HP Fires Shot in Network Storage Battle

Enterprises shopping for high-end network attached storage (NAS) this year might want to wait until the fall, as vendor competition is heating up: HP is throwing down the gauntlet before Network Appliance (NetApp) about how it intends to grab customers and market traction.

“We think we have the right ingredients such as industry-standard components and clustered software, making storage easy to manage and highly available for the high-end NAS customer,” Michael Callahan, chief technologist of HP’s StorageWorks NAS division, told InternetNews.com.

“We’re making deeper investments in our core technologies, and we plan to aggressively compete against NetApp,” he added.

HP said its acquisition of PolyServe, which it bought for a reported $200 million in February 2007, is the linchpin in its quest to be a major player in the high-end NAS space. This acquisition followed a partnership of two years, during which HP melded the technology into its StorageWorks EVA FileServices product.

PolyServe’s application consolidates and virtualizes NAS in Windows and Linux environments and works with industry standard hardware. The software lets file or database servers be consolidated into a single, shared storage pool.

In addition to providing clustering applications, PolyServe also gives HP a high-performance consolidation platform for databases in the HP technology portfolio.

Callahan points to HP’s strong foothold in the lower end of the market and believes that its NAS strategy, which includes providing an all-in-one cluster storage box, makes the company an “up-and-coming competitor.”

“We’re going to give [NetApp] a run for their money,” Callahan said.

The HP-PolyServe deal allowed HP to extend NAS technology to servers, creating the Enterprise File Services Clustered Gateway. HP then enhanced the software to support block as well file storage and began shipping the StorageWorks EVA File Services, which was bundled with the vendor’s storage area network (SAN) array.

Yet how much of the high-end NAS market HP can grab is more than a bit speculative at this point, according to one industry-watcher. The battle for customer base will be tied to customer needs and requirements, said John Webster, IT principle advisor at research firm Illuminata.

“It will all depend on what problem the customer has to solve and the user environment,” Webster told InternetNews.com, adding that “there’s room enough [in the market] for both vendors.”

HP said its storage product line adheres to industry-standard components, and while that may prove alluring to some enterprises tethered to industry standards, “quite a few other factors” come into product choice and storage decision-making, Webster said.

“One buyer may have gone with a standard environment, but that user could also say that while standards are important the features another vendor offers are more compelling,” he said.

According to HP, PolyServe’s ability to cluster in the storage environment is a key element it provides. Clustering technology is nothing new, as it’s been widely adopted in the server environments and it’s set to take off in storage. Research firm Gartner predicted 40 percent of mid to high-end NAS revenue will be generated by cluster file systems by 2012.

Yet Webster describes clustering as “fairly new” when it comes to storage adoption.

“It’s a proven technology and really hasn’t shown up on the storage side, only because new technology adoption tends to be slow as storage administrators are notoriously adverse to risk,” he said.

“As the final custodians of data they’re very focused on reliability and stability so there’s been slower adoption of clustering and storage virtualization overall,” he added.

But that clearly isn’t daunting to HP. The bigger trend, Callahan said, is that storage servers are proving to be valuable workhorses when it comes to handling mission-critical workloads.

“The key point, as data loads increase in the enterprise, is that the enterprise needs a solution they can build out to deal with the vast quantity of data,” he said. “Using separate boxes that have to be managed individually isn’t efficient. Clustering allows for simplification and reduces the complexity in storage management.”

HP expects to announce new product options tied to its clustering solution by late summer, he added.

“Clustering allows for simplification and reduces the complexity in storage management. We’ve proven how well it works for the server environment and believe it will have the same success on the storage side,” Callahan said, adding HP storage products reflecting that strategy could be appearing by late summer.

When the PolyServe acquisition was first announced, industry observers noted that the technology buy-up would not only make HP a competitor to NetApp but also to heavyweights such as EMS and Hitachi Data Systems.

But it clearly won’t be a quick or easy battle. According to IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Storage Software Tracker Q3 2007, NetApp grew nine times faster than the storage software market from the second to third quarter of last year, and maintained or gained share in each market segment in which it provides offerings.

“Network Appliance’s combination of a scalable, modular architecture; robust software offerings; and common management interface should allow the vendor to retain a leadership position in the NAS market, as well as move into the mainstream SAN environment,” IDC research director William Roch wrote in a report last month.

“Recent strong market share data confirms that this message is being well received by NetApp’s customer base,” he added.

Yet HP’s clustering/virtualization approach appears to be on target, according to IDC’s storage predictions for this year.

The research firm found virtual servers will emerge as the killer application for iSCSI, and vendors will be creating more-attractive, all-in-one solutions using an integrated server and storage approach, specifically in the SMB environment.

What it all could boil down to for storage customers is better technology options and, very likely, competitive product pricing opportunities.

“If storage buyers can hold off till the right time, usually at year’s end, they’ll see aggressive product discounts,” Webster said.

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