Actifio CEO Ash Ashutosh: The Future Will Include Storage Designed For Apps, Not Infrastructure

‘When you get to an app-down design, where it's infrastructure-agnostic, where it's truly being aware of what an application really needs, the ability for us to do things in all kinds of platforms and speeds and costs, that's what really allows us to go back and derive more value out of the data that customer has,’ Actifio CEO Ash Ashutosh tells CRN.


Cloud Storage With An Application Focus

Actifio doesn't really like to call itself a storage company or a cloud storage company. The Waltham, Mass.-based company instead focuses on data management, with a focus on the applications businesses use and the service level agreements (SLAs) they need. Actifio's release last month of its Actifio 10c copy data management platform emphasized its ability to help enterprises improve their ability to use cloud services to accelerate their data-driven transformation initiatives. The release of its Actifio Go Software-as-a-Service platform early last year, meanwhile, gave it a head start in the growing multi-cloud copy data management market.

Ash Ashutosh, co-founder and CEO of Actifio, recently told CRN that while most companies looking to manage data across on-premises and the cloud started from the infrastructure side of the business, Actifio started from an application focus. That move makes it easier to provide a data management platform more in tune with business requirements, particularly as businesses look at data strung across multiple clouds.

Privately held Actifio in mid-2018 raised a $106 million round of funding, making it one of the unicorns of the storage world with a valuation at the time of $1.3 billion.

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Here is what Ashutosh had to say about why the application focus on data management is important and about where Actifio is looking to move going forward.

First of all, what is Actifio?

Actifio delivers software that enables enterprises to leverage their data to accelerate application development, leverage multi-cloud platforms and services, perform data protection, and basically leverage data as a strategic asset to drive their business forward for the consumers of data and manage the business for those who are custodians of data. It's all around managing the entire life cycle from the first copy of the data all the way through its life cycle.

There are a lot of companies out there talking about managing and protecting data. What's unique about Actifio?

Almost nine years ago, we set out to talk about the only thing that businesses and users care about, which is applications. We start from the application down and build a software platform that truly uses applications and portions of the applications as the objects to manage. And pretty much every other story you hear is more infrastructure up. … The storage guys are trying to reach up into the data world versus us starting out really early with a focus on managing the life cycle of the applications, and allowing the users to choose the best infrastructure available. Which is why in 2016, when we first saw the emergence of cloud platforms, within a year and a half we were able to port to seven different public cloud platforms. A SaaS offering we announced in February [2019] supports AWS, IBM Cloud, Google Cloud and [more].

So that's the difference. We're fundamentally a software platform, we fundamentally start application-down, and we fundamentally focus on only three things: apps, SLAs and instant access.

So why, in your opinion, is an application-focused approach better than an infrastructure-focused approach?

The thing about infrastructure is, the fundamental object that the infrastructure person deals with, especially when it comes to data, are the storage objects. They talk about volumes, file system, and LUN points. And frankly, the application person only really cares about their SAP instance, their Oracle instance, their PeopleSoft instance. … [With Actifio] the underlying objects might include a version of Oracle from Feb. 14 at 9:00 am. You don't see a snapshot volume, or a file system, from Feb. 14 at 9:00 am. It's very, very different. Everything you do is highly optimized towards the application object. You know exactly that an SAP instance has a log file, a data file, a construct that connects to SAP Studio. All of that context becomes the core of your managed data, not a bunch of files and volumes. Efficiency goes up enormously. The context of what you do with this data, especially when you are thinking about data mobility, data transformation, doing stuff like ETL [extract, transform, load] for machine learning, is very, very different in terms of speed and efficiency.

What is unique about Actifio's SaaS support for AWS, IBM Cloud and Google Cloud?

Our Actifio Go [SaaS platform] was built around the same capabilities that over 3,600 customers in 38 countries use with Actifio, except we turned it into a consumption model that has zero management, zero investment, and zero risk. There is simply no other product in the world, at least in our space, that does that today. So that's the No. 1 mission we set out to do: make it completely different in terms of how people consume as a service, and by the way support every cloud platform. We support eight. And we made it available natively on three of them. …

This is freedom we're talking about, the ability to just consume independent of where a customer is trying to run their applications or use their service. We do not carry the baggage of infrastructure. We do not need to buy anything on-premises to perform the data management. And whether you run the app on-premises, whether you run it on any one of those cloud platforms, or you run it in all of them together at the same time, the management model, the way you access your data, is completely consistent.

