MeriTalk sat down with Jeff Whitaker, Senior Manager of Cloud Data Services at NetApp, to discuss Azure NetApp Files (ANF) and the recent deployment in the U.S. government region in Virginia. With a 12-year tenure at NetApp under his belt, Jeff now handles the marketing activities for NetApp’s Azure NetApp Files platform and the Azure overall messaging and storyline. Today, Jeff will dive into ANF’s expansive capabilities when it comes to deploying in the government region, challenges faced along the way, and what’s on the horizon as ANF looks to expand even more.

MeriTalk: To start things off, we’ve known NetApp for years as a storage system and software company, but offering cloud-enabled solutions is new. Can you tell us what NetApp is doing in the cloud for customers making that transition?

Whitaker: NetApp is going on 28 years in the storage business and saw the cloud trend accelerate over the years as customers started to take advantage of cloud solutions and/or environments for deploying their IT. We joined the journey to the cloud about seven years ago, building our storage and data solutions to really help customers make their cloud migration successful.

As customers make the journey into a cloud environment, the big concern we see is the expectation they have to redo everything. “How do I make the move into the cloud? How do I ensure my data is protected? How do I ensure my applications are running all the time?” Just because they move to the cloud, those things don’t go away. So, we bring our solutions together to help customers from a data perspective. We guarantee that as they deploy and migrate to the cloud, their current environments remain operational.

MeriTalk: Let’s talk Azure NetApp Files. Can you give us a quick overview of what ANF is and what separates it from other similar products? What are its core capabilities?

Whitaker: About two years ago, when we were working with Microsoft, customers faced challenges moving to Azure with any sort of application that had file requirements. So, customers built their own environments or their own file servers inside Azure. Often, building their own didn’t solve their needs and wasted resources.

Microsoft called upon NetApp to help them build a solution. ANF is not a NetApp service; it’s a service in Azure to solve file challenges. Not only did we bring our expertise of over 25 years to the Azure environment, but we also brought performance and resiliency. When customers made these moves, they saw we can now shift our core business applications and transfer those items that really help our businesses operate. In many cases, we can move them in a format they are familiar with when running the data center. Now we have customers who are moving their database environments, SAP environments, and anything that’s business critical to them. Not only do they get the files and service environment that they need, but they get the comfort that their environments are going to run and won’t have drops in performance.

MeriTalk: We know ANF was recently made available in the U.S. government region in Virginia, soon to be followed by Arizona and Texas – can you tell us more about that? For obvious reasons, government data requires an increased level of security and capabilities, and must fall in line with certain regulations – how does ANF meet those needs?

Whitaker: NetApp has a lot of business in the data center side of the government. We know the needs and requirements, but as Federal agencies or state and local governments take these steps, there are mandates that drive at least a percentage of their operations to run in the cloud. What we really needed was to move our capabilities for ANF into one of the government regions as well.

Probably the biggest region for the public sector, as a whole, is the Virginia space. So, we started there and brought in those capabilities. As we continue to roll out multiple government data centers, it’s about bringing those features that we’re deploying, replicating, having solutions in multiple regions, and meeting them on the regulatory and compliance side.

We achieved FedRAMP certification for the commercial region several months ago. And as we rolled out the Virginia data center, we achieved FedRAMP in the government data center. One of the key pieces is ensuring the government data is secure in the Azure Government regions.

MeriTalk: What challenges were you met with when expanding ANF to the government region?

Whitaker: So, because government is a separate network, it’s a different environment altogether. One of the big challenges is, as your NAP files are built on top of NetApp technology, it’s built on top of NetApp equipment. So, we actually have to move and build the environment inside the Azure data centers for all of our deployments.

When it came to government, it uncovered some new challenges to deploying fully. You can’t have a platform as a service offering. When a government entity wants to utilize the data environment, they don’t have to think about all the details that happen behind the scenes, including storage specifics. They need capacity and a certain performance requirement.

It became a challenge to bring all the capabilities and service levels that we built because the type of network, data, and overall resource environment in the government data centers is very different.

MeriTalk: In our new normal of remote work, how is ANF more critical now than ever? In what ways can ANF capabilities aid customers throughout the pandemic?

Whitaker: The cloud environment offered a very good platform for doing work-from-home resources. In the case of Azure, it’s their Windows virtual desktop environment. But, to access those capabilities inside data centers became a challenge. When in the cloud, these remote work environments, or remote work solutions, make it easier for customers or users to access those core applications reliably and securely.

So, when ANF came into this piece, some of the challenges were:

  • How does a company go from maybe 50 remote workers, to 2,000 remote workers?
  • How do you do that without completely smashing the user experience for all those who are now trying to access it?

Teams are deploying these Windows virtual desktop environments for their users. They need to know the experience is positive, they maintain reasonable control, and the environment is always up and running. If you’ve got thousands of people using a remote environment and it all goes down, productivity is lost. Any delay causes an immediate impact on the user directly because ANF has such high performance. So, you need that experience as fast as possible. ANF’s low latency access and fast data throughput times gives users a much more positive experience than they would have gotten otherwise.

IT teams will make sure they can give customers a good experience, their data will be protected at all times, and it’s not going to fluctuate. It’s become effectively a de facto standard for anybody doing a Windows virtual desktop deployment despite being a side effect of something that we had not planned upon initially.

MeriTalk: What’s on the horizon for ANF? Are you looking to expand to any other regions?

Whitaker: So with Azure NetApp Files, as a Microsoft service, they want it in every single region they could possibly deploy. As we move forward, we are continuing that growth with between 23 and 25 regions available now. This compared to just five from last May.

We’ll continue to expand across the globe to wherever business needs this deployment. The other piece is expanding the capabilities as we go. We’ve learned our NetApp features are key to our success in deploying in data centers and offering the best capabilities to the customers. We’re bringing more and more of those capabilities to Azure NetApp Files, but doing it as simple as possible.

As of recently, Microsoft announced cross-region replication as a public preview of the service. This exemplifies how an integrated solution gives you multi-region support for your data. Let’s say you deploy your primary in Virginia and have a secondary backup region in Texas or Arizona – all integrated at the data level so that you can fail-over if anything happens. As customers have a very high-performance requirement on one side, they can fail-over to another region. But, they don’t want to pay the same price for the data over there. With NetApp, they can lower their performance levels after they replicate their data. These little things help with cost and performance, supporting the overall solution as they deploy inside Azure.

MeriTalk: Is there anything on the government policy front that needs to change for adoption to become more widespread? Is there anything that states or the Federal government could do to remove any roadblocks to adoption?

Whitaker: As more and more agencies are forced to rely on remote workers (a trend that we see continuing post-COVID), we see the Federal and state governments providing increasing support for these services – including through the recently-passed CARES funding programs. Given the significant financial demand on agencies due to the pandemic, especially at the state level, the primary roadblock at this point is sufficient funding. We are actively working with our congressional representatives to push for additional state and local funding to ensure agencies can meet the increased demand for services like ANF to provide a secure and effective environment for remote agency workers.

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MeriTalk Staff