Pillar Hopes to Stand Out in Storage Hardware

There’s a consensus that storage hardware has become a commodity in the last
few years.

Many analysts have said new players intent on selling systems that preserve
data won’t be able to penetrate a market saturated by products from EMC,
Hitachi Data Systems and IBM.

Pillar Data Systems aims to buck the trend. The San Jose, Calif., start-up,
propped up by over $150 million from Oracle CEO Larry Ellison’s venture firm
Tako Ventures, launched a system this week that offers storage area
network (SAN) and network-attached storage (NAS) utilities in one machine.

The idea of offering a device with the ability to handle SAN
and NAS schemes is nothing new. Storage vendors, such as EMC and
Network Appliance, have been putting together machines that don’t
discriminate against SAN or NAS transmissions. This flexibility makes them
attractive to businesses that need to handle several storage formats.

The trick with Pillar’s Axiom 500 server is that it uses a “peered NAS and
SAN architecture.”

While NetApp and EMC tack NAS gateways onto a SAN, or add a software layer
as a NAS system to imitate a SAN, Pillar pools both NAS and SAN in one
repository, said Pillar CEO Mike Workman. He claimed this costs about half
as much as competing machines without sacrificing capacity or performance

Axiom systems also offers customers more choice than they normally would
have. Customers can run a less expensive NAS-only system, a SAN-only system,
or run a blend of both depending on their storage requirements, said
Workman, a former IBM storage executive tapped by Ellison to lead the
company into a crowded market.

“Everyone says their products are flexible. But if they’re so flexible why
do they offer five, 10, 11 different storage hardware platforms with different
sets of software that go on those, in many cases, to solve storage problems,”
Workman asked, in a non-too-subtle dig at rivals EMC and IBM.

“Our platform severely differentiates itself from other people, because if
you want to buy archived storage from us you can buy the Axiom 500,” Workman
said. “But if you decide you want to CIFS home directories on it with more
performance than you’d get out of an archive system, you can do that on that
same platform.”

A singular hardware system for all can be pretty attractive. But it’s a
hollow skull without some brains to run in it. The intelligent data software
is the true engine in the Axiom box. Workman said Axiom storage management
software enables system resources to deliver data from a single pool
according to performance policies.

This means that applications that require high performance, such as database
software, are stored in a narrow band near the outer diameter of the disk
drive platters. That is where the data rate is the highest. Lower priority
data is stored on inner tracks where data rates are lower.

Workman said that while some systems allow users to place data on the disk
where they choose, the utility is useless unless it has priority queuing and
cache management like Axiom.

Customers have found that it costs less to purchase and deploy a Pillar
Axiom system than it does to maintain some of their current systems. Pillar
allows customers to scale capacity and performance without incurring
additional software license fees, providing unparalleled appeal in the
enterprise storage marketplace, Workman said.

“Configuration and management of our existing SAN has been unnecessarily
burdensome,” said Christopher Hill, associate director of Information
Systems at law firm Thacher Proffitt & Wood LLP, which tested an Axiom
system and realized cost savings immediately.

“There’s something fundamentally wrong when a $400,000 storage system
requires an additional $100,000 for professional services just to install
the system,” he said.

Hill said a comparable Axiom SAN system cost the firm around $100,000, with a simple management interface.

Pillar Axiom is now shipping with full NAS capability, with SAN capability
beta testing wrapping up and expected to be ready in July. Each system
scales from 3 terabytes to over 300 terabytes.

Pillar launched with roughly 325 employees. In addition to Workman, Pillar is
loaded with ex-IBM talent, including COO Nancy Holleran and Mike Brewer,
chief architect and vice president of engineering.

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