In Storage magazine's/SearchStorage.com's fourth annual NAS Quality Awards, a user-centric service and reliability survey to determine the best NAS systems on the market, NetApp was beaten by HP among midrange vendors and by IBM in the enterprise class. Respondents to the Quality Awards survey made HP's midrange NAS product line the clear winner by ranking it No. 1 in all five rating categories and giving HP a comfortable margin over second-place finisher Dell Inc.
For enterprise-class NAS systems, NetApp nearly repeated its Quality Awards III win but was upset by IBM by the narrowest margin we've ever seen in our evaluations to find the best NAS systems -- an extremely slim 0.04 points. But NetApp should find some consolation in IBM's close victory as IBM resells NetApp's NAS products. Because the Quality Awards seeks feedback on a range of activities that affect users' experiences -- not just the speeds, feeds and features of the product -- it's not uncommon for two vendors selling essentially the same product to end up being ranked very differently.
HP's and IBM's wins mark firsts for both companies, as neither one has ever come out on top on any of our NAS Quality Awards surveys or in our other two storage system categories: enterprise arrays and midrange arrays.
HP's across-the-board sweep in the midrange NAS field isn't unprecedented; NetApp has done it twice and narrowly missed doing it a third time by a few hundredths of a point. In edging out NetApp among enterprise NAS vendors, IBM's win was much like a split decision in a prize fight. It finished first in two of the five rating categories, as did NetApp; HP won the fifth category. But in the two categories where NetApp came out on top, IBM scored well and was a very close second.
It starts with sales
Our survey respondents delivered high praise to HP's midrange NAS sales efforts, giving the company the highest score for all six statements in the sales-force competence category. For the statement "The vendor's sales support team is knowledgeable," HP garnered a 6.52 rating, just barely ahead of Dell's 6.48. A key factor in making a system purchase that meets your firm's requirements and fits into its environment is a sales rep who takes the time to learn about your business and configure a solution appropriately. For the statement "My sales rep understands my business," HP eked out another narrow win with a 6.34 rating vs. IBM's 6.32. And for "My sales rep is knowledgeable about my industry," HP scored a similarly close top mark, besting EMC 6.31 to 6.29.
Although Jeff McMorran, director of IT at NMG, a purchasing services company in Newmarket, Ontario, bought his HP products through a reseller, he appreciated HP's participation in the process. "We had one account manager who was excellent," McMorran said. "He'd bring people from HP into it."
IBM's overall top ranking among enterprise NAS competitors can be credited to its strong showing in the sales-competence category. Big Blue led the pack on four of the six statements, trailing only Hitachi Data Systems on "My sales rep is knowledgeable about my industry" by the slimmest possible margin (6.27 to 6.26) and NetApp on "The vendor's sales support team is knowledgeable" by slightly more than a tenth of a point. But IBM came out on top for statements typically related to confidence building during the sales process, such as "My sales rep keeps my interests foremost" and "My sales rep understands my business."
For Mike MacNeill, director of architecture and infrastructure at Cross Country Healthcare Inc. in Boca Raton, Fla., a good relationship with a solid reseller helped him navigate the NAS waters when he was negotiating with both Dell/EMC Corp. and IBM for a system. "We had a really good rep who would kind of help us behind the scenes," MacNeill said. They eventually settled on the IBM gear.
Plug and play, or plug and pray?
The old saying "You never get a second chance to make a first impression" holds true for network-attached storage purchases, too, although our enterprise NAS respondents seem to be a little more forgiving. Initial installation and power-up experiences often shape overall perceptions about the quality of a product. Apparently, HP's midrange NAS systems made a very good first impression among our survey respondents. HP didn't quite match its dominating performance in the sales-competence category, but it came awfully close for initial product quality, snagging the top ratings for five of the six statements, although for one -- "This product was installed without any defects" -- Dell matched HP's leading score of 6.80. Dell also kept HP from another sweep with a 6.68 rating for "This product was easy to get up and running" compared with a nearly-as-strong 6.61 for HP.
