Larry Ellison Launches Storage Start-up, Array

Pillar unveiled after four years, $150M investment; competes with big vendors

After investing four years and $150 million, Oracle Corp. CEO Larry Ellison has launched a new company that offers a storage array that targets products from storage heavyweights such as IBM, EMC Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co.

Pillar Data Systems Inc. in San Jose unveiled its first product, called Pillar Axiom, which offers storage-area network (SAN) and network-attached storage (NAS) capabilities under a single management interface.

The product also features multiple quality-of-service levels. The array is currently based on Advanced Technology Attached disk drives and will offer higher-performance Fibre Channel drives by the end of the year.

While wary of Pillar's status as a start-up in an already saturated market, some users said the backing of Ellison and his investment firm, Tako Ventures LLC, helped convince them to kick the tires on the technology.

"This start-up is well funded enough in comparison to others," said Christopher Hill, associate director of information services at Thacher Proffitt & Wood LLP, a New York-based law firm that specializes in financial services. "They have some built-in buyers who will give us a community, one of which is obviously Oracle."

Pillar CEO Mike Workman, a former IBM storage executive, said the company set out to build a storage system based on commodity storage hardware that doesn't target only a single application, such as transaction data storage file serving.

Thacher Proffitt & Wood replaced an outdated EMC Clariion 4700 in its New Jersey office with a Pillar Axiom about a month ago, Hill said. Since then, he has used the new box in its SAN configuration as the remote backup to an EMC Clariion CX600 array in the firm's New York office.

High Marks

Pillar's new Axiom array offers SAN and NAS capabilities.
Pillar's new Axiom array offers SAN and NAS capabilities.
Hill gave Pillar's array high marks on price, ease of use and functionality. He estimated that an EMC system similar to his $100,000 Pillar box would cost around $400,000.

Proprietary software allows the Axiom to create multiple service levels through its placement of data on its disk drives.

The outer edge of the drives, closest to the read/write head, is reserved for higher-performance applications, while the center and inner edge are used for lower-performance needs, Workman explained.

"If that method can be proven [to] help performance, that'll be really cool," said Tony Asaro, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group Inc. in Milford, Mass.

Other analysts, however, said they wonder why Ellison invested so much time and money in Pillar.

For instance, John Webster, a storage analyst at Data Mobility Group in Nashua, N.H., questioned Ellison's motives for his attempt to break into a business that is undergoing consolidation among even mature players.

One example of that consolidation trend, said Webster, is Sun Microsystems Inc.'s recent acquisition of onetime industry leader Storage Technology Corp. .

"He just wants to be a disruptor for whatever reason. I don't know if he has it in for the people already there or he sees this as a strategic place he needs to be," Webster said.

Chris Butler, chief technology officer at San Francisco-based I/Pro Corp., has been testing an Axiom array in its NAS configuration since early December.

"I wouldn't call it excellent yet, but it's good," he said.

After his EMC Symmetrix array failed three years ago, requiring a major system shutdown to restore data, Butler said he became willing to take a chance on new technology.

"The throughput on the head is as good as I'm seeing with my [NetApp 880 NAS array]," he said.


Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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