New Ellison-funded storage company enters the market wearing war paint

New Ellison-funded storage company enters the market wearing war paint

Whatever your opinion of Lawrence Ellison, Oracle's chief executive officer, you'll probably agree on one thing: The gentleman has a keen eye for storage.

I say this because Oracle was one of the first major vendors to argue that storage was too expensive and that good performance and high resilience weren't necessarily incompatible with moderate cost. In fact, Oracle has dedicated a section of its Web site to that topic. There, visitors can find white papers and suggestions on how to run Oracle's database on affordable storage platforms without sacrificing performance or risking data loss.

Oracle's URL isn't recent news. Unbeknown to most, however, Ellison has been putting his money where his corporate mouth is since 2001, when he began funding Pillar Data Systems.

Pillar Data is a storage startup with the ambitious goal of doing something "unique and differentiable," to quote Pillar President and CEO Michael Workman.

"If you just have one angle, the big guys are going to step on you," Workman says, adding that the company's Pillar Axiom platform was built to address myriad storage requirements with a single solution, from cost-effective archiving to top-notch performance and manageability.

Axiom will eventually feature both file and block serving using SATA and FC (Fibre Channel) drives, but the initial release focuses on NAS for both Unix and Windows and is delivered on the more affordable SATA drives.

Axiom's modular architecture includes "slammers," resilient multiprocessor controllers with built-in FC switching capabilities, and "bricks," or storage enclosures, each bearing 13 drives and dual RAID capabilities.

In a minimum resilient configuration with active-active fail-over, customers put together one slammer and two bricks; for additional capacity and performance they can deploy more bricks and as many as four slammers in a single storage pool, mixing SAN and NAS applications as needed, Workman says.

"When you buy another slammer, you don't pay for another copy of the software," Workman adds, suggesting that this is a feature that differentiates Axiom from other storage vendors' offerings, which often impose additional license fees for each element of a storage cluster.

Workman indicates that Axiom will cost between US$50,000 and US$500,000 depending on capacity and applications requirements, with a "sweet spot" around US$150,000. Considering that Pillar Data claims to be as much as seven times more affordable than comparable alternatives, its price range suggests a rather wide target market spanning mid-tier to top-tier customers.

Axiom's hardware architecture is quite interesting, and so is Pillar Data's promise to satisfy conflicting performance and cost objectives on the same gear. The latter is the part about which I was most skeptical, but Workman built a convincing case for Axiom. Better yet, he gave me a live demo showing significantly different performance levels for two instances of the same application running at the same time and on the same machine.

Curious about how Pillar Data accomplishes this? The answer involves policy-driven storage allocations that take advantage of some smart hardware handling. For example, Axiom implements a rather well-known technique called "short stroking," which effectively divides each disk drive in a fast-response area (the outer tracks) while the rest of the unit makes for a larger but less responsive section. A third component of Axiom, a separate off-band box dubbed the "pilot," hosts the management applications.

Back to storage allocations. When you define a new logical unit number, a wizard residing on the "pilot" will collect the performance and cost requirements of your application and will pluck storage space accordingly -- from the short-stroking area for faster access, from elsewhere if low cost is the key demand.

You can also create templates from those wizard dialogues, or take advantage of built-in templates to ensure consistent allocation for similar requirements. May I stress that those templates make allocating storage much easier and more predictable?

I can't deny that Axiom struck me as one of the more interesting recent novelties in storage, and one that both prospects and competitors should follow with attention. While it's true that we have heard the promises of reducing cost of ownership and simplifying management from other storage players, it's undeniable that Pillar Data Systems takes on that task from a new and quite interesting point of view. And that could be what it takes to be successful.

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