Back to the Future with Software Defined Storage

After every few years our industry comes up with a new buzzword that takes control over Vendor Collateral, Webpages, Blogs, Tweets etc. We had Virtualization, then we had Cloud and now it is Software Defined Datacenter. From NetApp’s perspective none of this was new. NetApp started Virtualization at the storage/data block level way back in 1992. A lot of major innovations came in 2000s when technologies like V-Series, FlexVols, RAID-DP, Thin Provisioning, Writeable Clones, Deduplication, File/Sparse File level clones and FlashCache were brought to the market by NetApp (To see a summary of innovations by NetApp see this page here). When VMware started to grow rapidly, NetApp followed suit as it was ahead of the curve and ready for growth in Virtual Environments.

Then came the Cloud buzzword. NetApp was being used for building Clouds by Cloud Service Providers (Private/Public) even before Cloud became a reality and a buzzword. Here is a slide from 2008.


As you can see NetApp had a headstart again. With the right partnerships, strategy and solutions like Flexpod and Microsoft Private Cloud, it still continues to be infrastructure of choice for building Clouds.

The latest buzz word is Software Defined Datacenter. There is Software Defined Servers (VMs), Software Defined Networks and Software Defined Storage etc. Working for NetApp, Software Defined Storage is what interests me the most. As always it is not something new to NetApp and its customers.

So what is Software Defined Storage?

Here is my definition – Software Defined Storage is the an approach to storage where the control is decoupled from the hardware therefore bringing in advantages like ease of mobility, use of commodity hardware, dynamic resource allocation etc.

In my opinion Software Defined Storage is not new. It has been evolving and will continue to evolve as the customer requirements mature.

It is something that NetApp has been doing since its inception through Data ONTAP. It reminds me of the time when Data ONTAP used to ship in Floppy Drives turning commodity hardware into an intelligent storage. Since that time it has evolved and has brought in some of the most revolutionary functionality to the storage market. Here are some of the product functionalities that NetApp has contributed to Sofware Defined Storage.


vFilers, in simple terms are virtual instances of Data ONTAP running on top of a base instance (sometimes compared to VMs running on a Hypervisor), each behaving like a full-fledged storage in itself, as secure as a separate physical storage supporting Ethernet protocols like iSCSI, CIFS and NFS.


Apart from security, the biggest advantage that I personally have always liked about vFilers is that –

  • one can create a DR relationship of these such that with a single click, the complete vFiler would get activated at another site taking all the policies, users, LUN maps, shares, Quotas etc. with it.
  • Since NetApp decoupled these vFilers from the hardware, it made migration of these vFilers possible from one controller to the other.

vFilers have been very popular since NetApp started shipping it as a feature and are fundamental part of our Secure Multi-Tenant Architecture. Customers looking for portability or deploying Private/Public cloud love it.


V-Series was launched as part of our OEM relationship with Hitachi in 2002-03. It runs the same code as FAS with the only difference that it has an additional license to virtualize third party array.


V-series was an evolution of Software Defined Storage in that it helped customers turn their existing storage hardware into a more intelligent storage by using the virtualization capability of ONTAP. ONTAP helped in decoupling the control from the hardware (third party storage) and made it possible for this hardware to have the features as FAS would have. V-Series has helped a lot of customers gain efficiency and new functionalities on their existing hardware.

Vservers in Data ONTAP Cluster-Mode

Vserver takes the concept of vFiler further with added support for Fiber Channel based protocols and global name space. There are some other fundamental difference between a vFiler and a Vserver but I’ll leave that to another post. Vserver is a basic building block of ONTAP running in Cluster-Mode. One can’t provision storage if there is no Vserver. ONTAP in Cluster-Mode works like a hypervisor and creates an abstraction layer with Vserver making data portability possible between storage controllers and between different disk types. Nick Howell wrote a series of blogs on Cluster-Mode. The Vserver is covered here .

If you want to see Vserver in action, refer to the Award Winning Demo by Dave Hitz (NetApp Co-Founder) and Peak Colo at VMworld this year. Jump to 1:06:00 for the NetApp demo. Vaughn Stewart has a great post on the Winning Demo here

Data ONTAP Edge

Data ONTAP Edge is a result of further evolution in Software Defined Storage. It was launched exclusively for Fujitsu Servers in 2010 and on customer and field demand it was made available to all in Aug, 2012. Data ONTAP Edge can turn a Physical ESXi server with disks (internal, DAS or SAN) into a more intelligent NetApp Array through deployment of ONTAP in a VM. It supports iSCSI, CIFS and NFS protocols in addition to adding features like Dedup, Space efficient cloning, Snapshot backups, Snapvault etc. It brings in full VMware integration with support for vStorage APIs and SRM.

It became popular at VMworld this year as we gave away 90 days evaluation on a USB stick. So much that we made it available publically here

Josh Odgers has done some tests and has written a few blogs on ONTAP Edge – NetApp Edge VSA – Rapid Cloning Utility (RCU) and Native NFS Snapshots (VAAI) w/ VMware View Composer (View 5.1) 

Personally, I am really excited about the immense possibilities with Data ONTAP Edge especially with the Advent of Flash on the server side. I foresee it becoming big with seamless integration into server side software.

To wrap up, I want to say that the stage is set for the next step of evolution in Software Defined Storage. It is definitely not something new. It has been always there, with NetApp at the forefront of innovation, evolving as the industry changed and the chip manufacturers introduced new capabilities on the hardware side.


Satinder (@storarch)

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