Ellison-backed Pillar Data readies for debut

Ellison-backed Pillar Data readies for debut

Oracle CEO Larry Ellison's US$100-million baby -- storage start-up Pillar Data Systems -- is expected to deliver as early as June what analysts are calling a unique storage subsystem that stores data on disk based on its importance to a customer's business.

The company hasn't been talking -- and still isn't -- but a wealth of information recently posted to paints a fairly detailed picture of what the company is planning.

Founded four years ago in San Jose, Pillar Data is funded by Ellison's private investment group, Tako Ventures, to the tune of a reported US$100 million. Lawrence Investments, the parent company of Tako Ventures, has interests in approximately 30 technology and biotechnology companies. Pillar Data employs about 300 people and is headed by Mike Workman, a veteran of IBM and Connor Peripherals.

Pillar's Axiom Storage System is expected to let customers combine the storage resources from network-attached storage (NAS) and storage-area network (SAN) environments into a single pool that can be managed and accessed from a single console.

Business-critical database or transaction-oriented data is stored close to the outside of the disk, where its seek time is less and where it can be quickly accessed. (Seek time refers to the amount of time it takes to position disk heads so data can be read.) Less-important data such as e-mail is stored closer to the disk spindle, where access takes longer. The least-important data - file and print data - is stored on the inside of the disk where the seek time is longest.

Rules-based software called the Pillar Storage Manager would let IT administrators create policies that determine the placement of data across these three tiers of storage.

This concept of storing data by disk spindle is not new but is as yet untried in open systems - Unix, Linux and Windows storage. IBM last tried it with its Direct Access Storage Device mainframe storage.

"It is a very uncommon approach," says Randy Kerns, senior analyst for Evaluator Group. "Years ago, we tried to do things like that with IBM mainframe disks and it was really too much to manage. Doing this in an open or distributed systems approach is unique. There's a lot of skepticism whether that's a good idea or not."

Pillar's Axiom storage system consists of a half-dozen modular rack-mountable appliances. The Pilot Policy Controller lets an IT administrator set policies that would provision storage, perform snapshot backups and volume copy operations for data protection, as well as manage the other appliances. The Pilot connects to storage controllers called Slammers, which act to move NAS or SAN data between host computers and disk drives. The disk drive enclosures are called Bricks, each of which can be configured with Serial Advanced Technology Attachment or Fibre Channel drives.

With this flexibility, customers can configure a NAS-only system, a SAN-only system or a combination of the two. The entire system connects to a network via 1G-bit/sec Ethernet or to a SAN via 2G-bit/sec Fibre Channel.

Axiom can store 2T to 166T bytes of data, according to the company's data sheets. Critical components include dual hot-swappable power supplies, disks and battery backed-up RAM.

The Axiom storage array will initially compete for the mid-tier enterprise market with products such as EMC's Clariion CX700 and HP's Enterprise Virtual Array. Eventually, Axiom will compete with EMC's Symmetrix and Hitachi's TagmaStore.

"The question you have to ask is, 'Do we already have enough storage vendors for a market that is pretty well supplied with products such as EMC's Clariion or Xiotech's Magnitude?'" says Arun Taneja, founder and senior analyst for Taneja Group. "Pillar needs to differentiate themselves from these other vendors to be successful. There is no such thing as infinite funding no matter what Ellison says."

Although pricing is unknown, analysts say it will need to be significantly less than prices from other vendors.

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