Coolest New Companies At Datacenter Ventures

by Robin Harris on Friday, 22 September, 2006

I finally finished this post so I’ve superseded the first version with this one and given it a new title. I hope this doesn’t violate the mores of blogdom.
In flipping through my notes I accidentally ignored Appistry so I’ve added them to the honorable mention list in this update.

Dateline: Silicon Valley
Boy, where to start? Hardware? Software? VC wetware?

There were some 60-odd presenting companies, ranging from tiny startups looking to raise their first VC dime to companies that have already raised tens of millions, have customers, and aren’t looking for money. The latter had smiling VCs pushing business cards in their faces. The guys who wanted money were mostly greeted by silent, stony-faced wraiths. Tough crowd. There were usually eight presentations in parallel so I didn’t get to see every preso or even most. What follows are my impressions of what I did see.

Might as well get the juicy stuff out of the way first. Biggest rumor is that Sun’s newly installed network storage chief, David Yen, is looking to jump ship. I wouldn’t blame him – what did he do to deserve that mess? He’s a seasoned senior manager who knows how to get product out the door so I’m sure any number of firms would be very happy to have him. I’d imagine that David is thinking “why wait a few years and leave under a cloud?”

Lots of speculation about Cisco’s Nuova investment. Conventional Wisdom holds that they are looking to bust out of the network market with something that will take on the hyper-scale cluster market and the big server incumbents. If they want to keep growing faster than the network market Cisco needs to do something creative.

Cool Ideas
A couple of people commented that network security is evolving from attempting to lock everything down inside the data center to using the WAN gateway as the security choke point. Seems about right.

Dave Donatelli of EMC, who heads the array business, got through his entire presentation without once mentioning ILM. Good going, Dave! EMC finally may be accepting reality on ILM.

Michael Workman of Pillar noted that the rapidly growing markets in China and India can’t afford big-iron storage. Another nail in that coffin. But is Pillar’s stuff really that much more cost-effective?

Richard Villars of IDC noted that unstructured data is growing much faster than structured data, and advanced the idea of the storage depot, big slow storage for long-term file storage. Not an archive, just infrequently searched for data.

Greg McAdoo of Sequoia predicted that the next 5-10 years of storage will be driven by consumers rather than enterprises. And he noted something you may have noticed: the tape backup model is irrevocably broken because access times are just too long.

Somebody made the provocative suggestion that VMware style server virtualization is a dead-end, because the bigger data center problem is not slicing one server into many but making many servers look like one. That feels right to me. What do you think?

Cool Stuff: Honorable Mentions
Cleversafe is sounding cooler, and I already thought it was pretty cool. The open source strategy, the encouragement of third-party developers, the security, the scalability, sounds like a pretty compelling value proposition. They cut through a lot of enterprise worry points: vendor lock in, encryption problems, cost. If you haven’t checked them out, do so now.

Qlayer is focused on what they call “commercial data centers”. Hosting companies, portals, large e-businesses. They mention “Google-like” on their not-very-clear website, but are more modest than Google in one respect: they virtualize a rack of commodity pizzabox servers instead of a whole datacenter. Qlayer is setting up their headquarters in the US, keeping R&D in Europe, a smart move. Their CEO has already founded and sold two companies, so I trust he’ll keep his eye on the ball, producing useful stuff for the real world.

Njini is a company I’ve mentioned before. I didn’t catch the pitch – too many good companies got scheduled together – but I met with CEO David Jones Friday morning to hear the story directly. I’d compared Njini to what, in concept, to what I thought Abrevity was doing – but after seeing Abrevity’s preso at DV I am more confused about them than ever. Njini’s engine puts a wrapper around files, effectively extending their metadata, to automate unstructured data management. They are relaunching their website in a couple of weeks and I look forward to learning more.

Cassatt and BEA founder Bill Coleman presented their product, Collage. Bill described Collage an infrastructure for service level automation. For example, the last day of the quarter you want incoming orders given the highest priority. You give that policy to Collage and it ensures that all the relevant systems have the resources they need to get the job done. There are more than a couple of details I’m curious about, such as how does Collage know what systems order processing relies on, that could make or break this in production. Yet Bill gives a great pitch, and when he allowed that the board of Cassatt had just approved opening a round for $10-$20 million, the VCs started whipping out their business cards. I have several Cassatt white papers and I hope to delve deeper into their approach Real Soon Now.

