The steadily more upstanding Pillar

A work in progress: SSD plans revealed

Pillar Data is surviving and prospering and extending its product offer. Customer numbers are growing and any early doubters of its products and technology have had to reassess the company and where it is going. It is responding to the current server virtualisation surge and has a good green story too.

CEO Mike Workman landed in the UK for a day or two and we managed to get an hour or so of his time to get an update of what Pillar is doing. (Some of his answers have been abridged for editorial reasons and these sections are indicated by elipsis marks, like this …)


B&F: How has the past year been for Pillar?
Mike Workman: It was great. We had a good year There are around 517 machines in the field and we doubled customer numbers to over 300. We have a presence in 12 countries and we’ll enter Australia this year. The product quality is astounding. With 500 machines in production se in December we’ve only had one customer issue. That’s very good.

We introduced the Axiom 300 early last year and it’s really taken off; it’s doing very well. At that price point the volume is so much higher.

We’ve done a lot of sales team and management team building. In fact we’ve just done the sales kickoff – it was just spectacular. … The development team had a good year and you’ll see more of that.

B&F: Did Pillar’s green messages resonate with customers?
Mike Workman: Did the green messages resonate with customers? In a sense, no. Not because efficiency and utilisation aren’t great, but everyone is drowning in green. It’s really become noise.

What’s working well is talking about fundamental technologies that allow people to build green data centres. We’re number one in hat we have the highest (disk) utilisation in the industry. … No one else comes close. That is huge. People get excited about it.

If you say your products are green people’s eyes glaze over. (So) I’m dubious about green messaging.

B&F: Will people retreat from greenwash?
Mike Workman: I think it’s a natural reaction. Citrix and VMware do an enormous amount for server utilisation. What VMware does for servers is what Pillar does for storage. People get it once you explain.

I believe we have the first and only true application-aware storage. If you tell people about the technology and why it matters, which has green ramifications, they get it.

I think we have the best technology for green storage. I’ve tried to go back to a no b-s approach (to counter green washing.)

B&F: What are Pillar’s product directions for 2008?
Mike Workman:
(First) it’s application aware storage: Oracle; SAP; SQL; whatever; you essentially specify the application attributes or the application itself and we lay out the disk, the number of spindles, the RAID level, and all that sort of stuff and so on. (There is an) app-aware layer on top of our storage manager.

We’ll continue on that theme; increasing the number of applications you call out on drop-down menus.

We’ll improve the performance of the product: the size; number of IOs per second. We’ll continue to be first to market which we were with 1TB disks. We’ll just keep working on these things.

There will be new product announcements in a couple of months. We’ll bolster the product and may just be in tier one and not just the mid-range space.

B&F comment: Tier one here means the enterprise storage space and not the Fibre Channel disk drive tier of a storage array.

B&F: What do you think are customers’ main storage concerns?
Mike Workman: We think of two kinds of customer. The first group want to keep on doing what they are doing (but) because they are overloaded Pillar can help them.

The second group are looking for something that will make them more efficient, something in the data centre that makes them shine. Our technology, the biggest level of cache in the industry, etc., allows people to gain a level up on standard technology. These are the ones we’re trying to teach how to gain an edge in the data centre.

Budgets are finite and getting squeezed; customers need to do more with less. Pillar is able to respond to that, (to provide) something different from the run-of-the-mill storage array.

B&F: Is there a possible role for flash solid state disk in Axiom?
Mike Workman:
There’s a fundamental problem with putting SSD under a disk design storage controller. The controller quickly becomes a bandwidth limiter. We’ll probably do it. We have more than one design. We’ll probably put it in our storage shelf.

An average mid-range array can’t support much of that stuff; you swamp the head-end. We have eight controllers on the top. We can dedicate a couple of them to SSD; you can give bandwidth and horsepower to SSDs then.

You really need a different controller design. The design of a flash-oriented SSD controller is already under way. We’ll build one; to get more out of SSDs and prevent a disk-oriented controller getting swamped.

B&F: Has Pillar a presence in the Storage-as-a-Service (SaaS) space?
Mike Workman:
One of our biggest customers has a petabyte of storage offered as a service. There was a bunch of storage service start-ups in 2000 or so; storage vaulting, etc. The model didn’t work. Everyone, I think, disappeared.

It’s different today – network bandwidth has increased, there are fibre rings, just lots of bandwidth around. Also storage is a lot more cost-effective; prices have dropped dramatically. I see people using storage services for vaulting, as a DR site. It’s not for the primary data centre.

B&F: Is the virtual tape library (VTL) an application for Pillar?
Mike Workman: Yes it is. Some of our biggest installations have several hundreds of terabytes. VL is a stepping stone to disk-to-disk (D2D) backup.

With VTL you are emulating a slower technology with a faster technology. That’s also what you’re doing with SSD; pretending that it’s (spinning) disk. It’s not using the fast technology to best effect. I could build an SSD controller without pretending SSD is electro-mechanical disk.

VTL is a convenient way to deploy disk into a world full of slow tape. From a technology point of view you know that’s temporary. It’s like sing an ink jet printer to emulate a typewriter.

Comment: Pillar is being led with enthusiasm and energy by a CEO with clear ideas on technology. The company is not a one-trick product pony and we can expect a rapid extension of Axiom’s capabilities, making it more acceptable to tier one buyers.

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