Do You Need All-Flash, All of the Time?
All-flash arrays are becoming the standard piece of hardware in many data centres. Businesses are changing how they look at storage management in order to meet the demands of big data and a growing need for improved data protection.
Last quarter, the all-flash market experienced nearly 55% year on year growth, pulling in $2.1 billion in revenue.* That represents a jump to over 15% of the entire enterprise storage market and 35% of the external storage market.* With double the growth rate of either market, that figure is only set to increase.
Storage networks need to provide fast access and deliver scalable, easy to install and centrally managed products. The increased importance of data analytics to many businesses means finding more accessible ways to store long-term data.
Flash offers faster access to applications and better data management performance — potentially offering the perfect solution to this issue. But, the catch is, flash costs more. Being able to use cheaper hybrid and even older HDD hardware allows businesses to access more storage on more reasonable budgets. Ultimately, the differences between Flash Storage and HDD are complex.
NetApp and Pure Storage deliver two different solutions to this problem. NetApp has all-flash offerings, but is distinguished in the market by their software management tool ONTAP 9. This uses caching read/write protocols to augment and accelerate the capabilities of hybrid arrays. ONTAP 9 also delivers a uniquely versatile platform capable of native interoperability with third-party hardware to create an intuitive and unified storage environment.
Pure Storage is focused on raw power within their own ecosystem, using advanced dedupe and compression technology to maximise the available storage within their expensive all-flash arrays. Here, we will explore the pros and cons of these two very different approaches to storage and discuss how each company is laying out a vision for the future of the data centre.
NetApp: The Original Unified Storage Solution
NetApp was founded in the early 1990s and became a leader in NAS configurations. In 2015, NetApp acquired SolidFire, bringing all-flash arrays into their line-up. Since, NetApp has excelled in the delivery of hybrid and all-flash arrays in a unified storage environment optimised for multi-tier and multi-vendor operations.
In September 2018, Lenovo and NetApp announced a ‘global strategic partnership’, bringing together a range of technologies that will diversify their ‘in-house’ offerings. This move will put NetApp’s internal support offerings on par with conglomerate giants such as Dell Technologies and HPE. NetApp, however, is already the second largest external storage vendor on the market and can ultimately offer anything you want.
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NetApp delivers all-flash storage, hybrid-flash storage, NVMe, HCI, converged systems, backup, cloud and managed infrastructure. NetApp added block storage capabilities to its FAS [Fabric-Attached Storage] platform in 2002 and now provides FC, iSCSI, NAS or hybrid connectivity options.
NetApp’s Software-Defined Weapon: ONTAP 9
In addition to their out-of-the-box offerings and in-house hardware configurations, what a NetApp product really gives you is ‘ONTAP 9’. ONTAP is NetApp’s proprietary OS that enables you to interface with all of your storage components in an efficient and clean manner — providing analytics and dashboard features that empower decision-making.
ONTAP can be purchased by itself (ONTAP Select), as part of a NetApp cloud package or in combination with NetApp hardware. ONTAP delivers a bunch of benefits from ‘SnapMirror’ replication, compression, deduplication and thin provisioning to analytics, system visibility, and maintenance troubleshooting capabilities.*
Compared to other software solutions on the market, ONTAP has two big standout features — virtualised third-party integrations and WAFL. WAFL (Write Anywhere File Layout) is a proprietary write process based on Journal File System Technology. Data and metadata are stored on a ‘transaction log’ (generated on high-speed local Flash or NVRAM), rather than being written directly to its permanent location. Later, when demand for system processing power is lower, that data can be transferred back to its final destination.
This approach enables two things. First, it provides outstanding performance for random write patterns because almost all of the disk subsystem bandwidth is converted to IOPS (input/output operations per second). Second, it allows for all active interactions with data to be undertaken using the fastest locally available hardware. This enables hybrid systems to function at speeds much closer to all-flash arrays for a large chunk of the interactions operators have with the data.
The value of this technology, however, is reduced if you access programs in a sequential order and/or do not require repeated access to the same data. Applications have to be spun up from HDD the first time they are accessed and are only available on flash during subsequent reads/writes.
ONTAP 9 makes itself even more useful by delivering market-leading third-party integration capabilities. Like many software solutions, ONTAP 9 has an advanced VMware plugin. ONTAP 9, however, also supports native third-party hardware integrations using ‘FlexArray Virtualization’. This allows you to unify your entire storage ecosystem under the control of ONTAP, without hypervisor investments, no matter what hardware you are using.
System-wide information is fed into ONTAP’s analytics engine, and provisioning can be done from a single point of control. All data is written using WAFL technology, SnapMirror backups are created and ONTAP storage efficiency dedup/compression/thin provisioning protocols are applied. NetApp delivers a truly hardware-agnostic control system straight out of the box.
Pure Storage: All-Flash All of The Time
Pure Storage was founded in 2009. The company has focused on flash since the beginning and currently offers a wide range of all-flash arrays. Like for like, Pure Storage arrays are better than NetApp hardware.* Like for like, Pure Storage all-flash arrays are better than anything on the market. The problem is that they are expensive.
The real question is if they are better for the cost. You also need to ask yourself if you really need the power that Pure Storage offers, and if powerful hardware is the only thing you are in the market to buy. Many enterprise applications only require 10-15% of data to be stored on flash for maximum performance.* You need to make sure that you are not paying for flash storage that you do not actually need simply to jump on the all-flash trend within the industry.
