Where Hype Starts And Reality Ends

News of a startup in the ever-competitive storage market is as common as vendors claiming they have “industry-leading” technology. But one new player isn’t taking this route as it introduces its offering of efficient data access for high-performance computing.

Atrato, a Colorado-based company once known as Sherwood Information Services, is staying quiet about its technology though it’s letting people know who’s funding the effort.

While Atrato CEO and co-founder Dan McCormick offered only general information when I asked him about his products, he was more willing to talk about how Atrato has grabbed $18 million in venture capital in six months and who’s raising money for the company.

The venture capital roster includes former StorageTek CEO and founder Jesse Aweida; Tom Porter, an ex-Seagate CTO and IBM leader; Dick Blaschke, an IBM and EMC veteran; and Gary Gentry, former Seagate senior vice president.

The company’s product, Atrato, is a high-performance storage platform designed to solve issues with high-speed, high-volume data access.

The startup’s lone press release issued a week ago offered insight on the venture capital roster but is generic in terms of technology specifics. And McCormick isn’t eager to provide further detail.

“We’ve come out of stealth mode to execute on our vision that data storage isn’t about how to store information but how to efficiently access that information,” McCormick said.

One industry analyst said a close look at the company’s management team and its expertise could provide some insight on the company’s technology.

Along with McCormick, the team includes a second former executive from Xiotech and Seagate, Atrato’s co-founder Jonathan Hall.

Another member, Tom Ruwart, is chief scientist at HPC solutions and an expert on individual disk drives for peta-scale supercomputer-class storage systems.

Also on the team is principal software architect Sam Siewert, who currently teaches a program in real-time embedded systems at the University of Colorado and has several patents related to ASIC debug and CPU scheduling.

Karl Whiting, principal hardware architect, co-founded Idealogy and served as the president, principal engineer and engineering manager. He has helped customers such as Cisco and Nortel with their ASIC developments.

“From what I can see is that Atrato might have created some kind of flash technology or similar technology that they’re tweaking for their customer needs,” said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT. King said Atrato’s quiet announcement is interesting given the timing.

“This is following EMC’s news about its own flash drive technology and other HPC I/O announcements,” King said, adding that Atrato’s technology seems to be aimed at a “corner” of the storage market.

“It’s not something everyone needs,” he said. “Companies with extremely high performing database-enabled applications are likely looking for this kind of solution.”

McCormick didn’t comment on specific inquiries about the Atrato device but said the company has 150 patent claims on its “innovative” application that lets users cut connectivity costs by 90 percent and reduce rack and cooling costs by 80 percent.

What McCormick would talk about is his market strategy, saying that the company is targeting “two main buckets” of users. The first are content delivery service providers, which includes cable companies, Web 2.0 operations and cellular and television services providers.

The second “user” bucket comprises HPC environments in the government and oil and gas industries.

Although McCormick declined to provide pricing information, he explained that Atratro’s value proposition is competitive pricing in what’s clearly becoming a very crowded vendor space. He would only describe pricing as “on par” with mid-tier storage vendor products.

But analyst King found that description difficult to believe given that flash technology, while declining about 50 percent in price every 18 months, is still expensive for the intended marketplaces.

“If this is flash-based then it’s going to be a very expensive system. Flash cost will come down but it will never reach parity with disk costs as those costs continue to come down as well,” says King, noting that even EMC, which has clearly embraced flash technology, doesn’t intend to plug it into its Centera line anytime soon due to cost issues.

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