SolidFire deal gives NetApp the season's hottest gifts: flash and cloud

The $870 million acquisition could also bring NetApp closer to Cisco

NetApp wants to be at the intersection of two hot trends in a rapidly changing storage industry with its planned US$870 million acquisition of startup SolidFire.

The five-year-old company has an all-flash architecture for distributed web-scale data centers of the kind that service providers and now some enterprises have adopted so they can grow quickly and efficiently. That idea, along with the separate trend of hyper-converged systems that combine all the components of a data center into one box, threatens traditional purpose-built storage arrays of the sort that made big vendors like NetApp and EMC what they are today.

SolidFire's technology will complement NetApp's existing flash product lines: the FAS series of shared enterprise arrays and the ES line for specialized low-latency workloads like financial transactions, NetApp CEO George Kurian said in an interview Monday.

SolidFire's systems are geared toward the next generation of data centers, built around commodity hardware controlled by software and with simplified management, Kurian said.

In bringing the new acquisition's products into its lineup, NetApp doesn't plan to do what 451 Research analyst Henry Baltazar says has been a mistake after some of its other acquisitions: The company won't try to bring SolidFire's technology under its Data OnTap operating system. SolidFire-based products might borrow certain software components like data replication or the OnCommand Insight management system, but for the most part they will remain distinct because they serve a different set of needs, Kurian said.

SolidFire CEO Dave Wright will be in charge of the acquired product line after the close of the acquisition, which is expected by next April.

The one major casualty of the deal will be NetApp's emerging FlashRay architecture, which was to be its next-generation flash system but will be discontinued now that the company is buying SolidFire. The FlashRay project has been hobbled by the defections of key leaders and the sheer difficulty of developing a new storage architecture from the ground up, Baltazar said. In relation to both the FlashRay team and some competing startups, SolidFire had a clear head start, he said.

Service providers that want to compete with big cloud operators like Amazon and Google are among SolidFire's customers, but enterprises are also looking to reap the benefits of a cloud architecture. While flash is the medium of the future for sheer performance, companies also want more automated data centers and the ability to quickly scale out their infrastructure. For example, like service providers, some enterprises want to define storage quality of service in high, medium and low tiers for different applications, Baltazar said.

The acquisition may also help NetApp expand its partnership with Cisco Systems. While they work together building the FlexPod converged systems with NetApp storage and Cisco networking and computing, SolidFire has also been working with Cisco on its pre-certified Agile Infrastructure platforms.

The relationship between Cisco and SolidFire will expand the number of things that NetApp can do with the networking giant, though it's not why SolidFire was chosen, Kurian said.

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