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Mastering the data

NetApp-CEO-Tom-GeorgensMoving virtual servers around a hybrid cloud environment isn’t hard, but managing the data is. That’s why NetApp wants to be “the enterprise data-management standard across the enterprise,” says CEO Tom Georgens.

You announced a cloud strategy late last year so why don’t we start with an update on what cloud means to NetApp.

The cloud could be a ten-hour conversation, but to distill it down, I think customers are wrestling with the role of the cloud. We all get Software-as-a-Service. And certainly we see workloads that are temporary or changing in nature that could use access to infrastructure that you can use on demand and then unwind. That transient capability is something that just can’t be emulated with on-premise computing. And we see use cases with very, very low utilisation, where data wouldn’t be stored if it weren’t the cloud. And things like archiving and backup, where you see cloud as a repository, those use cases make a lot of sense as well. But on the other hand, cloud is not a panacea. Leaving aside things like performance and security, the cloud is not that flexible and is not that inexpensive.

A CEO said to me recently, “Nobody goes to the cloud for price.” I found myself coming to the defense of Amazon, but his point was that, given the transaction orientation and the bandwidth requirements of his workloads, the economics of doing it himself were far better. Twenty four hours later I was at an SaaS vendor that is half in the cloud and half on-premise, and they said they need to move on-premise because of the economics.

So I think there are workloads where it is compelling, where it offers a set of capabilities that can’t possibly be matched on-premise. But there are other workloads that are problematic from an economic point of view, or where security is the concern. It’s inevitable that enterprises, for a very long period to come, are going to have some combination of on-premise and off-premise computing. The hybrid cloud is going to be the dominant model here.

The real challenge, then, is how do you enable customers to create a seamless extension of what they do on-premise, so when they go to the cloud they don’t have to run different sets of data management tools. That is, if I can move my apps from on-premise to the cloud and back, how do I make the data management seamless?

Since data management is the hardest problem, NetApp wants to be the enterprise data-management provider. NetApp’s value proposition is primarily the software. We already manage data on other people’s hardware, and we sell systems bundled with our software and also unbundle the software. We have a version of our product that basically allows access to the elastic compute of an Amazon or a Microsoft, while letting you maintain control of your data, and you can expect to see us offer more tools that even more closely integrate with the cloud.

NetApp wants to manage data whether it’s on our equipment or not, and whether it’s on-premises or not. We want to be the enterprise data-management standard across the enterprise. We don’t make disk drives. We’re not Seagate. We basically make software that makes disk drives reliable, high performance and easy to manage. And if we viewed Amazon and some of these services as basically the new disk drives, we can manage those as well and enable customers to operationalise the cloud.

We have no desire to emulate the cloud. We have no desire to offer an undifferentiated cloud service. Our view is the cloud is not a target, the enterprise customer is the target and the cloud is a tool that is available to them.

Do you need to partner with cloud providers to do that?

Actually there are some clever things we’re doing that are unique and make the cloud providers want to partner with us. I mentioned the cloud enabling you to spin up 500 servers for a short period of time and then spin them down, but once you move data there it costs you money to pull it out, it costs you money to access it. So we have this collaboration with Amazon that we call NetApp Private Storage for Amazon that allows you to keep the data on your network and connect through a high-bandwidth pipe to their compute farm. So you keep the data under your control, under your tools, with all of your security, but still have access to the elastic compute.
We see people using that for everything from test and development to backup. Disaster recovery is another interesting application. You keep replicating data and if there is a disaster you spin up all the servers and networking.

Customers see value in the cloud, but they don’t want to have to use a separate set of tools, a separate set of processes, and they’re having a tough time operationalising it. We want to come in and say, “If you standardise on NetApp data management we will seamlessly integrate the cloud for you and it will make the cloud look like it’s actually part of your own infrastructure.”

Do your customers typically refer to their internal systems as private clouds?

The vast majority of enterprise deployments would be described as private clouds. If you go back to the server virtualisation revolution of five years ago, the original premise was, I have all these servers running individual apps and they’re all grossly underutilised. So, if I can encapsulate those apps and run multiple apps simultaneously on servers, I can drive up utilisation rates, lower my server footprint, and the economics are compelling. And that’s all true.

But now that my apps are no longer tied to hardware, I can move them from server to server for load balancing, or data centre to data centre for disaster recovery, so I can think about my infrastructure independent of my apps.

So I can build a very homogeneous, very highly automated, very efficient infrastructure that’s application-dependent, and I can run many, many apps on it with a set of tools that automate all that. That’s my definition of the private cloud. And there’s no doubt that companies are moving to that model for on-premise computing, outside of very specific dedicated applications, simply because of the flexibility and the cost. But that said, if you own infrastructure you’ll never match the flexibility of being able to turn on 1,000 servers and then turn them off a month later like you can with an Amazon.

Switching gears a bit, what do you make of the promise of big data?

People are intrigued with the possibility of gleaning more intelligence from all this data. But the transition into production is complicated. For NetApp, we have our own Big Data project that has to do with how we monitor all of our equipment and analyse the data that gets reported back to us. And that’s been very successful.

NetApp is not an analytics company, so we don’t compete with Oracle, Teradata or SAP. All three are important partners for us. The NetApp advantage is we’ve got multi-protocol storage and we can build a big pool of storage, whether its file-oriented or database-oriented or block-oriented, and it’s easy to extract that data and have access to your analytics tool.

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