PointofData presented their Active Information Platform. This software enables companies to search all their structured and unstructured data quickly. The software produces small indices (~10% the size of common index algorithms) that include not only the content but also the content’s modification history. Since the indices are small, the searches are fast, and, they claim, more complete than searching the various data silos themselves. They used the example of Enron email where they said they found 30% more query hits than the costly legal software the lawyers employed in discovery.

Appistry’s CEO gave an informative talk that, I think, gave away a little more than planned about the “how” of Appistry’s technology. Appistry provides software that enables “Application Solution Fabrics” that

. . . enables customers to dramatically reduce the cost, time and complexity of running large-scale, time-critical applications. In doing so, Appistry empowers customers to easily field strategic applications fine-tuned to meet the highly differentiated needs of their enterprises.

So my question was, how do you take an app written for a single CPU and make it scale across a cluster. “Cluster-awareness” is usually non-trivial. What they do, apparently, is insert some code at appropriate breakpoints that speaks to their fabric layer. The fabric then enables multiple instances of each section of the code for parallel processing. Their fabric layer must keep track of each job going through the cluster.

It sounds a little scary to add code to enterprise apps, but Kevin Haar, the CEO, told of going into a major shipping company on a Tuesday morning, clusterizing their crucial routing app that day, and showing to the executive team on Wednesday morning. So it is work, but not a lot. Obviously you have to own the source code, so to me it seems best for custom legacy apps that are likely to be at the core of a company’s competency.

Coolest Hardware & Software @ Datacenter Ventures
So with all the cool stuff mentioned above, what impressed me the most?

Coolest Hardware: Woven Systems
Woven Systems is developing a low latency, high port count and low cost 10 Gigabit Ethernet switch. Combining a latency almost as good as Infiniband with Ethernet’s universal support and high volume components, Woven is working to ship the universal backplane for hyper-scale cluster apps. Create a mesh with these switches and you’ve got a powerful and fast fabric for building utility-class infrastructures. Combine with Coraid’s AoE architecture and you’ve got a screaming fast and really low-cost hyper-scale storage fabric. It won’t blow FC out of the water day one, but it will certainly cause a lot of people to think twice about new FC installs.

So won’t Cisco just mop up the floor with them? Good question. My take is that Cisco, like EMC in storage, is heavily invested in their “value-add” to basic network switches. They could build the product, but would their commission sales force actually sell it? As a startup, Woven is nuisance level. But if Cisco offered the same product they could cannibalize a lot of current high margin business. Targeting such niches is how little companies get a toehold in a competitive market.

Coolest Software: Zmanda
An open-source backup product as coolest software? Have I lost my mind? Hey, who said I had it in the first place? Seriously, Zmanda is in the right place at the right time. Backup is the most widely used storage software. So why are people voluntarily locking up their backups in proprietary, overpriced, cash-cow software that forces them to buy back their data every few years with maintenance fees and minimal “upgrades”?

Zmanda is based on Amanda, the 15 year old open source project devoted to data protection. Zmanda sells subscriptions to support services, not the software, so the pricing is really competitive compared to Netbackup or other proprietary backup products. The Zmanda server runs on Linux with clients for Mac OS X, Windows, Solarism, Linux and a bunch Unix systems. Very cool feature: you don’t even need the application to read a Zmanda backup tape or disk. Now that is investment protection that protects your data investment, not just the vendor’s revenue stream.

Need to do more with less? Zmanda is a great place to start. Selling to the SMB market? Zmanda’s pricing will make you a hero to your customers.

The Take
While the VCs seemed pretty downbeat, I saw a lot to like at DV this year. The key takeaway: a bunch of people working on making computing more scalable and cheaper than ever using the lessons from internet data centers. From past experience we know that will open up exciting new applications and build some big companies. Put your sunglasses on because the future is so bright.

Comments welcome including disagreement, amplification or interpretation.

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