Network Appliance acquires Spinnaker Networks

NAS leader pushes storage grid strategy

By Lisa Coleman

With its recent acquisition of network-attached storage (NAS) start-up Spinnaker Networks for approximately $300 million in stock, Network Appliance is making its move into the massively scalable NAS market that it could not previously target with its pure filer-based approach, say analysts.

The merger also will open the door for Network Appliance to enter the yet-to-emerge "storage-grid" market, a potential offshoot of grid computing—a nascent approach for delivering compute power as a utility service. Analysts believe that if that market evolves, storage grids will be a necessary follow-on strategy to provide distributed storage.

"Network Appliance is looking at the future and if grid computing becomes a reality and if grid storage follows that, they'll use all the Spinnaker technology as a way to address it," says Randy Kerns, a senior analyst at the Evaluator Group consulting firm.

Spinnaker was founded in 1999 by former members of Transarc and the IBM Pittsburgh Lab. Spinnaker's SpinServer 3300 and 4100 NAS devices leverage SpinFS, a distributed file system (DFS) allowing massive scalability across hundreds of geographically dispersed NAS devices. Spinnaker also has developed a unified system image, end-node clustering, and global namespace technology for non-disruptive management of multiple storage servers.

"This is a software technology acquisition of a company that shares a storage vision with Network Appliance and brings a...complementary set of skills. The combined company is positioned extremely well for long-term growth with a focus on the storage infrastructure of the future—the storage grid," says Dan Warmenhoven, CEO of Network Appliance.

The merger is expected to close next month. Spinnaker's technology will be integrated with Network Appliance's technology in two phases. First, Network Appliance will converge the Intel-based hardware platforms and the storage subsystems of its current product line with Spinnaker. Both companies use similar hardware architectures and Network Appliance expects the hardware convergence to be straightforward. It did not give a time frame for completion of the hardware transition.

Second, Network Appliance expects the convergence of its proprietary DataOnTap operating system with Spinnaker's SpinFS to take a couple of years. (Of note, Spinnaker uses Linux to boot its hardware and then it launches its proprietary SpinFS file system as a process on top of Linux. Network Appliance declined to provide any plans about the future direction of DataOnTap with regard to Linux.)

Network Appliance will also merge Spinnaker's clustering and global namespace technologies into DataOnTap.

Warmenhoven believes the Spinnaker technology will help accelerate the time to market for Network Appliance's storage grid vision. "I believe the combination will make Network Appliance the storage infrastructure of choice for ILM [information life-cycle management]," says Warmenhoven. Essentially, ILM will leverage a storage grid architecture for storage management and ILM applications.

Spinnaker's technology will enable Net- App to take a step toward storage grids and massively scalable NAS. "The acquisition is a future play but it opens up another market segment where they really weren't effective," says the Evaluator Group's Kerns.

While Network Appliance is a NAS market leader in the high-end enterprise space and has recently expanded into the entry-level NAS and IP SAN arenas, the company was not as successful at reaching the massively scalable NAS market. With the Spinnaker addition, Network Appliance can compete with start-ups such as Panasas, says Kerns (see related article on cover).

Management problems such as load balancing occur when Network Appliance filers are scaled beyond a few devices and administrative work is still performed on a filer-by-filer basis, which poses scalability problems, according to analysts.

"The complaint people have always had about NetApp appliances is that they like the first, they like the second, but when they get to, say, 10, they are really hard to manage. They're thinking that with this acquisition they can manage them all," says

Dianne McAdam, senior analyst at the Data Mobility Group consulting firm.

Network Appliance has been aggressive in dealing with multiple filer management. It has developed partnerships with Computer Associates and Hewlett-Packard for management software and created its own DataFabric Manager for managing large numbers of file systems.

"We've taken actions to address this problem, but the simple fact is that if you have 100 nodes it's going to be a lot more work to manage than 10 nodes. That's true for everyone," says Dave Hitz, executive vice president of engineering at Network Appliance.

Spinnaker's DFS technology will allow non-disruptive management of multiple storage servers. The servers can be managed as a single storage pool to reduce cost and complexity. This will be key to Network Appliance's storage grid strategy, say analysts.

NetApp's storage grid vision entails a cluster made up of storage nodes managed together as a single storage entity with a single system image. It can scale for performance, availability, quality of service, and capacity on-the-fly—and independently—without disrupting applications.

Critical to storage grids is data access. How will users find their data when it is dispersed over 100 nodes? Spinnaker's global namespace software allows a namespace to span distributed data centers so users in remote locations can access data.

However, Network Appliance already uses global namespace software—StorageX—from NuView that NetApp resells as Virtual File Manager. This software allows storage administrators to create and manage logical relationships independent of the physical location of files residing on Windows-based storage systems.

The NuView product runs on clients and allows users to build a global namespace spanning heterogeneous storage.

"Because it's leveraging the client side, it can't necessarily provide the transparency that you need for an enterprise-level compute grid," says Hitz.

The Spinnaker software will provide a much deeper global namespace and the Virtual File Manager software will complement it with heterogeneous namespaces, explains Hitz. Network Appliance will continue to resell NuView's product.

Spinnaker is based in Pittsburgh, and Network Appliance plans to keep the site as its new Pittsburgh technology center. Currently, Spinnaker has 50 customers or prospects. The company has raised more than $51 million in funding.

Over the past year, other NAS start-ups such as Scale8, which used a type of distributed file system, dropped out of the market. "Most were going after the very same market at the high-end and it's not that big of a market," says the Evaluator Group's Kerns. "Very few can survive there. Network Appliance has a big name so they have a better chance of addressing this market."

This article was originally published on December 01, 2003