There’s a quality scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where the dead are being called out to be loaded onto a cart to be taken away. Are new players in the market doing the same to NetApp? Even though they continue to say that they’re not dead everyone is writing them off and chucking them on the death-cart.

It’s easy to see why NetApp is being called to bring out its dead. There’s more and more players appearing in the storage market with serious differentiators to NetApp. Just look at the list of potential competitors like Pure Storage, Tintri, SimplivityNutanix and Nimble. And that’s not including the fully software defined storage groups such as Maxta, Stratoscale and a host of others. There’s also the old adversary EMC. All of these vendors have released new and innovative products in the past year and they have managed their marketing message far better than NetApp has. NetApp has been painfully slow at getting a smooth transition in place for its 7-Mode customers to Cluster Data OnTap (C-Dot). A lot of critics of NetApp also point to the fact that they are so heavily reliant on the OnTap software. I personally don’t see an issue with that reliance. Don’t change something just to create a new release for the sake of it. But the marketing message and the perception by the community of NetApp has caused a number of issues for them.

NetApp have seen really poor financial results in the last quarter that they have put towards poor channel sales and slow uptake of CDOT. They have also laid off 500 staff recently. One of these was Nick Howell who used to run the NetApp Communities Podcast over on datacenterdude.com. It was his layoff that really got me thinking about NetApp. Nicks work provided a community mouthpiece for NetApp and I truly believe he was building something worthwhile and engaging. Not everyone likes trawling through whitepapers to get more in-depth information on the inner workings of products so using the medium of podcasts is/was a great way to interact with your customers. So it really shocked me to hear of Nicks sudden layoff. The decision-makers in NetApp obviously have their reasons. Nick wrote an article about the layoff called Coming Up for Air which gives his perspective. I’d recommend reading it if you get a chance as he shows real dignity and professionalism in his outlook. Particularly as he’d just lost his job.

So let’s look at some of NetApps recent issues:

None of the above are good for a struggling company. But is NetApp a struggling company? There’s a perception that yes they are and there’s obviously some big changes taking place which lend credence to this view. When companies are going well there’s usually not much change at the top. However, NetApp has quite a bit of money in the bank and there’s a bit of a misnomer that they don’t innovate. NetApp have released the latest 8.3 version of OnTap which can support clustered Metroclusters (yum yum) and a host of other platforms such as the All-Flash FAS. There’s been a push to use Cloud OnTap within both AWS and Azure to easily migrate data between public and private clouds (with NetApp Private Storage) so you do not end up tied to one vendor. The recent acquisition of SteelStore which has now been re-badged as AltaVault lends to that vision of inter-cloud data management. And NetApp have jumped on the EVO:RAIL bandwagon to give them a hyper-converged infrastructure. Although I have to admit that it sounds a bit like Frankenstein’s Monster and there’s been very little technical information coming out about the solution so it’ll be interesting to see where that one goes. There’s a number of other positives and there’s just as many negatives that can be pointed out too.

Storage, data management and data movement are the core for NetApp and they’ll need to continue focus on this. The IT landscape is changing and NetApp have survived other challenges before.  NetApp is known as a great place to work with great culture and some fantastic company ethics. These all play to NetApps advantage and strengths but will they be enough to ensure their survival? Well no. But they also have some great people that provide fantastic intellectual property that can definitely give it a push in the right direction. Change is a good thing. While it can be unsettling it ultimately leads to something better and that’s where NetApp are at right now. Cisco are in the same boat with rumours that Padmasree Warrior will be stepping down to pursue different opportunities. There’s been a lot of disruption in IT over the past 18 months, and the smaller vendors behind these disruptions are and should be very proud of this. But as we’ve all see time and time again the big players are at the top because they can move with the market and adapt to ensure they stay at the top, it just takes them a lot longer to do so as they just aren’t as agile as the smaller startups. My money is on NetApp coming through all this change and being better for it*. It’s just a pity for them that more than 500 people were sacrificed as part of that change.

So where are they going to go from here? In my non-expert and maybe slightly delusional opinion I think NetApp need to get chatting to the guys over at Mesosphere. NetApp have vast quantities of expertise in operating systems and Mesosphere are building an OS for the datacenter. I really do think they’d be a great fit. Also, as a NetApp user I’d recommend they give free upgrades to Cluster OnTap! No that’s not going to happen and from a business perspective they’d be crazy but it would give them one platform to support rather than two and if nothing else that will help them focus in other areas. It would also remove the problem they are facing with slow uptake of CDOT. A more realistic option would be to provide customers that already run 7-Mode free CDOT training. Engage with your customers to provide them with the tools to do the upgrade and removing that knowledge barrier. Embrace the community to get the guys on the ground-level to promote your product rather than having a sales guy come in at the top level. They need to focus more on the community. VMware have the best community out there and they have allowed their customers to champion their products. New startups are doing the same, just look at PernixData. They are using the community and social media to their advantage to get their customers to do the marketing for them. NetApp need to stop build on their community efforts. There’s a number of ways to skin a cat, NetApp just need to pick theirs.

I reserve the right to be completely wrong about this assertion 🙂

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