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Inside Your Data Fabric: Behind the Scenes At NetApp With NKS Master Nick Howell

August 1, 2019

Topics: 4 minute readKubernetes

I meet a lot of new people through NetApp: customers at convention centers, programmers at road shows. And those relationships have given me a sense of NetApp’s presence in the cloud-sphere: NetApp is offering some of the best products out there that nobody really knows about.

So I decided to raise awareness around what NetApp’s cloud products really do, what their applications are. We’re not just a storage company anymore: our products open doors into areas as distinct as AI and deep learning, the Internet of Things, and even Oracle database management.

Inside Your Data Fabric, a new NetApp video and podcast series, arose from the idea that we aren’t just marketing to customers in our blogs and whitepapers and at our events; we’re talking to people who are curious about both the practical applications of NetApp cloud products and the culture at NetApp. People who want to know how we think about technology.

In this interview, I met up virtually with Nick Howell, current Global Field CTO of Cloud Data Services and former Technical Partner Manager for NetApp Kubernetes Service. We talked the evolutionary steps of the cloud from the data center and the invention of Active Directory to the heyday of VMware and cloud-first mandates.

From Data Center Dude to Kubernetes King

Nick Howell is a self-described “data center dude”. He started out in the 90s, stocking and selling parts for heavy equipment in South Carolina; that distribution center had a rather perplexing cataloging system that hearkens back to a time before infinite connectivity. It was, as Nick describes, “a giant stack of CDs with all of the exploded views and catalogs of part numbers. Every machine had its own disc, and looking t­hem up required swapping disc after disc.”

Having left this experience of decentralized storage behind him, Nick went on to join NetApp in 2011. He left for a short time a few years later. When he rejoined NetApp after that brief hiatus, he told me, he saw a stark contrast between the storage company that NetApp had been—the storage company that he knew from the get-go—and the cloud-oriented NetApp that was “very much transformed under Kurian’s leadership…into a data company. We have a vast array of public-cloud managed SaaS and PaaS offerings that are consumed directly in the cloud.”

Build Your Own…Dual-Redundant Ring Around the Country?

“It's important to understand that there are people out there,” Nick continues, “people like me that have come through all of these evolutionary steps.”

He explains that his craziest data center assignment took place in 2003, when he was working for a financial institution that wanted to build their own dual-redundant ring around the country.  

So they “brought all of the gear into [their home base], and we set it all up on racks. We configured everything: cut cables to length, bagged all the nuts and bolts and hardware and straps. And then we tore it all back down once they had configured everything. We put it all back in the boxes, put [the boxes] onto the trucks, shipped it to all the [locations], got on a plane, and went to every single one of 24 locations.”

In other words, the time Nick spent digging out the trenches in data centers gave him unique insight into the evolution of invention, molding his understanding of technological history. He’s held the building blocks of the cloud in his hand—the wires, cables, bolts, straps of an enormous machine—and he’s watched the constituent parts combine into something far smaller in scale, but grander in application.

“It's really not just about NetApp,” he pauses, “This [transformation] is bigger.”

Building Castles in the Cloud

In the past few years, NetApp has acquired Greenqloud and Stackpoint. “It’s important to understand why we did that,” Nick begins.

“As part of this whole transformation that we've been going through, we first acquired Greenqloud for their Qstack technology. And it was really, really good at doing app lifecycle management and day-to-day operational stuff—but it wasn't so good at managing infrastructure behind the scenes.”

Enter Stackpoint. Stackpoint was “very, very good provisioning and deploying Kubernetes infrastructure in one of the most elegant ways I've ever seen…it gets you away from that Kubernetes dashboard that nobody likes and gives you a really elegant HTML5 beautiful experience to deploy it.”

When you marry those two things together—an intuitive interface and sophisticated Qstack technology—you get “a single management control plane to handle all of your Kubernetes infrastructure deployments and management upgrades. If you've been working in Kubernetes for any amount of time you know how big of a deal that is.”

But, he continues, “the NKS part to me is a really elegant solution to combine not only your infrastructure and management of your Kubernetes deployments, your cluster deployments, but also your application lifecycles. It's the only truly agnostic [service] across all clouds and on-premises that I know of today.”

What Does NKS Do That Nothing Else Does? Watch On, My Friend.

To learn more about our unfolding Data Fabric story, the data center trenches in the aughts, the rise of the cloud, and why NKS is the one of the most comprehensive products on the market, check out the Inside Your Data Fabric segment.

Chief Technologist, Cloud and Data Services