Edge family of solutions for the ROBO (remote office branch office) market. ONTAP-v is a Data ONTAP in a virtual machine of running hypervisor. It uses the local physical storage (DAS) to create and present NetApp storage volumes to the other virtual machines running in the same hypervisor of the physical machine. Here’s the architecture overview in a nutshell.

Yup, it’s ONTAP without the FAS hardware. Yup, it’s ONTAP not on network storage. Yup, it’s ONTAP using local disks in the physical server. And it totally flips the entire mojo that NetApp hardware had stood for – RAID-DP, NVRAM (there is a V-NVRAM – NVRAM emulation), aggregates (err, that’s still there), Unified Target Adapters (UTA). Hey, it’s part of the evolution!

If VMware guys know about Cisco Nexus 1000v thingy, which is a software-only Cisco vSwitch, then ONTAP-v is pretty much the same concept. Think of ONTAP-v as a software-only filer head. It is a filer head in a virtual machine.

Notice in the diagram above that RAID-0 is used? This means that the physical system is responsible for creating the RAID groups. I mentioned that the key component is a qualified RAID controller. ONTAP-v will merely take the RAID group presented to it and manage them as RAID-0 volumes for optimized performance and storage utilization. Architecturally, this is how it looks like below:

The dvadmin command you see in the yellow box above is a new tool installed into either a Linux VM or a separate server to install, administer and manage the ONTAP-v.

There you have it. A little knowledge of the ONTAP-v, and I am sharing with you as I learn about it.

Of course, it looks and feels like a risky move for NetApp. The ONTAP-v is uncharted territory for NetApp and I have not seen the big storage boys sailing down this virtual storage appliance voyage with pompousity (except maybe HP).

That is not to say that other vendors are not following suit. Nexenta, a storage software appliance company, and FalconStor with the data management and protection solutions have their own VSA offering respectively. But to these software-only vendors, the VSA concepts makes perfect sense because they don’t have a proprietary hardware business to protect. In fact, this has everything to go for them because they are latching on the the VMware fast progressing trails of riches and happiness.

NetApp said the ONTAP-v was developed because the customers wanted it but will the ONTAP-v strategy hurt the existing proprietary hardware sales? For now, the dent to the NetApp hardware business may be insignificant, but if VMware continues to its growth path, then the ONTAP-v VSA product will eventually be a cheaper (and good enough) alternative to the real thing.

VMware obviously is holding all the aces here. They could just obliterate the whole storage market and make LUNs insignificant by encapsulate every block storage with VMFS. And they already have plans to do more with storage. Plans such as Virtual Flash, Virtual Volume and Virtual SAN have been dangled in front of the eager crowd at VMworld Europe 2012.

As just about every enterprise SAN and NAS vendors holding up their offerings to VMware’s altar, NetApp is merely an early mover in the game of virtual storage appliance. So far, NetApp has always have a keen eye of where the storage market is going to be and they are usually spot on with their moves.

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About cfheoh

I am a technology blogger with 30 years of IT experience. I write heavily on technologies related to storage networking and data management because those are my areas of interest and expertise. I introduce technologies with the objectives to get readers to know the facts and use that knowledge to cut through the marketing hypes, FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) and other fancy stuff. Only then, there will be progress. I am involved in SNIA (Storage Networking Industry Association) and between 2013-2015, I was SNIA South Asia & SNIA Malaysia non-voting representation to SNIA Technical Council. I currently employed at iXsystems as their General Manager for Asia Pacific Japan.

2 Responses to Can VSA help NetApp?

  1. Pingback: Can VSA help NetApp? « Storage Gaga

  2. Chandra Pulamarasetti says:

    Very useful, cfheoh ! I think that VSAs will gain momentum as storage vendors are looking to gain share into public clouds.

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