NetApp officials said they are closing in on uniting the company's OnTap GX clustered file system with its base OnTap operating system.
NetApp plans one more dot release each for OnTap GX and OnTap 7G before the two are merged into OnTap 8 in 2009.
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Wall Street, however, is hearing something more specific. One financial analyst, who requested anonymity, said the talk on the street is OnTap 8 will appear around April, and it will be crucial for the vendor to get it right.
"Given the integration challenges that had existed with the acquisition of Spinnaker Networks in 2004, it is important for the company to execute on this," the analyst said. "If they don't execute, it is going to become more and more challenging to compete in the higher end of the market."
Howe filled in some details of upcoming releases, saying that GX version 10.0.4 will add compatibility and interoperability updates, such as support for Microsoft's Windows Vista. OnTap 8 will also add a superset of features, such as support for IPv6 and NFS version 4.
OnTap 7G, currently at version 7.2.5, will be updated to version 7.3. Howe declined to give exact dates of these releases, but said that new software releases tend to be in three-month cycles. Version 7.2.5 was released in June.
The development of GX has been a story of delays since NetApp acquired clustered NAS player Spinnaker. GX didn't ship until June 2006, and another two years have passed without a converged OS.
Howe said that the main hold-up has been getting the Spinnaker intellectual property to work with OnTap's data protection features, such as snapshots and replication. Another challenge has been the fundamental difference between the way NetApp's filers are clustered in high-availability pairs and GX's N-way clustering. The filers copy memory between nodes of the high-availability pair, a process that can't be done on more than two nodes.
Still, Howe said NetApp is running a converged OnTap product in its labs. "The convergence has happened, but not the full version the customer would see," he said. The only thing holding it back now is NetApp's desire for a smooth upgrade process, according to Howe.
Existing GX users will probably have the easiest time upgrading to OnTap 8, while OnTap 7G customers will be brought up to version 8 without the need to replace parts "to the extent we can do that," Howe said. "Some 7G or 6G customers have controllers that are sometimes four to five years old."
Clustered NAS battles brewing
There's a lot more competition in clustered NAS now than when NetApp acquired Spinnaker. Isilon, Exanet and Ibrix are in the market, Hewlett-Packard is planning a big clustered NAS box based on intellectual property from its recent acquisition of PolyServe, and EMC has begun preliminary shipments of its Hulk clustered NAS system.
"Other companies, especially new companies, are getting a massive foothold, and the longer NetApp waits on convergence, the bigger their competitors are going to be," said Taneja Group analyst Arun Taneja. "Another six months won't kill them, but it will do some damage."
Meanwhile, one of the original executives involved in GX left NetApp for clustered NAS startup Parascale. Sajai Krishnan was general manager of NetApp's StoreVault division before leaving NetApp to become CEO of Parascale. Krishnan said he was among the managers who negotiated the Spinnaker acquisition before moving to StoreVault. His first act as CEO of Parascale has been to spearhead $11.37 million in new Series A funding for the company to bring the Parascale Cloud Storage product to market.
Parascale makes software that turns commodity Linux servers into a clustered NAS system, and Krishnan argues that proprietary hardware and software is not the way to go in this market. "It has to be industry-standard," he said. "No administrator or application developer wants to learn the nuances of a new file system. They want to figure out the next cool social networking tool or continue delivering their application, not figure out how to get data into the storage."
Parascale's software has begun public beta testing, and Krishnan said he expects general availability in "a matter of months, not years," meaning that NetApp could have one more competitor by the time OnTap 8 hits the market.