Do you know the Beatles song “Revolution”? The lyrics of that song, referencing the world’s need for a change and ability to deliver, poignantly encapsulate their impact. The Beatles’ most significant contributions to music occurred over 6 short years (1964–1970). It was a remarkable time, and they were the right group to deliver a revolution. How many technology companies run their course in 6 years? How many in much less? How many, like Cisco and NetApp, celebrate over 25 years of innovation and have the right engineers to deliver on market demands?


FlexPod®, now in its sixth year, recently celebrated one of its best quarters ever, tallying a 44% year-over-year growth of revenue reported in IDC’s Quarterly Converged Systems Tracker for Q4 of calendar year 2016. FlexPod excels in a world of converged, hyper converged, and hybrid cloud. Now is an interesting time to reflect, and this new blog series provides a place to do so. There truly is a place for multiple strategies in today’s world of on-premises, near the cloud, or on-cloud workloads. When FlexPod launched, there wasn’t an accurate IDC designation, many sales teams didn’t know what to sell, and many customers thought they could ask for a single FlexPod SKU. The Wikipedia page for “converged infrastructure” even appeared after FlexPod was born. To the engineers working on FlexPod, none of that was relevant; what mattered was solving customer challenges.


I enjoy the history of how bands like the Beatles and impactful products or solutions got their start. There are multiple viewpoints for any event in history, as you know. From my perspective, FlexPod was born at the intersection of the need for engineering best practices, increased customer demand, the emergence of strategic vendor relationships, and channel partner readiness.


Engineering Best Practices

In 2006, many in the market viewed NetApp—then called “Network Appliance”—as a NAS-only vendor. NetApp needed to test large numbers of compute resources against FAS controllers and NetApp® Data ONTAP® to prove enterprise readiness. Back then, every engineer in the company had at least two data center racks’ worth of gear that they “owned” and used for testing. We needed to scale and grow but had to do so while sharing resources and reducing costs.


We developed a best-in-class compute grid, called the Kilo Client, with distinct pods of compute, network, and storage. We started with 3 pods of 224 blade servers each and quickly scaled to over 1,000 during our pilot program.


First Gen NetApp Kilo Client Pod Architecture: Circa 2006

This environment included, rapidly provisioned SAN-booted clients, connected to controllers under testing, proved that a best-in-class test grid could be deployed using NetApp storage. This environment has been successful for several years and continues in an evolved design. The NetApp Kilo Client went online in March 2006, and customers wanted to hear how we were using our technology to solve our own problems.


Customer Demand

The years 2006–2009 saw several industry trends unfold. The biggest of these trends was virtualization, which grew to a multibillion-dollar market segment. For as many benefits as virtualization provided, customers struggled to design scalable and predictable infrastructures capable of satisfying their application needs. IT shops were being asked to do more with less. Customers needed vendors that understood their challenges and could deliver best practice guidance in the form of reference architectures.  The NetApp Research Triangle Park campus in North Carolina grew as we built out new data centers. These new designs incorporated virtualization, the pod architecture, hot and cold aisle isolation, and ambient air cooling. We also took a hard look at our disaster recovery strategy and determined which applications were cloud-ready. We learned by building out world-class engineering and IT best practices. The first generation of the Kilo Client reached maturity, and NetApp was investigating new computing platforms for our own testing and virtualization needs.


Strategic Vendor Relationships

About this time, Nuova Systems was developing a new data center switch line and a new compute platform. Acquired by Cisco in 2008, the team quickly brought to market the Nexus 5000 series switch and, in 2009, the Unified Computing System (Cisco UCS). To grow from zero in the server market, Cisco needed storage partners and channel partners that knew a customer’s entire stack. VMware, likewise, was controlling the virtualization market but still looking to grow further and innovate. NetApp, Cisco, and VMware joined together as part of the Imagine Virtually Anything alliance. We developed a reference architecture called Secure Multitenancy that aimed to reduce customer risk while providing a proof point for a standardized virtualized infrastructure stack.


Channel Partner Readiness

No group has the pulse of its customers like the channel community. It is the trusted advisor for its customers and helps guide them through an onslaught of product innovation from their vendors. In 2009–2011, Virtual Computing Environment (VCE), a joint venture of Cisco, EMC, and VMware, produced Vblock. Shortly thereafter, FlexPod, a strong partnership between NetApp and Cisco, emerged with VMware as an ecosystem contributor. FlexPod was developed as a flexible design centered on compute and network best practices and NetApp’s unified OS, NetApp ONTAP. Partners embraced the FlexPod architecture in that it was not a rigid solution and allowed them the opportunity to tailor a solution to their customers’ needs..


FlexPod revolutionized the market. Customers, channel partners, and alliances were ready for converged infrastructure solutions backed by the experience the engineers gained from solving their own problems. The team aims to reduce customer risk through extensive validations in the form of NetApp Verified Architectures (NVAs) and Cisco Validated Designs (CVDs). We also give partners the training and tools needed to deliver solutions that alleviate customer challenges. Be on the lookout for the second part of this edition of the FlexPod Survival Guide Series, in which we will discuss how FlexPod has continued this revolution and embraced an ever-changing landscape. In the meantime, visit the following pages for a stroll down memory lane and a look at FlexPod today.


Chris Reno

Chris Reno is a technical marketing engineer at NetApp in the Infrastructure and Cloud Engineering team. Chris is focused on architecting, validating, documenting, and evangelizing solutions based on NetApp products; specifically virtualization, cloud and converged infrastructure. Chris co-developed FlexPod and has held a variety of senior technical roles including sys admin, professional services engineer, and presales engineer. Most recently Chris was a presales engineer for a NetApp channel partner before being rejoining NetApp in 2017. In total, Chris has over 12 years experience with NetApp storage systems and has extensive experience in Q&A automation, virtualization, stateless computing, flash technologies, and hybrid cloud architectures.

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