How does Actifio partner with cloud providers like Google?

This is a continuation of a theme of continuing to allow people to come back and say, 'There's a bunch of wonderful infrastructure providers, whether it's on-prem or in the cloud. Use them to drive your costs down.’ We announced a partnership with Google where Google has this new archive level, which is basically zero dollars, effectively. It's a ridiculously low cost. Why would you not use that? Why would you buy somebody's box anymore? And this is going to keep happening. Infrastructure is going to get to the point where it converges to zero [cost]. And we love that. We love the idea of having our customers get more value out of their data and less investment in their infrastructure.

As you look forward, what are some things that Actifio is doing to make that continue to happen?

I think you'll see us talk a lot more about pushing the envelope of the data-driven transformation journey. We talked about how you start that transformation journey by capturing data, using backup and DR [disaster recovery] as the first use case, and then continue down that path. Today, we have DevOps that make up 56 percent of our use cases, multi-cloud capabilities where almost 25 percent of people are leveraging cloud platforms. [I was recently in Japan] when one of the large partners asked me, 'How far in the journey do you think we are?' I said, 'About 20 percent there. The best of them are 20 percent there.' And, in fact, when we talk to channel partners, the biggest challenge they're all trying to grapple with is the thing called the cloud. And what does it mean to be relevant in this new era where I don't sell a box? I sell an API or I sell a service, which is a very different kind of a challenge, and return to work with those organizations to help them help their customers.

What are some strategic initiatives that you're looking at going forward?

The big part is around trying to drive more faster decision processes through machine learning. [Businesses] are looking at all these wonderful services offered by these cloud providers. And we do a lot of integrated transformation of the data. And suddenly that same data in their backup and DR budget is now helping them drive a very different kind of business decision process. And we want to see that grow from the single-digit percentage of customers using machine-learning tools to a much more significant number. Some of it is just the adoption and how hard it is. I think everybody talks about how wonderful machine learning is until they start implementing it and realize the biggest challenge there is access to data, and access to the right kind of data. You think, 'Oh, I should just point my machine-learning tool and it just comes up with the decision.' [But] people are finding out data collection and data preparation is 95 percent of the work. Running the machine-learning tool is actually is easiest part.

How are you helping partners prepare for those strategic initiatives?

[As partners ] start to think about the challenges of their own business in the world of cloud, it changes their focus from being infrastructure experts to become more consultative types, helping customers deal with the complexity part. And in that process, they also see they need to move more towards helping organizations use the data for DevOps—that's the first big part you'll start hearing from some of these guys—and machine learning I think will be a little [later]. There are a few early customers who will begin to use Amazon SageMaker, Google TensorFlow or IBM Watson, but not enough for a channel partner to really create a practice around.

Actifio has been around for about nine years. Is the company profitable yet?

Last year, I would say every other quarter we would bob into profitability and then move back into growth. So this year, you will start seeing us more consistently getting to be profitable. This is a big shift. I talked a lot about users, I talked a lot about partners. The other big shift that's happening in the corporate world is this idea of growth at all costs is not fashionable anymore. I think people have figured out that, especially if you're in the infrastructure business, especially in the B2B business, there is no concept of winner takes all anymore. … We are managing both profitability and growth at the same time, and that's important.

Who do you see as your primary competition?

We see three traditional market buckets or use cases. There's the backup and DR market, which to us is step one of the data-driven journey. But it's classified as a separate market, and there you see the traditional companies. You see Veritas, you see Commvault in there, you see some of the newer players as you go into the lower end of the market. That's one segment of the market. But we fundamentally do not believe in backup as a stand-alone secular market. We believe that's the starting point of the data-driven journey, not a destination. And if you go to the next step, on the DevOps side, you pretty much don't see it. Maybe there's one company, Delphix, we see once in a while.

And as you grow as you grow further into machine learning, multi-cloud, frankly you see nobody on this. You asked about the Actifio difference? This is the difference. When you get to an app-down design, where it's infrastructure-agnostic, where it's truly being aware of what an application really needs, the ability for us to do things in all kinds of platforms and speeds and costs, that's what really allows us to go back and derive more value out of the data that customer has.