Aliver's Blog

NetApp, Spinnaker, GX, CoralFS … and the Pantywaist “Product Managers”


Could Have Been a Fanboy

I’ve been a NetApp customer in one form or another for 12 years. I know their products very well and I work in a large NetApp environment with over 18 filers. My Filers are very busy and some are really scaled out. I know OnTap better than a lot of guys who work at NetApp who are friends of mine. I wish them well, but I feel a bit like a neglected spouse. When are they going to stop patting themselves on the back for doing mainly hardware refreshes and get down to the business of integrating the Spinnaker technology they’ve spent years marginalizing and internally fighting?

The promise of GX – Squandering Spinnaker

When NetApp announced it would buy Spinnaker in late 2003 a lot of execs, market droids, and product managers told the press that they intended to use their scale-out approach to strengthen NetApp’s own product line. Rather than truly integrate it with OnTap they created the “GX” line. They saw the global namespace scale out model as only being appealing to HPC and entertainment markets. They failed to get the feedback that “limiting us to slice-and-dice 32-bit 16TB aggregates really sucks” from their customers. I can tell you that we were saying it. I know I wasn’t the only one. NetApp’s OnTap continued to provide great performance and stability so we hung out and tried to be patient while they promised that OnTap would soon brandish the power of the Spinnaker model without affecting OnTap’s performance and stability.

Fast forward to 2011. They’ve had seven years to integrate the technology and meanwhile lots of other players such as Isilon, IBM SoNAS, Panasas, and others have matured in NetApp’s traditional areas of strength. Those players started off with a scale out model and were not held back by any legacy requirements for backward compatibility or upgrade paths, it’s true. However, NetApp has made huge profits during those seven years. If they’d really wanted to get GX line integrated with the traditional filers, it would have been a done deal.

Why the Hesitation?

Having worked for a lot of large companies I’ve seen similar opportunities wasted. Big companies get political. In fighting and silos often keep them from truly integrating the goals that the company visionaries have.  What happened at NetApp? Why have they failed to deliver on their promises that sysadmins like me still haven’t forgot? Well, I wonder was it:

I do personally blame their product managers. No matter which of these excuses you favor, it’s ultimately their fault. Having worked with many of them in the past (not at NetApp, mind you), I find that about 80% are incompetent folks who think of themselves as technology gurus, but lacked enough skill to “make it” as a line-level geek. If they talk enough, someone gets the idea that maybe they’d be better putting them in charge of the geeks rather than expecting them to write code or otherwise produce results. The hard truth is that you need to be educated in the school of hard knocks to be a good product manager. Few of them finished their degrees at that prestigious institution and fewer still want to leave once they have. So, it’s rare that they see what needs to be done and simply do it rather than making excuses to drag the product along at a snails pace, hoping that if they don’t change things much, nobody will fire them.

OnTap 8.1 – No CoralFS or Striped Aggregates

Okay, we get 64Bit aggregates which will give us @100TB sized aggregates. Nowadays, that’s not nearly good enough. Yes, we’ll get a clumsily unified namespace that I still have to manage behind the scenes. It’s too little and too late. Perhaps 8.1.x or 8.2, huh? Wait a few more years? Is this seriously the strategy in the era of 3TB drives and fierce competition from folks who already solved these problems and can match or exceed OnTap’s stability? What’s worse is that 8.1 isn’t offering striped aggregates or CoralFS. This is the WAFL alternative secret-sauce that Spinnaker already had in production 9 years ago. This is the scale-out formula NetApp promised us to have integrated in their press release in November of 2003. Sorry, NetApp, I have a long memory. I was excited by that announcement and hoped my favorite storage vendor was about to get that much better with the introduction of some new blood. I have to admit, I’m still waiting, but without as much hope that they can deliver.

Someone, tell me I’m wrong about 8.1 I’d love to retract my accusations.

Why Not Show Some Leadership?

NetApp, why don’t you fire your product managers and bring in some new folks who can make it happen more quickly? It’s not for lack of cash that you guys have failed thus far. However, you don’t truly fail until you quit trying. So, if I were the CTO, I might consider the following:

Either way, promises are getting thin these days; call it the seven year itch.