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By | Chris Mellor 8th May 2009 15:42

Sun sale: Pillar checks itself

Knocking for opportunities as Oracle opens wallet

Interview Is Pillar Data threatened by Oracle's purchase of Sun? El Reg talked with Bob Maness, Pillar Data's worldwide marketing VP, about business, flash memory and Oracle's Sun acquisition.

Pillar Data is the Larry Ellison-funded storage start-up delivering its Axiom storage arrays with application-aware templates and storage quality of service controls enabling multiple levels of storage service from one array. The company also offers an 80 percent storage utilisation guarantee.

Pillar laid off some staff a few months ago when the recession started biting. How is business now?

"New customer acquisition is growing as planned," Maness said. "That's driving repeat business as a new customers buys more Pillar storage within two quarters of their first purchase 80 percent of the time. We have 460 customers now, with numbers growing at a consistent clip, and we've shipped about 800 Pillar Axiom systems.

"We did have challenges in the fourth quarter (of 2008) and in the first quarter in pots. Our pipeline has increased in the last six weeks by around 20 percent. The opportunities are coming in. We're on the shortlist, we're on the RFP, we're asked to participate. "

Server virtualisation is driving a lot of sales as shared storage is seen as a necessary adjunct to virtual servers. Pillar reckons its ability to have specific quality of storage service for individual virtual machines is a good fit to customers' requirements "instead of just throwing more spindles at under-pefoming virtualised server applications".

Maness said: "We have a cost structure allowing us a shorter distance to profitability than before." He thinks that when customers numbers reach the 650 level a tipping point will be reached: "It could cause the growth curve to steepen."

Pillar and Sun/Oracle

What does Pillar think about the Oracle acquisition of Sun? "We don't comment on what they're trying to do. There could be an opportunity for us. It could be really exciting.

"Compared to Sun's disk storage we have superior products. Sun storage is not competitive. So we can go to Sun resellers and offer Pillar so that their storage attach rate goes up compared to current Sun storage.

"We're in the market as a viable alternative, financed by Larry Ellison. Sun resellers are all over our website. We have an opportunity to take advantage of this. Pillar has a better hardware platform for the Oracle DBMS than Oracle/Sun has."

What about Sun technology? "Sun is a technology powerhouse - they've just had difficulty marketing it. Sun's scalable file systems could be used..." ZFS? "Yes... to help develop our own product line. This is a possibility, an opportunity, but nothing can be done until the deal closes."

Sun has introduced servers with specific read and write caches for system software working set data. Pillar is open to putting flash memory in its controllers as an adjunct to DRAM. Maness talked of "the potential to tier memory in the same way we have storage capacity pools. We carve up CPU and RAM today for quality of service."

Adding an SSD memory tier to the controllers would enable better control over the quality of service offered by Pillar's Axiom arrays because amounts of CPU, RAM, flash cache, and storage capacity could all be allocated.

Maness also mentioned the possibility of tiering flash itself. Their could be a very high-speed single level cell flash pool and a slower but higher capacity multi-level cell flash pool. The MLC flash would need to be enterprise-grade in terms of reliability and write endurance though.

MLC flash is considered to be consumer-grade today but SATA drives were once considered to be consumer-grade previously and now you can get enterprise-class SATA drives. Ergo, MLC flash should become enterprise-class too.

In the long run SSD and SAS drives eat into the market share of Fibre Channel drives.

Maness discussed the idea of taking a snapshot of data on SATA drives, sticking it into an SSD cache, working with it and, when the work is over, deleting it, leaving the original data still on the hard drive without it having to be moved.

He sees three phases of flash adoption. Step one is putting SSDs into the main storage capacity pool. Step two is adding flash caches to controllers. The third step is to have tiered flash in the main storage capacity pool.

What about Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE)? "We're looking at how it evolves. We're more interested in inserting technologies like SSD into our products to get an immediate return.

"FCoE is not a game-changer for Pillar. We're in the mid-market. If it trickles down we'll do it. If it doesn't we won't."

Don't call us resellers

Piller is altering the emphasis of its channel program so that its storage is a component of a system, such as a business intelligence or disaster recovery; Maness envisaging, for example, a BI-led sale with Pillar storage integrated inside it.

The channel partner sells into a vertical application market. "Don't use the word reseller. It denotes someone who hawks boxes. No - our partners sell solutions containing our product."

The channel program is changing away from having lots of partners to one having fewer selected partners in a region. Maness said Pillar was looking for higher value partners now. Pillar is minimising the numbers of authorised reseller partners per region to mitigate unnecessary competition. Its channel partners will also be able to sell and carry out Pillar Professional Services, increasing the value of sales. They will also have the ability to match competitive pricing, as well as enjoying volume-based pricing discounts.

There are also other partner offerings like a seminar-in-a-box to help their lead generation activities.

All this leaves the impresssion that Pillar is weathering the recession well, with new customer numbers growing at a steady rate. Pillar has no great inside track insight into Oracle's intentions with Sun but does see opportunities in the Sun technology stack.

The Axiom arrays are getting a three-step flash memory roadmap considered, along with the use of Sun's ZFS file system technology. That, with its software RAID and scalability features, could provide interesting extensions to the Axiom's software environment.

The ideas of SSD tiering is a novel one, and it seems that Pillar may have the most detailed insight and plans into how flash memory can be used in storage arrays of all the storage vendors. ®

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