NetApp In The Cloud Age: CEO Tom Georgens Q&A

NetApp's CEO discusses cloud computing realities, the CIO role, software-defined storage, the Snowden effect, and more.

developed converged compute, networking, and storage system.

"When I think about software-defined, I think there's a kind of conundrum here. The ability of customers to integrate technology is going down, which is driving interest in technologies like FlexPod. So if customers see value in the integration at the server, networking, and storage level, then in the software-defined world we're actually disaggregating further. So for a substantial amount of customers, integrated hardware-software is going to be the primary delivery vehicle."

But Georgens acknowledged that "another set of customers" will "assemble enough R&D capability in one place" to build their own systems. For example, the Facebook-led Open Compute Project, whose members include Fidelity and Goldman Sachs, has started to share server hardware designs publicly. The group's work eventually could lead to open source networking and storage systems as well. Certainly, the biggest financial services companies already have that internal R&D capability. (When I interviewed Georgens, he was in New York partly to meet with those customers.)

Are some companies moving in the direction of building their own storage systems?

"They're clearly under pressure and are trying to go in that particular direction," he said. "But one of the things in storage that is a little bit different from networking and servers is that networking and servers for all intents and purposes have no state. Once I execute an instruction, it's ancient history. Once I pass a packet, it doesn't matter anymore. The thing about storage is that once you store a piece of data, you have to worry about it forever. So the storage management problem is a lot more complex and therefore it's a lot more difficult to commoditize in that dimension. While there's no doubt that customers would like to go white-box equipment across the board, in some segments that's a lot easier than in other segments."

Which elements of storage are moving to the cloud rather than staying on-premises?

Georgens referred to "speculative" or temporary workloads -- for proofs of concepts, new business ventures, test and development, load testing -- "things where the elasticity of the cloud is compelling." He also cited "low-utilization workloads" -- archiving, backup -- where the pricing model of cloud services "doesn't work against you."

"We could ignore or badmouth [the cloud], but the problem with badmouthing technology is that if it really is in the customer's best interests, you lose credibility. Another route is to try to create an analog to compete against it. And I do get that question from time to time: Will NetApp build a storage-as-a-service? The fact is, that's not what our balance sheet looks like. Operating a datacenter is not our skill set. And I'd be competing in some cases directly against our customers."

Georgens went on to say that storage in the cloud is difficult to "operationalize."

"How do you move data into the cloud? How do you know what's there? How do you get it out of there? How do you know what's been deleted? How do you keep track of what's there over the long run? So what we're going to do is view the cloud as just another part of the hierarchy of the datacenter infrastructure. And we're the company that can provide the data management over all of that."

Following the Edward Snowden leaks and revelations about National Security Agency surveillance of people and companies, will multinationals increasingly insist that their data -- whether in the cloud or on-premises -- live outside the US to comply with privacy laws in other countries?

"The Snowden revelations upped the heat, but this dialogue has been going on all along," Georgens said. "There's not a single multinational company I talk to that doesn't have concerns about dealing with the migration of data across country boundaries. Even before the Snowden situation, certain countries, particularly European countries, viewed the US as being lax from a security and a privacy perspective. Snowden is the latest example, but what they will always point to is the Patriot Act.

"I'll admit that early on I was dismissive that this was a glorified jobs-protection program -- and no doubt there's an element of that in all of this thinking. But more generally, regulation regarding the migration of data across country boundaries… you should expect that to continue to be enhanced. Customers are asking us: How do we maintain sufficient metadata so that we know where data is created, where it lives, and where it moves?"

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