HP's 6.83 for "This product is easy to use" was the highest rating for a single statement among all products (midrange or enterprise) in the survey. "It's very easy to set up, and it's very easy to maintain," NMG's McMorran said of their HP NAS box. "It came with everything it needed."
Among enterprise NAS systems, NetApp prevailed with a 6.35 in the initial product quality category with top scores for three of the six statements. IBM continued to duke it out with NetApp and finished a close second with a 6.30 rating. Hitachi, which scored the highest for "This product was easy to get up and running" (6.37), wasn't far behind the two leaders with a category rating of 6.26. Respondents' comments bolstered Hitachi's strong showing, with one indicating that expectations had been met: "Works as they claim."
Even though IBM offers "to rack it for you and do the initial setup," Cross Country Healthcare's MacNeill eschewed the help. "The actual setup once you power it on is 15 or 20 minutes," he said. "We did it ourselves this time because it's that easy."
A good sales experience and an uneventful installation are certainly important, but the rubber truly hits the road when it comes to a product's feature set. HP's 6.50 for this category in the midrange group was highlighted by a 6.62 for "This product's capacity scales to meet my needs" and nearly the same score (6.61) for "The product's management features meet my needs." Overall, HP was top dog on four feature statements, with NetApp and IBM taking the other three. NetApp's extensive snapshotting capabilities were acknowledged with the highest rating (6.45) among the midrange group for "This product's snapshot features meet my needs." IBM's two leading scores came on data protection-related statements: "This product's mirroring features meet my needs" (6.48) and "This product's remote replication features meet my needs" (6.56).
Continuing their duel in the enterprise group, NetApp's 6.41 for features just bested IBM, which received a 6.39 rating in the product feature category. HP finished a strong third by scoring highest on three of the category's seven statements for a total of 6.34. NetApp prevailed on the strength of a 6.66 for "This product's snapshot features meet my needs" and a 6.59 rating on the general satisfaction statement "Overall, this product's features meet my needs." "Very satisfied with the product," noted one respondent, who, with an eye to an upgrade, added, "Looking forward to the new features from Ontap 8.x."
IBM's good showing in the product features category hinged on top scores for scalability (6.47) and interoperability (6.33). For Cross Country Healthcare's MacNeill, manageability was an important factor in the product decision process, and the IBM/NetApp combination was a winner: "With the IBM/NetApp, we've seen a huge increase in productivity just using the management interface."
Among midrange products in the best NAS systems survey, HP finished on top for the reliability statements with an excellent 6.53, but EMC (6.48) and Dell (6.46) were hard on its heels, and IBM and NetApp weren't far behind as both posted scores of 6.40. In the most closely contested midrange rating category, EMC and IBM each ranked highest on one statement, with EMC picking up a 6.70 for "The product meets my service-level requirement" and IBM coming out on top for "Vendor provides comprehensive upgrade guidance." Still, despite the narrow range in total scores for this category, HP led for the other three statements, which relate to limited downtime, unplanned patching and being able to apply patches without disrupting operations.
On the enterprise side, IBM and NetApp once again went toe-to-toe, with each scoring highest for two statements in the reliability rankings and finishing in a dead-heat tie for the fifth category statement. Overall, IBM's 6.40 rating outpaced NetApp (6.34) and third-place finisher Hitachi (6.29). IBM showed its strength with a 6.55 for the key reliability statement "This product experiences very little downtime," while NetApp's best showing was a 6.53 for meeting service-level requirements.
The measure of support
HP completed its grand slam with a 6.48 rating in the technical support category among midrange products with a relatively comfortable margin over a cluster of contenders, including IBM (6.37), Dell (6.34) and EMC (6.31). Of the eight statements in this evaluation category, HP notched the highest scores on five and was bested by EMC by a hair (6.48 vs. 6.45) for the support statement "Vendor takes ownership of the problem."
NetApp scored high for meeting support expectations with a 6.72 for "Vendor supplies support as contractually specified," and Dell stood out for sending smart techs to solve its customers' problems with a 6.53 for "Support personnel are knowledgeable."
