Network Appliance adds SAN to family

Network Appliance Inc.’s road to the future has a few more twists and turns than the one it’s been following since the company’s inception in 1992.

Best known for its network attached storage (NAS) products, Network Appliance announced at a recent event in New York City that the company has begun shipping Fibre Channel storage area network (SAN) solutions.

According to IDC Canada’s Toronto-based analyst Alan Freedman, this announcement should help the company raise its profile in the storage arena.

“Network Appliance really needed to break the perception – especially in Canada – that they’re a niche player. They’ve got a number of examples of how they’re moving into the enterprise, not just on the distributed side, and I think that’s good,” he said.

Rich Clifton, Network Appliance’s vice-president of the San/iSAN business unit in Sunnyvale, Calif., said the decision to include SAN products in its storage line hinged on what customers were requesting.

“What we’re doing is removing barriers. We want to stop making our customers choose between various technologies by creating a universal storage approach,” Clifton said.

The most significant announcement centred on the FAS900 series, which is Network Appliance’s new unified storage platform. The product series supports both SAN and NAS topologies, depending on which software is being run, and uses Fibre Channel protocols.

“It’s the same platform in the same storage device,” Clifton said.

According to Freedman, this convergent storage device could bump Network Appliance into a race with the big SAN vendors.

“IDC has long been predicting that the line between SAN and NAS would blur and eventually disappear, and this is the first concrete evidence of the convergence of the two,” Freedman said.

Network Appliance has always stressed the importance of simplicity within its product line and has promoted the notion of a storage device as a plug-and-play appliance. Despite the fact that SANs are notoriously complex, Clifton insisted that Network Appliance is working hard to ensure that the appliance model still works.

“Our basic philosophy is still about the appliance. SANs are sophisticated products with advanced structures, but we’ve tried to pull all of the complexity over to our side, rather than have the customer try to stitch it together and invest in more and more layers of things, as some of our competitors do,” he said.

Dennis Fuze, vice-president of operations at Thomson Financial in Rockville, Md., sees Network Appliance’s new direction as a positive move. According to Fuze, Thomson Financial has historically been an organization that has used Network Appliance and EMC solutions in tandem, but has always opted for EMC for its enterprise-wide and production storage needs. However, Network Appliance’s recent announcements have already changed the company’s status, Fuze said.

“We’re looking at Net App’s new offerings and taking a hard look at how we’re going to spend the money that we have been (spending) with EMC,” he said. “We’re going through the exercise right now of putting out requirements for a bid that’s going out to both Net App and EMC. For the first time ever, we’re treating them as head-to-head competition for a contract for an enterprise-wide solution.”

Jeff Goldstein, Canadian general manager of Network Appliance in Mississauga, Ont., sees great opportunity for the new offering within organizations that require different solutions for different problems.

“These are the kinds of environments we expect to have traction in terms of sales,” he said. “Both worlds coexist and we can meet those needs.”

Freedman said Network Appliance’s biggest challenge within the storage market will be gaining ground on the incumbents.

“They have to bring the right message into the market – they can’t just go in and preach about price. In the enterprise it’s not necessarily cost that’s going to seal the deal; it’s performance, availability, support and application availability. They’ve got to make sure they have the whole message,” Freedman said. “But I wouldn’t bet against them.”

Fuze is one customer who seemed to receive this whole message.

“Net App is positioning themselves to go head-to-head with the big players if not take over the marketplace,” he said.