NetApp vs. Nimble: The Differences Between The Two Big Players

NetApp vs. Nimble: The Differences Between The Two Big Players

This article will introduce you to the two big players in All-Flash Arrays — NetApp vs. Nimble. We will explain the options, capabilities and differences between these two systems to provide you with a basic understanding of what the market has to offer.

There has been significant consolidation in the SAN vendor market. Acquisitions and mergers have contracted the number of independent choices on offer. However, there are more hardware and software options than ever.    

Picking the right product depends on your criteria, your reliance on HDD, SSD or Cloud services, and your desire to configure a NAS or SAN. You need to think about in-house expertise when calculating the complexity of the product you chose.  

Most vendors offer their own hardware packages. However, it is easier than ever to integrate legacy and/or third-party options. The proprietary interface, analytics, read/write procedures and compression/deduplication capabilities are the defining features of your storage system. We will detail how these work by explaining the differences between NetApp and Nimble.  

These OS interfaces are often purchasable separately and are worth considering even when building a SAN from existing infrastructure. Although quite similar, NetApp provides more customisability while Nimble relies on out-of-the-box simplicity and automates a higher proportion of storage and system maintenance tasks. However, it would be hard to go wrong with either choice.     

NetApp and ONTAP 9

The old-hand that offers a lot of options

NetApp has been around since the early 1990s and was an early leader in NAS configurations. In 2015, NetApp acquired SolidFire, bringing All-Flash Arrays [AFA] into their ‘next-generation data centre’. NetApp is now the largest independent storage vendor on the market.

Ultimately, NetApp can offer you anything you want (cloud data services, All-Flash Storage, Hybrid-Flash storage, backup systems, and infrastructure management) integrated with either SAN or NAS configurations. NetApp added block storage capabilities to its FAS [Fabric-Attached Storage] platform in 2002 and now provides FC, iSCSI, NAS or hybrid connectivity options. However, NetApp’s spindle-bound architectures in its FAS and E-Series technology still rely on disk drives for performance.      

NetApp’s hardware is great and can be used in tandem with legacy and/or third-party options. In addition to their out-of-the-box offerings and in-house hardware configurations, what NetApp really gives you is ‘ONTAP 9’.

ONTAP is NetApp’s proprietary OS that enables you to interface with all your storage components in an efficient and clean manner — providing analytics and dashboard features that empower decision-making.  

Depending on the type of workload, NetApp will guarantee up to 6:1 data reduction through compression, deduplication and compaction when using their own Flash drives. This compression system is designed to maximise storage capacity and handle latency issues arising from code and metadata procedures written for HDD.

ONTAP 9 supports all NetApp systems released in the last 5 years and is available in 3 options — ONTAP 9, ONTAP Cloud and ONTAP Select. The original is focused on on-premise use with NetApp hardware packages, ONTAP Cloud enables enterprise-level cloud management, and ONTAP Select is a software-only data management solution that can be paired with almost any environment.  

NetApp offers:

  • A truly unified storage platform with no tiering in an integrated hybrid solution
  • Proprietary analytics purchasable for on-premise, cloud or à la carte purposes
  • Block-level deduplication, compression and thin provisioning
  • Options and customisability around almost everything   

NetApp products

Nimble and InfoSight

The established challenger and solutions that ‘always work’

Nimble was founded in the late 2000s as a vendor of hybrid arrays. In 2014, they began offering a range of All-Flash Array options and have become known for their specialisation in Flash storage solutions. Purchased by HPE in 2016, Nimble has now made a space for itself in the HPE lineup. Nimble is designed to give you unified control over All-Flash Arrays, Adaptive Flash Arrays, Secondary Flash Arrays and Cloud storage.

Entering the market with a ground-up unified storage system, Nimble has been a disrupter for most of its existence and a leading participant in the reinvention of SAN as a truly unified platform. Nimble can interface with a number of different hardware and Cloud choices. Like NetApp, Nimble’s truly unique selling point is its proprietary interface ‘InfoSight’.