Among enterprise candidates in the best NAS systems survey, the NetApp-IBM brawl was overshadowed in the support category as HP nosed out Hitachi, 6.28 to 6.25, for the top spot. But only 0.08 points separated the top four, with IBM (6.23) and NetApp (6.20) rounding out a very closely bunched group. HP's strengths were for training and documentation, while Hitachi received top marks for taking ownership of problems, timely problem resolution, knowledgeable personnel and delivering as promised.
In every Quality Awards survey we ask respondents whether they would buy the same product again today, having had some experience with it and knowing what they know now. Often, the "buy again" rankings sync up pretty closely with the overall ratings, but just as frequently, they seem to run counter to the general scores. When the latter occurs, it's assumed that users, having worked through their ups and downs with a product, are more comfortable sticking with what's now familiar. That appears to be the case with the latest NAS systems midrange tallies: Hitachi, lowest in the overall rankings, nonetheless has apparently built customer loyalty, as 92% said they would consider buying the Hitachi product again. For enterprise NAS systems, the "buy again" numbers followed more closely to form, with 97% of both IBM's and HP's users saying they'd do it all over again.
The repeat-buy numbers for enterprise NAS systems were particularly high across the board, indicating that these vendors are ultimately delivering when it comes to customer satisfaction. With so much focus lately on the rapid growth of file-based storage, it's a promising sign that NAS system vendors are doing a good job of meeting users' requirements and expectations.
The following products were included in the Quality Awards for NAS IV survey (the number of ratings responses are in parentheses).
- BlueArc Corp. Titan 1100, Mercury 50/100*
- Dell Inc. PowerVault NF100/NF500/NF600, NX300/NX1950/NX3000/NX4 (60)
- EMC Corp. Celerra NX4, NS-120 (53)
- Hewlett-Packard (HP) Co. ProLiant DL Storage Servers, StorageWorks Network Storage System X1000/X3000 (63)
- Hitachi Data Systems Essential NAS Platform 1000 Series (13)
- IBM Corp. N3000/N5000 (38)
- LSI Corp. (formerly ONStor) Cougar 3000 NAS Gateway*
- NetApp FAS200/FAS900, FAS2000 (all with NAS interface) (69)
- Overland Storage Inc. (formerly Adaptec) Snap Server 620/650*
- Panasas Inc. ActiveStor 7 Series/8 Series*
- Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) InfiniteStorage NAS2000/NAS3000, NEXIS 2000/NEXIS 7000*
- Sun Microsystems Inc. StorEdge 5210/5220, Sun Storage 7110/7210/7310 Unified Storage System (28)
- BlueArc Titan 2000/3000 series*
- DataDirect Networks Inc. GRIDScaler/EXAScaler/xSTREAMScaler*
- EMC Celerra NS-480/NS-960 (58)
- Exanet Inc. EX1500*
- Hewlett-Packard StorageWorks EFS Clustered Gateway, 4400 Scalable NAS File Services, 9100 Extreme Data Storage System (30)
- Hitachi Data Systems Lightning Blade, TagmaStore Blade, AMS1000/500/200, WMS100 with NAS Option, Hitachi NAS Platform 3000 Series (27)
- IBM N6000/N7000 (31)
- Isilon Systems Inc. Isilon IQ*
- LSI (formerly ONStor) Cougar 6000 Series NAS Gateway*
- NetApp FAS3000/FAS3100, FAS6000 (all with NAS interface) (83)
- Panasas ActiveStor 9 Series*
- SGI InfiniteStorage NEXIS 9000*
- Sun StorEdge 5310/5320, Sun Storage 7420 (20)
* Too few responses to be included in final tabulations; at least 13 complete sets of responses are required.
About the Quality Awards
The results in the Storage magazine and SearchStorage.com Quality Awards are derived from a survey of qualified Storage/SearchStorage.com readers who assessed products in five main categories: sales-force competence, product features, initial product quality, product reliability and technical support. Products are rated on a scale of 1 to 8, with 8 bing the most favorable score.
In the fourth edition of the NAS Quality Awards, 340 respondents rated 626 products/product lines.
This story was originally published in Storage magazine.