NetApp Doesn’t Want You To Be Special (This Is A Good Thing)

Disclaimer: I recently attended Storage Field Day 13.  My flights, accommodation and other expenses were paid for by Tech Field Day and Pure Storage. There is no requirement for me to blog about any of the content presented and I am not compensated in any way for my time at the event.  Some materials presented were discussed under NDA and don’t form part of my blog posts, but could influence future discussions.


I had the good fortune of seeing Andy Banta present at Storage Field Day 13. He spoke about a number of topics, including the death of the specialised admin, and VMware Virtual Volumes integration with SoldFire. You can find a copy of my rough notes from NetApp’s presentation here. You can also find videos from his presentation here.

Changing Times

People have been thinking about the changing role of the specialised IT admin for a while now. The discussion has been traditionally focused on the server administrator’s place in a cloudy world, but the storage administrator’s role is coming under scrutiny in much the same fashion. The reasons for the changing landscape are mostly identical to those that impacted the server administrator’s role:

  • Architectures are becoming easier to manage
  • Tools are designed for rapid deployment, not constantly adjusting
  • The hardware is becoming commoditised
  • Software is defining the features and the admin duties

Storage requirements are more dynamic than before, with transient workloads being seen as more commonplace than the static loads once prevalent in the enterprise. The pace of change is also increasing.

According to NetApp, the key focus areas for operational staff have changed as expectations have evolved.

  • Traditional IT has focused on things being “Available and Reliable”
  • The virtualisation age gave us the opportunity to do more with less
  • The cloud age is causing things to happen faster; and
  • As-a-Service is driving the application evolution.

These new focus areas bring with them a new set of challenges though. As we move from the “legacy” DC to the new now, there are other things we have to consider.

Legacy Data Centre Next Generation Data Centre
Single Tenant Multi-tenant
Isolated Workloads Mixed Workloads
Dedicated Infrastructure Shared Infrastructure
Scale Up Scale Out
Pre-provisioned Capacity Capacity on Demand
Hardware Defined Software Defined
Project Based Self Service
Manual Administration Automation


In case you hadn’t realised it, we’re in a bit of a bad way in a lot of enterprises when it comes to IT operations. NetApp neatly identified what’s going wrong in terms of both business and operational limitations.

Business Limitations

  • Unpredictable application performance
  • Show response to changing business needs
  • Under utilisation of expensive resources

Operational Limitations

  • Storage policies tied to static capabilities
  • All virtual disks treated the same
  • Minimal visibility and control on array
  • Very hands on


The idea is to embrace the “New Evolution” which will improve the situation from both a business and operational perspective.

Business Benefits

  • Guarantee per-application performance
  • Immediately respond to changing needs
  • Scale to match utilisation requirements

Operational benefits

  • Dynamically match storage to application
  • Align virtual disk performance to workload
  • Fully automate control of storage resources


No One is Exempt

Operations is hard. No one misses being focused on server administration. With virtualisation administration there is higher value that can be had. NetApp argue that there are higher value activities that exist for the storage discipline as well. Andy summed it up nicely when he said that “[e]nabling through integrations is the goal”.

People like tuning in to events like Storage Field Day because the presenters and delegates often get deep into the technology to highlight exactly how widget X works and why product Y is super terrific. But there’s a lot of value to be had in understanding the context within which these products exist too. We run technology to serve applications that help businesses do business things. It doesn’t matter how fast the latest NVMe/F product is if the application it dishes up is platformed on Windows 2003 and SQL 2005. Sometimes it’s nice to talk about things that aren’t directly focused on technology to understand why a lot of us are actually here.

Ultimately, the cloud (in its many incantations) is having a big impact on the day job of a lot of people, as are rapid developments in key cloud technologies, such as storage, compute, virtualisation and software defined everything. It’s not only operations staff, but also architects, sales people, coffee shop owners, and all kinds of IT folks within the organisation that are coming to grips with the changing IT landscape. I don’t necessarily buy into the “everything is DevOps now and you should learn to code or die” argument, but I also don’t think the way we did things 10 years ago is not necessarily sustainable anywhere but in the largest and crustiest of enterprise IT shops.

NetApp have positioned this viewpoint because they want us to think that what they’re selling is going to help us transition from rock breakers to automation rock stars. And they’re not the first to think that they can help make it happen. Plenty of companies have come along and told us (for years it seems) that they can improve our lot and make all of our problems go away with some smart automation and a good dose of common sense. Unfortunately, people are still running businesses, and people are still making decisions on how technology is being deployed in the businesses. Which is a shame, because I’d much rather let scripts handle the bulk of the operational work and get on with cool stuff like optimising workloads to run faster and smarter and give more value back to the business. I’m also not saying that what NetApp is selling doesn’t work as they say it will. I’m just throwing in the people element as a potential stumbling block.

Is the role of the specialised storage administrator dead? I think it may be a little premature to declare it dead at this stage. But if you’re spending all of your time carving out LUNs by hand and manually zoning fabrics you should be considering the next step in your evolution. You’re not exempt. You’re not doing things that are necessarily special or unique. A lot of this stuff can be automated. And should be. This stuff is science, not wizardry. Let a program do the heavy lifting. You can focus on providing the right inputs. I’m not by any stretch saying that this is an easy transition. Nor do I think that a lot of people have the answers when confronted with this kind of change. But I think it is coming. While vendors like NetApp have been promising to make administration and management of their products easy for years, it feels like we’re a lot closer to that operational nirvana than we were a few years ago. Which I’m really pretty happy about, and you should be too. So don’t be special, at least not in an operational way.

[image courtesy of Stephen Foskett]