NetApp Channel Connect: CEO Kurian Tells Partners NetApp Ready To Lead In Cloud, HCI, Flash


NetApp has morphed from a storage vendor to one of the key players in the cloud as a way to capitalize on the kind of disruptions its customers are facing, said George Kurian, NetApp CEO.

The IT world is fundamentally changing in response to demographic changes and a shift in global economics, Kurian told an audience of solution providers at the NetApp Channel Connect conference, held this week in Scottsdale, Ariz.

"The pace of disruption is increasing. … It is happening to our business, and to our customers," Kurian said.

[Related: CRN Exclusive: NetApp CEO George Kurian On Flash Storage Momentum, Software-Defined Storage Moves, And The Growing Cisco Partnership]

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Sunnyvale, Calif.-based NetApp has in the last few years repositioned itself from a traditional storage provider to become an authority in the cloud, Kurian said. "This has allowed us to work with more and more customers who in the past would not speak to us," he said.

That repositioning includes developing the IT industry's fastest-growing flash storage portfolio, bringing to market the first enterprise hyper-converged infrastructure offering, and becoming the only storage vendor able to work with the top three hyperscale cloud providers to bring value to data, Kurian said.

"For us, it is not important to be the first to market," he said. "It is important to capture the leadership during the [market] transitions."

NetApp until a few years ago was deep in the throes of a painful transition from its previous legacy storage architecture known as 7-mode to its modern OnTap operating system, a transition that NetApp and its solution providers acknowledge cost the vendor much market momentum.

NetApp has in the past couple years recovered from that setback, but went through several more transitions culminating in the June departure of its Chief Technology Officer Mark Bregman and the reorganization of its business into three business units.

Those business units--the Storage Systems and Software business unit, the Cloud Infrastructure business unit, and the Cloud business unit--were formed to reflect the three technology focuses of NetApp in its transition from its original singular focus on storage.

To get where it is, NetApp has had to make tough choices to build the skills it needs to compete and to help its channel partners grow, Kurian said.

"We aren't going to be the nice guys content with being in second place," he said, in a warning to the vendor's competitors. "You will be competing with [our] warriors."

NetApp had to make the transition because few customer CEOs are satisfied with IT, Kurian said. "They are requiring IT to decrease the cost of traditional infrastructure and increase the efficiencies needed to generate new business," he said.

Businesses today are looking at private clouds to increase business efficiency while leveraging existing infrastructures, Kurian said. About 65 percent of enterprises have a cloud-first strategy, and 80 percent of those have a multi-cloud strategy, he said.

And while clouds can provide some cost reductions for specific uses such as experimentation with new business models, customers are primarily adopting clouds as a way to better run their businesses, Kurian said.

NetApp is the only storage vendor able to meet the changing needs of business customers as they look for new ways to leverage the cloud and other new technologies to improve their companies' IT efficiencies, Kurian said. The company is doing that in three ways.

The first is to take advantage of public clouds in which hyperscaler providers such as Amazon, Google, and Microsoft have invested billions of dollars, Kurian said. NetApp's Data Fabric architecture allows businesses to seamlessly migrate workloads between on-premises, private cloud, hybrid cloud, and public cloud environments, he said.

"Our technologies, rather than lock customers in, are designed to help customers leverage the cloud," he said.

The second is the introduction last year of NetApp HCI, a hyper-converged infrastructure offering that allows independent scaling of compute and storage capabilities and the first built for scalable, multi-workload enterprise environments, he said.

The third is a modern flash storage architecture, a move that has made NetApp the storage industry's second-largest flash storage vendor with a growth rate that will take it to the number-one position, he said.

Kurian made it clear that NetApp knows it will not succeed without the continued support of channel partners and their ability to adopt to the new technology shifts driving NetApp's business.

"I'm going to ask politely and sincerely that you work with us," he said. "I will ask you to not focus on our traditional business. I will ask, if you think of NetApp as a NAS company, that you check your vocabulary."

Solution providers said Kurian's message about NetApp's repositioning as a major cloud technology provider matches the changes they have seen in the company.

NetApp's cloud strategy, and Kurian's presentation of it, is reminiscent of the iconic scene from the Crocodile Dundee movie, said Mark Gonzalez, regional vice president of sales at ePlus, a Herndon, Va.-based solution provider and long-time NetApp partner.

In the scene, Dundee, the main character, pulls out a huge knife when threatened by someone wielding a knife, and says, ’That’s not a knife. This is a knife.’

What NetApp offers in the cloud is just worlds apart from everyone else, Gonzalez told CRN.

"Anyone with a 'cloud-first' strategy has to consider NetApp," he said. "If not, they’re committing malpractice. It really is that differentiated from what everyone else is doing."

Once a customer has made the decision to go to the cloud, whether it’s with Amazon, Azure, or Google, the obvious next move is to bring in NetApp, Gonzalez said. "It’s a no brainer," he said.

Kurian has said what he's going to do, and has done what he said, said Brendan Walsh, vice president of 1901 Group, a Reston, Va.-based MSP offering NetApp-based storage capacity to customers as a service.

A channel partner like 1901 Group is most valuable to clients, especially to the kind of government clients it serves, where there is what Walsh calls "IT spaghetti," or a complex mix of architectures that seem especially prevalent in government, he told CRN.

"When you combine legacy architecture and future technology, you get on-premises and cloud," he said. "This is in every federal agency. NetApp, when it talks about OnTap's ability to migrate data to the cloud or on-premises, that's a big message for us."

Kurian hit a home run with his presentation, said Brent Collins, global practice manager for data center infrastructures at World Wide Technology, a St. Louis-based solution provider and long-time NetApp channel partner.

NetApp's Data Fabric platform is a real thing, and is already being deployed not only in WWT's lab but in customer environments to tie NetApp technology to the cloud, Collins told CRN.

"We're already seeing that NetApp shift to working with hyperscalers," he said. "Six months age, we found that we already had 10 customers working with NetApp Cloud Volumes in hyperscaler clouds."

WWT's lab already uses NetApp's Data Fabric, HCI, and Cloud Volumes together with AWS, Azure, and the Google Cloud Platform, Collins said. "We are working on the connectivity part, on how to put data to the clouds and bring it back on-premises," he said.

NetApp appears to be the only storage vendor with such a tight focus on working with the hyperscaler cloud providers, said Frank Wiacek, president of Red8, a Costa Mesa, Calif.-based solution provider and NetApp channel partner.

"It makes me feel good having a partner aligned with our customer needs," Wiacek told CRN. "The fastest growing piece of our business is with AWS and Azure."

Kurian represents a NetApp that is more aggressive and more fired up than it has ever been, Wiacek said. "And that's good," he said. "Kurian is showing a real passion for his company and his customers. I liked the energy and passion he showed."