Purity: The Pure Storage Software Solution
In addition to their amazing hardware, Pure Storage delivers ‘Purity’, the ‘software-defined engine’ of their all-flash arrays. Purity is only really designed to work with Pure Storage hardware. It relies on REST APIs to integrate with third-party hardware, including integration with VMware virtualised platforms.*
REST APIs are a popular tool used within data centres to standardise the management of ecosystems built from multi-vendor components. They depend on HTTP operations like GET, POST and DELETE. The big downside to REST APIs is that they do not offer a native GUI interface and do not provide an intuitive experience for inexperienced operators.
The big advantage that Purity provides over ONTAP 9 (and all other software solutions on the market) is advanced compression/deduplication technology. Pure Storage boasts 10:1 total efficiency without an impact on performance.* This is compared to NetApp’s 6:1 reduction.* This doesn’t really speak poorly of NetApp’s performance, but highlights the standout nature of Pure Storage’s capabilities.
However, this advantage is less dramatic in the context of what Pure Storage offers — expensive all-flash arrays. They have invested in this advanced compression and deduplication technology specifically to get their cost per terabyte down closer to what the hybrid vendors can offer. This is vital to the affordability of their arrays and will be important to future data centre trends. But, when it comes to total capacity, Pure Storage is still more expensive.
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NetApp vs. Pure Storage: All-Flash vs. Hybrid Solutions
NetApp offers all-flash arrays. But, the real difference between NetApp and Pure Storage strikes at a root philosophical distinction concerning the future of the data centre — is all-flash necessary all of the time?
NetApp’s write system is designed to utilise cheaper disk storage for longer term archiving, and hybrid arrays for a lot of daily tasks, while still delivering the speed of flash when actively interacting with programs or data. Pure Storage has invested in the compression technology needed to make all-flash competitively priced. They still sell some of the most expensive pre-terabyte hardware on the market, but you get a lot of mileage out of Pure Storage arrays, and they are powerful.*
There are two distinct benefits to an all-flash environment. First, flash is small and uses less power than HDD to maintain. This will keep the physical and carbon footprint of your data centre down. You save money on electricity bills. But, flash is still so much more expensive in upfront costs that the total cost of ownership of all-flash arrays is likely higher than their HDD and hybrid counterparts.
The real advantage of an all-flash environment is that everything you have is accessible all of the time at incredibly quick speeds. There is no need to tier your storage, wait to spin data up from HDD, or engage with unstructured data lakes. You have instant access to all of your data and siloing data can be avoided. This is important for businesses that engage in a lot of analytic assessment, have a lot of data and want to be able to constantly comb over old data sets.
Pure Storage delivers this outcome with their ‘data hub’ architecture using Flash Blade hardware and Purity provisioning tools.* It is hard to deny the benefits of this approach and unless some new technology comes along, flash will remain central to the future of the data centre.
However, that does not mean that running out and investing in high-end all-flash storage is actually the right move for your business. NetApp is extending the utility and life of HDD and hybrid with their WAFL write procedures that allow you to gain much of the performance of all-flash storage without investing in all-flash infrastructure. There is no denying that Pure Storage offers the more powerful solution. But, NetApp delivers most of that power at less cost.
Summary: Pure Power vs. Hybrid Efficiency and Unified Control
Pure Storage has perhaps the best all-flash arrays on the market. They are fast, robust, reliable and efficient. Their software management tool Purity complements their hardware with some of the best compression/dedupe/thin provision technology available — delivering 10:1 data efficiency. This helps justify the expensive cost of the premium hardware on offer by Pure Storage. But, there is no denying that all-flash arrays are still far more expensive than their hybrid counterparts, even if they do deliver superior performance.*
NetApp’s strength is in their management control software — ONTAP 9. Their hardware is high quality, good value and stands up in the market. However, it is not industry leading. ONTAP 9, however, optimises hybrid solutions, using a proprietary write procedure that allows programs (once accessed) to be manipulated solely using faster local flash or NVRAM hardware.
The only solution that can exceed NetApp in this regard is HPE Nimble’s InfoSight. In both cases, this approach is extending the utility of HDD and hybrid solutions in a data centre environment that is becoming ever more dominated by flash.
NetApp also stands out in their ability to integrate with third-party hardware. ONTAP 9 delivers a hardware-agnostic control solution ‘FlexArray Virtualization’, along with a powerful VMware plugin. This allows you to bring the intuitive operations and other features of ONTAP 9 to your entire data centre while centralising control.
To the same extent that Pure Storage represents the future of all-flash data centres, this type of simple unified management system is representative of things to come. The appeal of either solution will depend on the importance of all-flash infrastructure to how you access your data vs. maximising the utility of hybrid arrays and centralising disparate hardware under one intuitive management tool.* NetApp provides flexibility and control, Pure Storage delivers power.
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*HPE and Pure Storage all-flash array market shares decline
*When it comes to AI, Pure twists FlashBlade in NetApp’s A700 guts
*Nimble Storage vs Pure Storage: A Comparison Snapshot
*Purity FA, Powering Next-Gen Shared Accelerated Storage
*There Are No Guarantees in Life – Except with NetApp Flash
*IT Central Station: NetApp All Flash FAS vs Pure Storage FlashArray
*Data Hub: A Modern Storage Architecture
*Don’t take this the wrong way, Pure Storage – are you the next NetApp?
*Gartner: Comparing NetApp and Pure Storage