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NetApp and Open Source

History has shown that it’s very easy for companies to get set in their ways. That it’s easier to try and force old ways of business to maintain profitability, than to forge ahead into the great unknown. This is true even for technology companies, where the dreaded transition to legacy can happen seemingly overnight.

You might think NetApp, being around since 1992, would fall into this description. Instead, the company has made made a lot of smart moves to stay relevant in the modern enterprise landscape.

Sidle Up to thePub

In March, founder Dave Hitz gave a talk about how “cloudification” has been a pivotal moment in enterprise IT. That companies and organization not even directly tied to the cloud are having to adapt to how it’s changed expectations. No where is this more evident in NetApp than in their open source initiatives.

Open source is not entirely new to NetApp, they’ve had an OpenStack team in the company since 2011, mainly contributing to the Cinder project. This provided on-demand block storage in OpenStack. In the past 18 months, this has been consciously expanded into an open ecosystem team, organized around thePub.

Why Open Source?

What are NetApp’s motivations to aggressively expand their open source organizations and contributions? Well, one is relevancy. For developers, open source tools are increasingly de rigueur. It doesn’t matter how compelling a proprietary solution is if the people who need to use it can’t fit it in with their existing tools and workflows.

There are also more pragmatic reasons. There’s a very good reason NetApp got into the open source game with Cinder. NetApp is in the business of selling storage. Anything that makes it easier for their customers to consume storage is great for their bottom line. By developing open source tools that let developers provision storage quickly and easily, they hope to increase the need for their storage arrays.

The goal of thePub is to enable developers to utilize storage using tools they’re already using. Application administrators don’t generally have access to underlying storage tools like snapshots or clones. NetApp wants developers to not worry about where their storage is, but create an open framework so that they can get enterprise grade reliability and performance with the simplicity of creating a Docker volume.

This leads into an interesting long term goal. It’s no secret that containers don’t exactly have the best approaches to persistent storage. It’s why Docker acquired Infinit. There’s a decent amount of VC money tied up in container storage startups. NetApp wants to work within the open source community to bring mature storage management natively into core products. While this would have positive implications for NetApp, it’s also a great benefit for the community at large if it works.

NetApp in 2017

NetApp’s moves in open source show a definite lack of complacency with the company. It an encouraging sign from a company with a substantial a legacy as NetApp. Another company might double down on traditional business models, rationalizing that future prospects can be gained with past methodologies. But NetApp’s push into open source shows their realization that storage is changing, and they need to help create the tools to allow developers to easily use their storage, or else be left by the wayside.

In terms of projects, it’s no surprise that NetApp is a prominent contributor to Cinder, since that’s what started their open source efforts. But they’ve contributed the majority of code for Manila, the OpenStack shared filesystem manager.

Looking at thePub, aside from OpenStack, it’s clear containers are a large focus of NetApp’s open source plans. Projects related to Kubernetes and Docker feature prominently.

Sometime a company with a long history can be seen as dragged down by legacy. But when focused and hungry, these same companies have the resources to really drive innovation. NetApp in 2017 isn’t settling for anything. Their leveraging their established storage business, and bringing it to entirely new audiences thanks to a enthusiastic embrace of open source. It’s a really interesting turn for the company.

Make sure to checkout their presentation from Tech Field Day for some deep dive into some code.

About the author

Rich Stroffolino

Rich has been a tech enthusiast since he first used the speech simulator on a Magnavox Odyssey². Current areas of interest include ZFS, the false hopes of memristors, and the oral history of Transmeta.

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