The all-flash space has been abuzz lately with a slew of vendors announcing new developments:
- Solidfire announced new nodes, a software-only implementation (which oddly comes without complete hardware freedom) and a new program around its Flash Forward guarantee.
- Pure Storage announced an update to its Flash Array lineup and a program around Evergreen Storage.
- HP announced its 20K 3PAR line up, basically a hardware refresh.
- EMC announced software updates to XtremeIO and a lot of other flashy stuff in ScaleIO and DSSD (typical of EMC to think ahead and have multiple bets).
- NetApp re-launched All-Flash FAS with new pricing to complement the rich data services that ONTAP brings to the table, and has been pounding its chest about how ONTAP is the best thing to happen to all-flash arrays.
(Time will tell what happens to Flashray which is apparently being positioned in a different category (cheaper, simpler to use). Going by my experience, it’ll be a tough sell internally to move sales teams away from selling ONTAP, especially now that they have an optimized All-Flash FAS. (They should thank Gartner for that.) Against popular belief, NetApp has had different products for different workloads in its portfolio (FAS, StorageGrid, E-Series, AltaVault, Flashray) but where it has suffered in my opinion is educating and convincing the NetApp field sales teams to sell anything other than ONTAP. The problem is made worse by loyal NetApp customers who want everything to work with or within ONTAP.)
If we look at most of the announcements, we see a unifying theme: Bigger, Faster, Cheaper and Better. This mostly results from new HW technologies (compute), increasing flash capacities and reduction in the price of flash. From a software standpoint, the newer products are catching up to add all the functionalities that traditional products have had. Traditional products (like HP 3PAR, NetApp FAS) are optimizing the code for flash and taking advantage of their already existing data services and application integrations. From a hardware standpoint, eventually every vendor will catch up to each other as they adopt the newer hardware.
Where is the Differentiator?
If we compare the All-Flash offerings from various vendors, most of them have similar features: dedupe, compression, snapshot, clones, replication, LUN/volume-based QoS and some sort of application and cloud integration. Every vendor only does one feature or another better and they struggle to find a big differentiator. When that happens, it’s marketing that starts to innovate more than engineering, and we start seeing messages like this:
- We provide better space savings (6x vs. 5x) (yes, that’s around 10% better)
- Our space savings technology never goes post-process (okay, but the other vendor is 10% better for savings)
- We provide Evergreen Flash (marketing spin on a creative sales rep doing something at the time of a refresh – made even easier by flash)
- Our Flash Forward program is unique in the industry (another marketing spin)
- We are the only vendor that provides cloud integration (not true)
- Designed from the ground up for flash (flash is a medium and traditional products can be optimized for flash—but faster performance/response times or longevity of flash doesn’t necessarily need a ground-up design in all cases. I am saying this even though the Flash layer and spinning drives have a completely different block layout on the Tintri VMstore with the flash layer designed specifically with Flash in mind)
- We have the cheapest flash solution (when nothing works, talk price)
Running out of ideas?
It’s like everyone is running out of ideas. None of these vendors have taken a “completely different” approach—and their product can be better than others’ only for a limited time. Eventually, everyone will catch up to each other. If you take the same road your competitors do, your results can’t be much different.
But we can’t expect traditional vendors to take a different approach, unless they’re developing a new product without any baggage. But younger product companies definitely have a chance to be different. Still, most of these younger companies have taken a safe approach based on 30-year-old constructs and abstractions that are not required in the modern datacenter—mainly LUNs, volumes that have challenges associated with them. These constructs worked great for some of the traditional workloads but they require a lot of assumptions to be made for architecting storage in a modern datacenter (RAID Group size, Block Size, Queue Depths, LUN/Volume sizes, Number of LUNS/Volumes, number of workloads per LUN/Volume, grouping based on data protection needs etc.). Modern workloads are no longer tied to LUNs/Volumes which also poses a huge problem especially for architectures that are designed with these constructs in mind.
Now, because the traditional vendors and the younger vendors used the same approach, it has become a contest between the two – Traditional vendors are trying to optimize their product for flash, and newer vendors are trying to add functionality to match up to that of traditional vendors. As I see it, the scale is heavier on the traditional vendor side as far as storage with a traditional approach is concerned—because instead of changing the game, the younger vendors decided to play the game of traditional vendors.
Historically, the startups that make a difference are the ones that take a different approach. Data Domain, for example, defined a new model for backups. Even NetApp took a filesystem approach to storage (for file and block), enabling a completely different implementation of technologies like snapshot, clones, dedupe (primary storage) etc. Now everyone has started to have some sort of filesystem layer, and have caught up to the extent where the lines are all blurred out. NetApp is feeling the pressure now, but it took a long time for vendors to get there. There are many other examples, including ones even outside the storage industry (think Uber, Airbnb, Facebook).
While starting out different is great, it is important for any vendor to stay different and keep reinventing itself (through acquisition or innovation) based on changing needs. They should not get bogged down by a “things are working well, why change anything?” mentality.
Being different changes the possibilities and gives a chance for products to stand out. It allows companies to change the game and the table stakes. It allows companies to ‘change the experience’ which is what we use to evaluate any product.
As far as the all-flash market is concerned, there is a need for a product with a different approach. A product that can change the game and bring new possibilities. The need is for something designed from the ground up for the modern datacenter (and modern applications), rather than something that is just designed from the ground up for flash. Flash is just a medium, and mediums change. It’s Flash today, it may be something else tomorrow.