Because InfoSight was identified by HPE as critical to the value of Nimble (and as a technology that could serve other elements HPE’s lineup) the trajectory and services of Nimble have remained broadly unchanged by HPE’s acquisition.

If anything, the merger maximised Nimble’s ability to offer integration across the multitude of storage and backup services offered by HPE — augmenting Nimble’s original goal to create a comprehensive and unified package. This is particularly true for on-ramping to HPE’s Cloud Volumes — an enterprise-grade multi-cloud storage solution for AWS and Azure.  

InfoSight enables ‘predictive flash storage’ that Nimble claims will make ‘86% of your problems disappear’ through optimising storage management and support. The system collects millions of data points a minute to designate usage of SSD, HDD and Cloud components and automate many system maintenance tasks and read/write protocols.

Nimble offers:

  • A unified storage platform
  • Proprietary analytics capable of integrating with out-of-the-box hardware or third-party options.
  • In-line compression and variable block sizes
  • Cloud capabilities
  • A large degree of automation when it comes to system maintenance  

Nimble products

NetApp vs. Nimble: How Their Write Procedures Improve Storage Speeds

Ultimately, Nimble and NetApp offer similar capabilities. In addition to their analytic capabilities, one thing that differentiates both of them from traditional SAN systems is their write procedures.    

Both NetApp and Nimble use write systems based loosely on Journal File System technology. Each has branded this separately, Nimble uses CASL [Cache Accelerated Sequential Layout] and NetApp WAFL [Write Anywhere File Layout].

Although there are differences in the specifics, each is fundamentally similar. They achieve faster speeds by storing data and metadata on a ‘transaction log’ (generated on high-speed local Flash or NVRAM) prior to being transferred to a final destination on the main system. This slower process can be done at a point when demand for processing power is low. The caching of that data on high-speed local memory also accelerates subsequent access to that data when actively working with an application.  

This provides outstanding performance for random write patterns because almost all of the disk subsystem bandwidth is converted to IOPS [input/output operations per second].

There is a debate about which system is superior. WAFL is the older design, and CASL contains provisions that prevent a critical failure or data loss for distributed VMs forced to unexpectedly reboot. However, both systems are good and increase write speeds by orders of magnitude in most environments.   

Both systems are optimised for virtualized workloads or any environment in which data needs to be accessed over and over again. However, they are not ideal for common file systems and everyday tasks because of wear to the system. On HDD, reads can be made much slower by creating a fragmented environment by default. Fragmentation is not an issue with SSD. However, placing write files on top of each other can force more rewrites than would otherwise be necessary, compounding deterioration issues that exist with Flash*.

One thing to consider when reviewing NetApp vs. Nimble is whether or not your work processes will actually take advantage of this caching capability. This is particularly true for hybrid solutions. When you first access data or an application, it will boot from disk, operating at normal SAN speeds. If that information is then never accessed again, you will never take advantage of the cache system. Much of the benefits of this system will be lost on businesses that use applications in sequential order and/or do not require repeated accessing of the same data.   

When using these types of log systems, data is always written in a new place. That means that some data already on the system will be invalidated by later writes. ‘Garbage collection’ is the process of cleaning up this redundancy. This can be tasking to the system’s capabilities. However, it is something that can also be done when demand for system processes are low during maintenance windows, essentially how defragmentation should also occur.

  • Both NetApp and Nimble offer specialised and similar write procedures that improve speed [WAFL and CASL]
  • These systems are most effective in environments where information needs to be accessed over and over again
  • CASL and WAFL are better for virtualized workloads than common file systems because of their random write patterns

NetApp vs. Nimble: Is There a Difference Between Deduplication and Compression

NetApp has historically focused on deduplication. However, NetApp and Nimble now use both deduplication and compression methods to make the most out of storage. This is not a major point of competition between the brands, but is something worth understanding when approaching the market.  

