NetApp places big bet on hyperconverged infrastructure

At their C3 partner event this week, NetApp exhorted partners to ramp up their efforts to sell NetApp's new HCI offering based on Solidfire technology, while not letting up on their FlexPod CI activities.

SCOTTSDALE –  NetApp’s Cloud Connect Conference [C3] here this week related the company’s sales strategy to an assemblage of their top channel partners, stressing three big themes. One – to drive hard on all-flash, which has been a key ingredient in the rebirth of NetApp, will come as no surprise. The other two may puzzle some partners however. The overarching theme of them all is to lead with cloud – making it an emphasis to sell cloud offerings which are only just coming to market. The other imperative focused around NetApp’s Cloud Infrastructure Business Unit. There, NetApp stressed that while they are not letting up a bit on their FlexPod joint offering with Cisco, they are making a big push with their hyperconverged infrastructure [HCI] offering that comes from technology NetApp acquired with Solidfire. They asked partners to sell NetApp HCI aggressively – emphasizing its unique strengths in the market, while at the same time acknowledging that since NetApp did not have an HCI product until last fall, NetApp partners tend to have established relationships with alternative HCI vendors, particularly Nutanix.

NetApp created the Cloud Infrastructure Business Unit in January of this year, making it the third NetApp business unit, and naming Brad Anderson to lead it as SVP and GM. Anderson was then a newcomer to NetApp, with a deep server background, who had spent the better part of a decade at HP running their Industry Standard Servers unit, before moving to Dell for almost as long, where he was President of their Enterprise Products Group. The Business Unit contained FlexPod, the Solidfire assets which became the HCI offering, StorageGRID hyperscale object storage, and Active IQ predictive analytics.

“We set up this dedicated business unit to provide a seamless hybrid cloud experience,” Anderson told his channel audience during his keynote. “The big pay here is NetApp HCI, a billion dollar opportunity, which is growing at 29 per cent.”

NetApp just began to ship their HCI offering last October, making it a latecomer in a space where their large OEM competitors, led by Dell EMC, all have a presence, and where a large number of startups focused on particular use cases exist, with the jewel in the crown here being Nutanix, which largely evangelized the space, and which is by far the largest of the newer companies in it. Anderson emphasized that NetApp is positioning itself as offering a solution that is highly differentiated from their competition.

“NetApp is taking a very different approach here,” he said. “Others focused on simplicity, and the branch and midmarket opportunity. We are taking a very enterprise approach, which leverages with we have learned with FlexPod. We too are also providing simplicity, but only NetApp offers public cloud architecture for private cloud.”

Most of their competitors would also argue that they now offer strong enterprise HCI offerings – some quite vociferously – but NetApp is emphasizing that their alliances with AWS, Google and Azure enhance their HCI’s level of cloud integration that competitors cannot match.

“Everyone will have a distinct strategy and distinct elements that they emphasize, but the data fabric story for our HCI continues to be a killer one,” said Brett Roscoe, Vice President of Product and Solutions Marketing at NetApp. “Our partnerships with Azure, Google and AWS are critical here. We think these can make the difference in a deal, because customers can see that this will make it easier for them to build public cloud into their HCI strategy in the future, rather than make it difficult.”

Anderson said that NetApp is positioning itself around HCI as another hyperscaler, who can work in harmony with the big clouds while providing their own value-add.

“What I’m most excited about is our ability to be the fourth hyperscaler,” he told his audience. “Along with the three in the cloud, we will be the one on-prem. We deliver that with NetApp HCI. It’s built on the Solidfire OS, and  CloudStack, OpenStack, and Docker are all equally awesome on NetApp HCI.”

“The SolidFire architecture has some great innovation in the space,” Roscoe said. “It has guaranteed QoS [Quality of Service]. Traditionally, HCI has problems beyond one application. We can scale to hundreds of nodes and guarantee QoS across many applications. The scalability really takes hold.

“Our partners tell us that other HCI solutions don’t scale to the limit,” Roscoe added. “We think we can get partners those scalable opportunities. We know we have to earn our right to be in that market, but we think that this can help  us get a foothold.”

NetApp is well aware that they are asking partners to sell them in preference to HCI vendors who they may have sold for years, while NetApp had no HCI offering.

“We are moving into cloud services and HCI and admit we might have conflicts with you there in some of your entrenched accounts,” said Henri Richard, Executive Vice President Worldwide Field and Customer Operations at NetApp. The counterargument is that NetApp will enable them to compete in HCI more effectively in the cloud, particularly in larger enterprise accounts.

Anderson unveiled a new upcoming perk to help partners sell HCI to other kinds of customers.

“We also heard you here on Express Packs, and we will have these turnkey solutions July 1,” Anderson said. “Down the road, we are looking at including the switch in that.”

NetApp also emphasized that the push in HCI won’t mean any less commitment to their converged infrastructure [CI] FlexPod solutions with Cisco.

“The mentality around HCI is to make it another FlexPod-type success story,” Richard said.

“We aren’t letting up on CI and FlexPod,” Anderson said. “It is growing in single digits, but it is growing.” He indicated that NetApp will be extending the FlexPod opportunity with healthcare solutions like Epic EHR, Managed Private cloud for FlexPod, and artificial intelligence and deep learning.

Anderson also emphasized that CI and HCI appeal to a different set of buyers, and that they are highly complementary within an enterprise.

“CI is infrastructure buyers, storage-driven, and for core enterprise apps,” he said. “HCI is more single buyers who want to scale and operate like a hyperscaler, and with a cloud and virtualization mindset. If you have a successful FlexPod business, you can have a successful HCI business next to it.”

Anderson also pointed out that StorageGRID is a growing opportunity, at 160 per cent year over year growth, and that Active IQ’s predictive analytics had value to identify refresh and upgrade opportunities through telemetry, and that partner should get their reps to sell them.

In concluding – after making the request of all the NetApp speakers to lead with the cloud, Anderson emphasized again the need to have both strong CI and HCI practices.

“Sell NetApp HCI,” he said. “Do not miss out on this opportunity. We are going to do this come hell or high water. And  continue to sell FlexPod.”