The Demise of the NearStore VTL: A historical perspective

Rumors have been circulating for months about the demise of NetApp’s VTL offering. Today, Beth Pariseau from SearchDataBackup published the first public confirmation that development on the product has ceased. It is not a surprise, but makes for an interesting case study.

NetApp acquired VTL technology with their purchase of Alacritus for $11 million back in 2005. Alacritus provided a software only VTL solution that ran on a Linux platform. Their product specifications appeared impressive, but they had limited success in the US. Our partners in Asia saw them more frequently. For NetApp, the acquisition made sense because it represented a relatively cost-effective entry into the rapidly growing VTL market. However, as in most things, the difficulties were in the details.

NetApp’s core intellectual property is their ONTAP operating system and associated WAFL filesystem. These components provide the intelligence and value-added features of their arrays. The challenge for NetApp after acquiring Alacritus was the integration of the two technologies.

NetApp’s short term strategy after the purchase was to build a VTL using Linux, Alacritus, x86 servers and existing disk shelves, and they released their first system in 2006. This leveraged their hardware design and configuration, but bypassed their core software IP. Customers could reuse VTL disk shelves in their filers if they decommissioned the VTL, but there was no ability to share the same storage between filers and VTLs. This is your classic island of storage problem.

The next trend in the market was deduplication. NetApp recognized the importance of the technology and announced A-SIS deduplication for their filers in May of 2007. However, the Alacritus VTL did not support ONTAP/WAFL and so the technology could not be reused. NetApp then embarked on a project to develop a second deduplication engine (after A-SIS) for use on their VTL.  They said that the new deduplication system would be available in June of the same year, and I believe that they underestimated the difficulty of creating a new engine. The development took far longer than expected and they announced the product in October of 2008. To this day, we have seen few implementations of NetApp VTLs with deduplication, and I often wonder if this is because their new deduplication engine does not work effectively.  Given the limited success, it is not surprising that NetApp has officially ceased development.

In my opinion, NetApp’s VTL failed due to a lack of commitment. To be successful, they needed to port the Alacritus solution to ONTAP/WAFL to allow it to co-exist transparently with existing technology. I believe that NetApp was focused on snapshots and replication for backup and recovery and so the NearStore VTL was not given the attention it deserved. Had they integrated Alacritus and ONTAP, they had the potential to create a unified filer, VTL and deduplication appliance which would have been very competitive.  Instead, they chose to leave Alacritus as a separate product, and NetApp’s aggressive pursuit of Data Domain marked the end of the NearStore VTL.

The irony is that I believe NetApp had an opportunity to be an early player in the VTL space. They had the relationships and footprint to aggressively sell the solutions. Unfortunately, their critical missteps and lack of focus limited their success.

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