NetApp AFF (All Flash FAS) Review

We wouldn't be able to do what we do without thin provisioning

What is our primary use case?

Our primary use case for AFF is to host our internal file shares for all of our company's "F" drives, which is what we call them. All of our CIFS and NFS are hosted on our AFF system right now.

How has it helped my organization?

We've been using AFF for file shares for about 14 years now. So it's hard for me to remember how things were before we had it. For the Windows drives, they switched over before I started with the company, so it's hard for me to remember before that. But for the NFS, I do remember that things were going down all the time and clusters had to be managed like they were very fragile children ready to fall over and break. All of that disappeared the moment we moved to ONTAP. Later on, when we got into the AFF realm, all of a sudden performance problems just vanished because everything was on flash at that point. 

Since we've been growing up with AFF, through the 7-Mode to Cluster Mode transition, and the AFF transition, it feels like a very organic growth that has been keeping up with our needs. So it's not like a change. It's been more, "Hey, this is moving in the direction we need to move." And it's always there for us, or close to being always there for us.

One of the ways that we leverage data now, that we wouldn't have been able to do before — and we're talking simple file shares. One of the things we couldn't do before AFF was really search those things in a reasonable timeframe. We had all this unstructured data out there. We had all these things to search for and see: Do we already have this? Do we have things sitting out there that we should have or that we shouldn't have? And we can do those searches in a reasonable timeframe now, whereas before, it was just so long that it wasn't even worth bothering.

AFF thin provisioning allows us to survive. Every volume we have is over-provisioned and we use thin provisioning for everything. Things need to see they have a lot of space, sometimes, to function well, from the file servers to VMware shares to our database applications spitting stuff out to NFS. They need to see that they have space even if they're not going to use it. Especially with AFF, because there's a lot of deduplication and compression behind the scenes, that saves us a lot of space and lets us "lie" to our consumers and say, "Hey, you've got all this space. Trust us. It's all there for you." We don't have to actually buy it until later, and that makes it function at all. We wouldn't even be able to do what we do without thin provisioning.

AFF has definitely improved our response time. I don't have data for you — nothing that would be a good quote — but I do know that before AFF, we had complaints about response time on our file shares. After AFF, we don't. So it's mostly anecdotal, but it's pretty clear that going all-flash made a big difference in our organization.

AFF has probably reduced our data center costs. It's been so long since we considered anything other than it, so it's hard to say. I do know that doing some of the things that we do, without AFF, would certainly cost more because we'd have to buy more storage, to pull them off. So with AFF dedupe and compression, and the fact that it works so well on our files, I think it has saved us some money probably, at least ten to 20 percent versus just other solutions, if not way more.

What is most valuable?

The most valuable feature on AFF, for me as a user, is one of the most basic NetApp features, which just:

A user comes to you and says, "I need more space." 

"Okay, here, you have more space." 

I don't have to move things around. I don't have to deal with other systems. It's just so nice. 

Other things that have been really useful, of course, are the clustering features and being able to stay online during failovers and code upgrades; and just being able to seamlessly do all sorts of movement of data without having to disrupt end-users' ability to get to those files. And we can take advantage of new shelves, new hardware, upgrade in place. It's kind of magic when it comes to doing those sorts of things.

The simplicity of AFF with regards to data management and data protection — I actually split those two up. It's really easy to protect your data with AFF. You can set up SnapMirror in a matter of seconds and have all your data just shoot over to another data center super quickly.

What needs improvement?

But I find some issues with other administrators on my team when it comes to management of the data because they have to either learn a CLI, which some of them really don't like to do — to really get into managing how volumes should be moved or to edit permissions and stuff like that. Or they go into a user interface, which is fine, it's web-based, but it's not the most intuitive interface as far as finding the things you need to do, especially when they get complicated. Some things just hide in there and you have to click a few levels deep before you can actually do what you need to do. 

I think they're working on improving that with like the latest versions of ONTAP. So we're kind of excited to see where that's going to go. But we haven't really tried that out yet to see.

