By Laurence Cruz, NetApp


In December, NetApp announced a definitive agreement to acquire all-flash innovator SolidFire. I recently sat down with Lee Caswell, NetApp vice president of Product, Solutions, and Services Marketing, to discuss the industry shifts behind this.


Q: What customer buying patterns are you seeing as flash storage systems evolve?

Caswell: Historically, flash was just about performance. It was hugely expensive and available only to customers with deep pockets. Fast forward to today. Prices have dropped considerably as storage providers adopt proven high-volume semiconductor technologies from other industries and re-deploy them into cost-effective storage systems. It happened with x86 server CPUs. Now, it’s happening with high-volume solid-state drives (SSDs) that are used in millions of mobile phones.


People get that flash equals speed. But now we’re seeing a second wave of flash adoption that goes beyond performance. As pricing has come down, there’s a growing recognition that flash provides significant management benefits as well.


On the data services front, flash is a superior technology in every respect. Yes, it’s still more expensive than spinning disk, but it’s just a matter of time before the management benefits of flash overwhelm the pricing differential. With performance tuning no longer consuming them-we estimate that task used to take up to 40 percent of IT’s time-IT pros are free to focus on the data services they really care about. Flash-fueled data services help IT optimize their virtualized infrastructure environment: Is it reliable? Does it work with all the applications you need? Can you back it up?


What’s emerging as well is a new class of customer that wants cloud-like capabilities from their storage so they can be more flexible. DevOps teams, for example, want to be able to spin up 50 implementations of an application, send it out to different developers around the world, and have them work on it in parallel. These users place a priority on the ability to scale simply and seamlessly. Customers can rent this capability in the cloud or build their own. They can start small and easily scale out, with all the management done in the background. It’s a model that’s built on standard, high-volume, commodity hardware, which makes it economically feasible to deliver this kind of flexibility.


Q: How will the acquisition of SolidFire help NetApp respond to these shifting dynamics?

Caswell: Customers and partners I’ve been talking to see the value clearly. The combination of NetApp and SolidFire will give them unrivaled speed, data services, and scale to meet all their data center needs. They can be confident of getting the best outcomes across whatever deployment model they choose-standalone apps, virtualized infrastructure, and cloud-like infrastructure. This capability, aligned within NetApp’s Data Fabric vision, will allow them to seamlessly move, manage, and protect their data so they can help their customers be successful.


Breaking it down further, NetApp today has its line of EF-Series all-flash arrays, which deliver the raw performance for standalone apps that infrastructure buyers and application owners are looking for to improve the user experience. Our All Flash FAS (AFF) series has a rich set of data management services and is growing rapidly.


SolidFire systems feature flexible and independent scaling of both capacity and performance, with automatic balancing of data across the entire cluster. Its definitive scale-out block storage architecture is compelling for the cloud architect masterminding the next-generation data center. These customers have a clear idea of what they want to build out and are willing to do without features such as disk support.


Q: Let’s talk about partners. What does this flash acquisition mean for them?

Caswell: Partners tell me they have two big bets this year: flash and converged infrastructure. We’re strong in both, with our flash portfolio and our FlexPod joint converged infrastructure offering with Cisco.


Adding SolidFire to our flash portfolio opens up new conversations for partners. When I talk to customers who want to deploy some workloads to the cloud, the question often is, “Should I deploy equipment on-premises, or use resources born in the cloud?” With our hybrid cloud focus, NetApp has ensured our customers can interact with cloud resources no matter where their data sits. But the SolidFire acquisition means customers can choose a platform that delivers cloud-like functionality that they can invest in. And that option creates more opportunity for our partners.


We know our resellers are very interested in how they can provide a cloud-like experience for customers-meaning things like easy configuration, the ability to buy infrastructure in increments vs. making huge outlays, and of course the scaling element. At a physical level, you can seamlessly scale up to 100 nodes with SolidFire. And at a virtual level, you can have many users share the same infrastructure and-a key differentiator-deliver a quality of service (QoS) to any individual user, during optimal modes and during any degraded modes as well.


Q: Any closing thoughts?

Caswell: In a crowded marketplace of startups that has seen a drastic thinning of the unicorn herd, this acquisition is clear validation of the SolidFire value. Customers are thrilled with SolidFire’s cloud-like deployment model, and partners are excited about the depth and breadth of the flash portfolio we will offer once the acquisition is finalized. We’ll deliver flash leadership across the key elements of speed, scale, and data services.


At the same time, the combined company will have built a bridge from our newer flash products, to our more traditional disk products and to the cloud through the Data Fabric. It’s this data management expertise that sets NetApp apart from other storage providers and helps users realize the performance, management and scale benefits of flash.


Join us at the “Need More Speed” webcast to discover how moving its simulation software to NetApp All Flash enables Apache’s geoscientists to model seismic data faster and more accurately. Learn how NetApp has reduced the time needed to load and open models by 75%, supports 700% annual data grow with no added headcount, has cut storage costs by over half, and delivers up to 100% performance gains across Apache’s network.