Ellison Gets Going In Storage With Startup Pillar Data Systems

That company, San Jose, Calif.-based Pillar Data Systems, is coming to market with the Pillar Axiom Storage System, an enterprise storage solution that combines SAN and NAS into one platform and eases the migration of data between multiple tiers based on the needs of customers and their applications.

Founded in 2001, Pillar has received $150 million in venture funding--nearly all of which comes from Ellison via Tako Ventures, his venture capital firm--and is currently recruiting solution providers. Mike Workman, Pillar's president and CEO, said the company was launched after Ellison's first storage venture, Digital Appliance, didn't catch on.

Pillar, on the other hand, isn't a normal startup, Workman said. "Larry Ellison is going to have a storage company," he said. "Larry is going to make this work. We know we're burning cash fast, but we are getting revenue now."

Yet the fact that it took $150 million and the hiring of more than 320 people to launch Pillar's first product worried one solution provider, who requested anonymity. "I met with those guys a year and a half ago," the solution provider said. "The product sounded exciting. A year and a half later, where's the product?"

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The product is finally here, according to Workman.

At the heart of the Axiom Storage System is the Pilot Policy Controller, a software-based appliance that handles the system's management. It includes such tools as the immediate copying of changes to data, data snapshots and volume copy. It also includes one to four "Slammer" NAS or SAN controllers. Each Slammer has up to four Pentium 4 Xeon processors and up to four Gigabit Ethernet or Fibre Channel ports, as well as two redundant nodes with active-active failover. Customers can mix and match up to four Slammers in their system with no performance penalty and no extra license fees as controllers are added, Workman said. And behind the Slammers are up to 32 Brick Storage Enclosures, which are 2U rack enclosures containing up to 4 Tbytes of usable RAID capacity.

Customers can define the quality of service type for three tiers of storage, including high-performance data with double mirroring, midrange performance and archiving, with the data migrated between the three tiers based on the speed it needs to be accessed, Workman said.

Though Pillar has gone through a lot of cash, the result is a product that's ready for market in terms of technology and support, noted Workman. The product has been in development for three and a half years, about a year longer than originally planned, but the company already has 140 test systems installed and running, he said.

Adrian Jones, senior vice president of worldwide sales at Pillar, said the company has been quiet while waiting for its products to be ready. That may explain why some solution providers might be critical of the delay, he said.

"But we are not a niche product. We are going after the entire market," Jones said. "Six months from now, we will have a new release. Six months after that, [we'll have] another new release with a lot more features. We built a foundation for a high-rise but have only built a three-story apartment building so far. But wait until you see the high-rise."

Pillar has discussed the possibility of gathering more venture funding but decided it didn't need it to build up the product, Jones said. "Only customers can help us build up the product," he said. "Larry and [Pillar Chairman] Steve Fink prefer we don't talk about our $150 million. But it does draw attention."

Pillar's top executives bring experience from a number of top storage vendors. Workman has IBM and Conner Peripherals in his background, while Jones worked at Quantum and BakBone Software.

Such experience is what attracted John Zammet, president of HorizonTek, a Huntington, N.Y.-based solution provider, to sign up with Pillar. Zammet said a good friend who happened to be a Pillar sales rep approached him some time ago about signing up and three weeks after that told him that Jones, whom Zammet knew from Quantum, had just been hired. Jones then hired Gary Koopman, Pillar's senior director of Americas channels and a close family friend of Zammet.

"Larry's deep pockets, Adrian [Jones] in sales and Gary [Koopman] in the channel. So I know I'm protected," Zammet said. "Regardless of the product, I felt safe with the people."

Zammet said that he likes how Pillar is combining three tiers of storage into a single system, which puts the highest-value data in storage with low latency and the lower-value data on low-cost Serial ATA disk. "Technologically, the story Pillar tells appeals to my guys," he said. "My guys said we can sell this stuff."

Pricing for the Axiom Storage System ranges from $50,000 to $500,000. Pillar executives said they expect 30 percent to 40 percent of sales to go through the channel.