NetApp really stepped on a hornet nest last year when they announced their NetApp HCI product. Not because it was bad technology but because it didn’t appear to be “hyperconverged” at all. Although we can argue it NetApp HCI is “HCI”, the time has come for the company to step away from that discussion.
HCI Is as HCI Does
My response to the initial 2017 launch of NetApp HCI was to point out that the product made a lot of sense for HCI customers, even if it wasn’t really “hyperconverged”. In other words, if a customer told their NetApp sales rep they were considering HCI, what they really wanted was simplicity, scale-out, and unified management. NetApp HCI probably met these needs for many customers, so why not sell it?
The counterpoint to this argument is that, quite simply, words mean things. “Hyperconverged Infrastructure” has a definition, and NetApp HCI did not meet all the requirements. But NetApp HCI was a competitive product anyway, offering better performance than many “true” hyperconverged solutions. The argument is just semantics.
Think of it this way: Many people do not consider a hot dog to be a sandwich even though it has bread on each side and meat in the middle. If you walked into a “sandwich shop” and all they had were burritos, hot dogs, and subs, would you still stay to eat? You’ll get a tasty meal, so why not?
Hybrid Cloud Infrastructure
As noted in my previous post about NetApp Insight, things are certainly getting cloudy over in Sunnyvale. Although most of the company’s revenue still comes from datacenter storage arrays and software, the company is moving aggressively to include the cloud in their “Data Fabric” vision. Customers can now have NetApp-powered enterprise storage in Microsoft Azure, Amazon AWS, and Google Cloud, and can link it back to the datacenter with a variety of tools.
This opens the door to a new meaning of “HCI”. Although the term, “hybrid cloud” is pretty fuzzy, it seems an apt description for what NetApp is doing with their HCI platform. They’re integrating it with traditional datacenter infrastructure and the public cloud with Data Fabric, tying together management, and even adding an app store. Yet it’s still a familiar collection of hardware in a datacenter-friendly rack. If anything is hybrid cloud, I guess this is!
This meaning of HCI is appropriate in the context of the hyperconverged infrastructure world as well. Companies like Nutanix and Datrium are positioning their offerings somewhere between the datacenter and the cloud as well. In fact, this line of marketing from NetApp if quite on-point in the industry.
A bigger question is why NetApp is playing in the compute space at all. This is a storage company to the core, so why sell integrated or converged solutions? The best I can tell, they see that at least a large chunk of the storage market is headed towards converged solutions. If NetApp is to grow their market share, they need a competitive product here. This sounds like a plan to me.
NetApp HCI was never “hyperconverged infrastructure” in the classic sense, but that never mattered. HCI customers would be well-served by the product, and the company is marketing and developing it in a way that is consistent with what customers are coming to expect. As customers move to converged and cloud solutions, NetApp wants to make sure they can keep them in the fold.