The Cloud File Services marketing war – Blocks and Files

A big battle is brewing. There are two opposing groups of suppliers in conflict. One grouping is formed from the on-premises filers who are adding multi-cloud support to their file system products such as Dell’s OneFS and NetApp’s ONTAP, also Qumulo, but not the HPC-focussed file services suppliers such as Panasas, IBM’s Spectrum Scale and WEKA. The mainstream on-premises filers provide client access for the gamut of everyday file-based workloads in offices everywhere.

The second grouping is a collection of cloud-based file service upstart suppliers who have developed their offerings from the early cloud storage gate, file sync’n’share days, into more capable file services gateways. Our term, using front-end high-speed local caches, optimized WAN links and back-end capacity-based storage, often object-based with sophisticated central software in the cloud capable of handling hundreds of tenant customers and thousands, tens of thousands of users, keeping everything synchronised and working properly.

There are six suppliers we can identify in this group, with a well-established central trio – CTERA, Nasuni and Panzura – the restricted enterprise-focussed Egnyte, technologically unique  Hammerspace plus newcomer LucidLink.

Some, like Nasuni, openly wish to replace on-premises filers – particularly from NetApp – while others, such as CTERA and Panzura, dismiss such aggressive marketing aims. Major incumbent filers do not publicly admit to any competitive impact from the upstarts. Dell and NetApp, for example, point to their revenue growth and IDC market share numbers, or make fastest-growing product in their history statements (such as PowerScale)  to show that they are growing their file-based businesses.

Yet we doubt that there are many, if any at all, greenfield cloud field services customers. Their customers will generally have had existing file-based workloads and any sale they make is a sale lost to the incumbents. But the overall unstructured data market is growing so fast that the incumbents and the upstarts have been able to grow.

CTERA architecture diagram.

These cloud file service upstart suppliers have made progress selling to customers who have complex file-based workloads involving multiple stages and remote and skilled workers. They need to have files updated by one set of remote technicians and quickly available to others who need to process the output of the first group. 

EDA (Electronic Design Automation) is one such area and others are distributed architectural practices and also distributed entertainment and media outfits needing to handle special video effects.

Lacking a central public cloud facility, the on-premises filers have to have site-to-site networking in place for their networked file systems when coping with customers who have distributed office sites and a need to share complex and large file data sets. The cloud file services upstarts squirt updated metadata and files to their central public cloud facility and then their software technology uses the metadata to update all the necessary remote sites and sends the data out as it is needed. Their centralized software technology is a strength, a moat, and represents years of development and battle-hardening by customer use.

They have a base from which they can scale and are operationally competent when handling tens of thousands of users in different organizations. The on-premises filers now extending into the cloud have to decide whether to develop their own version of this technology or to continue with their … what we might call ‘repeated point-to-point connectivity’ for customers. It is our belief that they will have to develop multi-tenant centralized technology if they want to scale.

We think that they might decide to buy the technology, meaning that Dell and NetApp could cast acquisitive eyes at CTERA, Nasuni and Panzura – much as Microsoft bought Avere and its cloud storage gateway tech back in 2018. We don’t see IBM getting acquisitive here as its main file interest – parallel access Spectrum Scale – is more of an HPC offering.

HPE does not have its own file services product in the OneFS, ONTAP sense. It could buy one of these upstarts in order to get an owned cloud file services offering into GreenLake. 

The public cloud players could also decide to get involved, moving up the stack from simply providing a central high capacity storage vault and compute instances for the upstarts’ application software. An AWS, Azure or GCP could also acquire one of the upstarts.

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