One of the areas that the product can improve is definitely in the user interface. We don't use it for SAN, but we've looked at using it for SAN and the SAN workflows are really problematic for my admins, and they just don't like doing SAN provisioning on that app. That really needs to change if we're going to adopt it and actually consider it to be a strong competitor versus some of the other options out there. 

As far as other areas, they're doing really great in the API realm. They're doing really great in the availability realm. They just announced the all-SAN product, so maybe we'll look at that for SAN.

But a lot of the improvements that I'd like to see around AFF go with the ancillary support side of things, like the support website. They're in the middle of rolling this out right now, so it's hard to criticize because next month they're going to have new stuff for me to look at. But tracking bugs on there and staying in touch with support and those sorts of things need a little bit of cleanup and improvement. Getting to your downloads and your support articles, that's always a challenge with any vendor. 

I would like to see ONTAP improve their interfaces; like I said, the web one, but also the CLI. That could be a much more powerful interface for users to do a lot of scripting right in the CLI without needing third-party tools, without necessarily needing Ansible or any of those configuration management options. If they pumped up the CLI by default, users could see that NetApp has got us covered all right here in one interface. 

That said, they're doing a lot of work on integrations with other tools like Ansible and I think that might be an okay way to go. We're just not really there yet.

For how long have I used the solution?

We've been using AFF for file shares for about 14 years now.

What do I think about the stability of the solution?

The stability of AFF has actually been great. This is one of the areas where it has improved over time. During the Cluster Mode transition, there were some rocky periods here and there. Nothing serious, but you'd do a code upgrade and: "Oh, this node is being a little cranky." As they've moved to their newer, more frequent, deployment model of every six months, and focused more on delivering a focused release during that six months — instead of throwing in a bunch of features and some of them causing instability — the stability of upgrades and staying up has just improved dramatically. It's to the point where I'm actually taking new releases within a month of them coming out, whereas on other platforms that we have, we're scared to go within three months of them coming out.

What do I think about the scalability of the solution?

Scalability on AFF is an interesting thing. We use CIFS and that doesn't scale well as a protocol. AFF does its darndest to get us up there. We've found that once we got into the right lineup of array, like the AFF A700 series, or thereabouts, that was when we had what we needed for our workloads at our site. But I would say that the mid-range stuff was not really doing it for us, and our partners were hesitant to push us to the enterprise tier when they should have. So for a while, we thought NetApp just couldn't do it, but it was really just that our partners were scared of sticker-shock with us. Right now we've been finding AFF for CIFS is doing everything we need. If we start leveraging it for SAN I could have something to say on that, but we don't.

What other advice do I have?

Don't be scared. They're a great partner. They've got a lot of options for you. They've got a lot of tools for you. Just don't be scared to look for them. You might need to do a little bit of digging; you might need to learn how the CLI works. But once you do, it's an extremely powerful thing and you can do a lot of stuff with it. It is amazing how much easier it is to manage things like file shares with a NetApp versus a traditional Windows system. It is life-changing if you are an admin who has to do it the old-fashioned way and then you come over here and see the new way. It frees you up from most of that so you can focus on doing all the other work with the boring tools that don't work as well. NetApp is just taking care of its stuff. So spend the time, learn the CLI, learn the interfaces, learn where the tools are. Don't be afraid to ask for support. They're going to stand with you. They're going to be giving you a product that you can build on top of.

And come out to NetApp Insight because it's a good conference and they got lots of stuff [for you] to learn here.

NetApp certainly has options to unify data services across NAS and local and the cloud. But we are not taking advantage of them currently.

I'm going to give it a nine out of ten. Obviously you've heard my story. It's meeting all our needs everywhere, but the one last piece that's missing for me is some of those interface things and some of the SAN challenges for us that would let us use it as a true hybrid platform in our infrastructure. Because right now, we see it as CIFS-only and NAS-only. I would really like to see the dream of true hybrid storage on this platform come home to roost for us. We're kind of a special snowflake in that area. The things we want to do all on one array, you're not meant to. But if we ever got there, it would be a ten.

**Disclosure: I am a real user, and this review is based on my own experience and opinions.
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