Spoke to Chris Gladwin, founder and CEO of Cleversafe at NAB 2012. Cleversafe had stopped communicating a few years ago – usually a bad sign – so an update was long overdue.

When last heard from, Cleversafe had an ISP/MSP target market, offered an open-source version of their software, and focused on safely archiving confidential data on public networks. No more.

A 50PB order
CEOs are professional optimists. But Chris’s story was good.

Their 1st order was 100TB. The 2nd, 50 petabytes. That is a lot of boxes to rack.

Now Cleversafe focuses on multi-petabyte orders. They can handle 5-7 such orders a year.

But when they aren’t installing petabytes of disk, they’re writing patents. Hundreds of them.

Chris thought they were up to 268 patent applications. The USPTO shows 21 granted patents, including 7,904,475 Virtualized data storage vaults on a dispersed data storage network, 7,853,710 Methods and devices for controlling the rate of a pull protocol, 7,844,712 Hybrid open-loop and closed-loop erasure-coded fragment retrieval process, 7,818,518 System for rebuilding dispersed data,” 7,818,430, Methods and systems for fast segment reconstruction, and 7,574,579 Metadata management system for an information dispersed storage system along with another 181 applications yet to be granted.

At a conservative $25k per patent in legal and filing fees and lost engineering time, that’s $6.7 million. If there’s another startup as aggressive on patents, I haven’t heard of it.

The StorageMojo take
It’s seems that most, if not all, of Cleversafe’s business comes from the US intelligence community, not commercial users. Otherwise we’d see reference sites and more interest from top-tier VCs.

Regardless, Cleversafe’s strategy of massive orders, massive patents and limited fulfillment is unlike any other in the industry. Is the limited fulfillment due to a complex product – the GPFS of scale-out storage – or a limited market?

As many HPC-focused firms have found, it can be difficult to shift from extremely specialized high-end government customers to commercial users. Companies that have, like Panasas, have had to work to keep their products general purpose, avoiding the honey-trap of fascinating but one-off designs.

Cleversafe’s pivot from the commercial market and open-source may reflect a 1st mover disadvantage: too early to the commercial market, they’ve been co-opted by the government market. But the bigger concern is whether or not that massive patent portfolio will stall development of better high-scale storage systems.

Cleversafe’s exit strategy seems to have almost as much to do with patents as it does with building a business. Are they the first storage company hoping for a buyout by a patent troll?

Courteous comments welcome, of course. I’ve recently done work for Panasas and am working with a company – Amplidata – being sued by Cleversafe.