Deduplication is a method of reducing storage requirements by stripping out redundant data. It creates only one unique instance of the data and replaces redundancies with a pointer to that one instance.  

Compression maintains all the increments of data, but packs that information more tightly so it takes up less space. It does this using algorithms that replace information sequences with shorthand — but, it then must be decoded to be read.

Sometimes these systems work together, other times neither will be effective. Which technology is best broadly comes down to the nature of your environment. Systems like NetApp and Nimble are now capable of predictively automating many of these decisions to maximise the effectiveness of your storage platform.

  • Compression maintains all existing data, but packs that information more tightly
  • Deduplication shrinks storage requirements by removing redundant data
  • Nimble and NetApp offer both

NetApp vs. Nimble: Avoiding Complexity vs. The Value of Choice

Comparing NetApp vs. Nimble shows both have proven five-nines availability across their entire installed base. However, Nimble is generally considered easier and simpler to manage.

Nimble provides you with an upfront solution package. There are no additional software licenses to buy and the whole product is simple and easy to use. NetApp requires the purchase of individual software features and has moved to ‘capacity-based’ pricing for ONTAP. This can be expensive if approached inappropriately. However, their system provides greater flexibility in both configuration and pricing and is therefore potentially cheaper and more effective for those who truly understand the ins-and-outs of their data storage needs.

NetApp has a more advanced SnapManager for VI, SQL and Exchange, and a superior plugin for VMware. In addition to ONTAP, NetApp also uses SNP, API and PowerShell to support third-party tools like LogicMonitor that augment monitoring data*. Nimble has InfoSight, which is a great system. However, you simply have fewer options.

NetApp has historically focused on deduplication and large NFS [network file system] volumes. Nimble utilises more numerous and smaller iSCSI volumes. NFS is optimised for VMware. However, the differences here are marginal if the iSCSI SAN has good VAAI implementations*.

Out-of-the-box Nimble solutions don’t provide RAID options because of their rack designs. This can be either good or bad depending on your knowledge base and commitment to a different configuration. The Nimble configuration, however, is optimised for CASL and cache hits, so this is not often considered a problem.    

Nimble requires its users to choose MPIO [Multi-path-IO] rather than LACP [Link Aggregation Control Protocol] to aggregate ports and introduce redundancy. MPIO was purpose-built to handle storage. However, there is an ongoing debate over the superiority of these systems. NetApp allows you to choose either. However, again, for most customers, this shouldn’t be a problem.

  • NetApp has a more advanced SnapManager for VI, SQL and Exchange, along with a better plugin for VMware
  • NetApp requires individual licensing purchases and operates capacity-based pricing
  • Nimble is easier to use, automates more tasks, and comes with an all-inclusive licensing package*

SUMMARY — NetApp vs. Nimble: Choosing Simplicity or Customisation

NetApp offers a high-level operator the most flexibility when it comes to optimising a unified storage environment with a lot of different pieces of kit.

Nimble provides better results out-of-the-box and is easier to maintain. Although NetApp excels in complex environments, that is only true for people who really know what they are doing. Otherwise, those same complex environments will do better managed automatically by Nimble. NetApp, ultimately, requires more knowledge to optimise and maintain, and more ongoing attention from your IT team.

Both solutions offer great unified storage capabilities, and much of your choice will come down to familiarity and/or how you like the specifics of their interfaces. If you don’t like InfoSight, for example, there is little else Nimble can offer you. However, if you’re comparing NetApp vs. Nimble it is ultimately difficult to go wrong when choosing either of these vendor options.

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Sources

How NAND flash degrades and what vendors do to increase SSD endurance
* Nimble Storage vs Netapp
* vStorage APIs for Array Integration (VAAI)
* Storage Vendor Showdown: NetApp vs Nimble

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Troy Platts

Troy has spent over 20 years helping organisations solve their data, storage and compute conundrums. He is a regular speaker at vendor events and spends any free time he has keeping abreast of advances in data platform technologies. He also makes a mean curry.

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