Oracle Unveils Storage Strategy In Wake Of Pillar Data Acquisition

Oracle's acquisition of Pillar Data fills in the last gap in Oracle's storage strategy, but the purchase came at a high price relative to its installed base.

Oracle on Wednesday said it will acquire Pillar Data Systems, a provider of scalable SAN block storage systems owned primarily by Oracle's CEO Larry Ellison.

Pillar Data's Axiom storage array line provides application-aware unified SAN and NAS capabilities, and scales both in terms of performance by adding additional storage controllers and NAS, Fibre Channel, and iSCSI modules, and in terms of capacity through additional storage modules.

Oracle did not directly disclose the price it paid to acquire Pillar Data. However, in a Thursday SEC filing, Oracle said Pillar Data owed Ellison and his affiliates a total principal loan amount plus interest of approximately $544 million for amounts borrowed by Pillar Data in prior years.

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How much Oracle eventually pays Ellison, his affiliates, and Pillar Data executives will depend on Pillar Data's performance. That determination will not be made until November of 2014, Oracle said in the SEC filing.

Pillar Data becomes the fourth leg of Oracle's storage strategy, which until this week was primarily based on technology from Sun Microsystems, said John Fowler, executive vice president of systems for Oracle, during a press conference outlining Oracle's new storage strategy.

Much of Oracle's storage technology, like its server technology, came from its acquisition early last year of Sun, a move which brought it a full line of servers along with Sun's NAS storage line and tape library business. However, Sun had not developed a strong block SAN storage business, and was a long-term reseller of SAN storage arrays from Hitachi Data Systems. Oracle ended the HDS agreement two months after closing the Sun acquisition.

The first leg of Oracle's new storage strategy is its Exadata line, which combines legacy Sun server and storage technology along with Oracle database technology into a high-performance data appliance, Fowler said. About 1,000 units have been installed worldwide since its introduction last year, he said.

The second leg is the Oracle ZFS storage appliance, a legacy Sun products which combined Sun servers with its ZFS storage operating system for a high-performance NAS product. Over 2,000 units have been installed worldwide, Fowler said.

The third leg is Pillar Data's Axiom SAN array, which Fowler said brings Oracle its first block SAN offering. Oracle said about 1,500 systems have been installed by about 600 customers so far.

The fourth is the former StorageTek tape library product line which Sun acquired several years ago.

Since it's acquisition of Sun, Oracle has moved quickly to integrate its software and hardware into complete appliance-like offerings, including its storage products, while stepping away from offering its hardware as a separate product line.

That integration in the storage part of Oracle's market is a way for Oracle to differentiate itself, Fowler said.

Over the last 10 years, storage has been very generic, Fowler said. But while Oracle believes storage should be available for whatever purpose customers require, it also believes that it can make changes that increase performance, including adding the ability to offload database queries or add application-aware capabilities to technologies like data compression.

"Conventional storage can't do this because they don't have the insight into the applications," he said.

Oracle also integrates security into all its storage devices, including the ability to save encrypted data almost as fast as "clear" data, Fowler said.

Oracle needs that integration of applications, security, and storage in order to meet the kind of increase in capacity expected in the coming years, said Oracle Co-President Mark Hurd during the press conference.

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Hurd, quoting a recent IDC survey about the growth of storage, said that the amount of data stored by 2020 could hit 35,000 exabytes, or 3.5 zettabytes, a huge jump from the 1,200 exabytes, or 1.2 zettabytes, stored in 2010.

"You have a whole generation of people wanting access to that information, and want it immediately," he said during the press conference.

The current IT environment has applications, data, and storage managed separately, which will not work going forward, Hurd said. "All this retention of data will require tight integration. . . . The tightest integration is needed for the best performance," he said.

Dave Irvine, president of Irvine Consulting Services, an Emeryville, Calif.-based solution provider and long-time Pillar Data partner, said the vendor has terrific storage products which it has installed with several customers and in its own collocation center to provide a hybrid cloud solution for about a dozen customers who use it with virtual servers.

The only problem Irvine Consulting has ever had with Pillar Data was caused by Irvine himself. "I accidentally dislodged a cable," he said. "The Pillar phone home function called me. I called Pillar Data, and they told me they detected a performance degrading, probably from a cable problem. I went back, checked, and that was the problem."

While Pillar Data was a pioneer in developing application-aware storage, that advantage has eroded over time, Irvine said.

"We say to customers it's application-aware, and they say, 'So what?'" he said. "All the other storage companies have came out with their own versions of application-aware technology. So there's not such a big differentiation. However, with today's economy, the cost-per-terabyte is most important, and Pillar Data is not inexpensive."

Now that Oracle is acquiring Pillar Data, Irvine said he will take a wait-and-see attitude regarding how it acts as a partner going forward.

"My relationship with Pillar is based on people relationships," he said. "You can trust hardware to a certain point, but after that, it depends on the people. Some Pillar people are gone, some probably will leave, so I'll have to see what happens."