Larry Ellison's storage toy goes after EMC and NetApp

Pillar breathes at last

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When is a storage start-up not really a start-up? When it has 325 workers, $150m in funding and a well-dressed, yacht-happy, billionaire playboy as its owner. Enter Pillar Data Systems - the Unstart-up.

Pillar began this month hawking its NAS (network attached storage) systems in earnest. As you might expect, the company claims to have revolutionized the storage landscape and, in particular, made it easier and cheaper for mid-sized companies to manage their data.

Pillar's boxes, however, haven't garnered as much attention as the fact that Oracle CEO Larry Ellison dished out millions in 2001 to start the operation. Despite not having product, executives have been touting the company over these past four years on the back of Ellison's good name. Many expected the Pillar gear to be pretty damn special after this long wait, especially with Versace Suit Larry satisfying the start-up's every need.

But Pillar hasn't come out of the gate sprinting as planned. A number of pundits have noted that its Axiom system doesn't look all that spectacular. In addition, the SAN (storage area network) systems promised long ago won't arrive until July. iSCSI support, Fibre Channel drives and top-class replication tools are still months away too. It makes you wonder what's actually in the 2.5m lines of Axiom Storage Manager code.

So what exactly is Pillar selling?

Well, on the hardware front, it uses three, different boxes to make up its Axiom system. The first piece is a controller that Pillar calls a "Slammer." This unit has dual controllers to cut off any single point of failure, four Xeon processors, up to 24GB of memory and either four GigE ports or four 2Gbps Fibre Channel ports.

This system connects into a "Brick," which is really just the disk house. The "Brick" has dual active RAID controllers, embedded RAID-5 support and a Fibre Channel connection to either 400GB SATA or (in July) 15K Fibre Channel drives. Every component is hot-swappable - again giving the Pillar system some nice HA (high availability) features.

Last, customers will need to buy a "Pilot" management system that also has dual controllers, two Pentium 4 chips, two hard drives and six 10/100/1000 Base-T Ethernet ports. This box governs the other systems and delivers up the management software to the administrator.

To get started with Pillar, you're going to need to buy at least two Bricks, one Slammer and one Pilot. That type of configuration will provide between 2TB and 3TB of capacity and cost close to $50,000. By adding more and more Bricks - up to 32 now and up to 64 later - a customer could scale up to 300TB for $500,000. So far, the average customer has been in the 20TB to 30TB range, paying anywhere from $70,000 to $150,000.

It's on the software side of things where Pillar really separates from the competition, in its own opinion.

Pillar sells a single software license for all types of storage tasks from the low-end to the high-end. You're not paying more for added functions. Instead, the idea is that your single Axiom box can do all kinds of things.

For example, Pillar's software splits up disks into low, medium and high importance areas. The most important area - or the outside edge of the disk - will handle crucial information such as a database that requires quick access. Lower priority data is stored deeper and deeper on the disk where data access rates are slower.

"Customers today find that EMC or NetApp will try to sell them one system for archiving and then if they need an Exchange server or something else, those guys will have another product to sell," Pillar CEO Mike Workman said in an interview. "Whereas, at Pillar, we have one system to handle lots of different applications."

Pillar has also tried to make it easier for customers to scale. NetApp and EMC systems are currently pretty limited in how far they can stretch, while Pillar has a NAS file system that can go up at least to 48TB. The company also has a type of global namespace technology that makes it possible to look across myriad Slammer systems. Along with these tools, Pillar claims to have some of the easiest to use management tools around.

And at least one customer has been very pleased with the kit.

"I am always happy when vendors take standard hardware and use it creatively," said Christopher Hill, associate director of IT at law firm Thacher Proffitt & Wood in New York. "It's the best bang for the buck you can get."

Hill found that Pillar's systems were in fact very easy to manage and that the tiered method of storing data by its priority provided Fibre Channel-level functions on cheaper SATA disks.

Hill said the law firm has received an "early-adopter discount" on the Axiom system but added that he would gladly pay full price for the kit, as it really stands out when compared to gear from the likes of EMC and NetApp.

"The model being used by most of the storage industry is not positioned for a small shop of 20 to 50 people in IT," Hill said. "I think Pillar is poised to take that middle-market and make it manageable again."

Pillar still has plenty to prove, especially since it didn't hit the market with all its guns blazing. So far, however, it has managed to pick up numerous customers that will speak on record about the systems and even managed to displace big daddy EMC in a couple of bids. That's a big accomplishment for a start-up - even one that's four years old.

At present, Pillar is only selling to North America, but it plans to use Ellison's money to expand its workforce and march through Europe and then Asia as quickly as possible. ®

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