ProStor makes new money from old data
Removable disk tech lights up the archives
Analysis Archiving is no big bucks bonanza. Look at the declining tape business, the collapse of Plasmon, and Copan struggling to survive. Yet in this harsh environment, startup ProStor, with its removable disk technology, appears to be booming.
ProStor is a tape cartridge replacement play. A fundamental difference from tape is that the RDX removable disk cartridge is a complete disk drive, a 2.5-inch notebook drive, and not just platters. When the RDX is used in an auto-loader or tape library style configuration, the cartridges do not have to be moved to the drives, as is the case with tape cartridges. It means there is no need for cartridge-moving robotics.
Steve Georgis founded ProStor in May 2004, with venture capital funding. There was a recent funding round which took total funding to a modest $23.4m. Georgis was ProStor's president and CEO, but recruited a new CEO - Frank Harbist from HP - in January this year. While remaining on the board, Georgis stepped back from running the company and became general manager of the RDX business, reporting to Harbist.
ProStor sells two main product families: RDX removable drive cartridges and InfiniVault archive appliances.
RDX cartridges, which are inserted in docking stations connected to a server host, come in 160G, 320GB and 500GB capacities. They offer small and medium businesses the speed of disk backup and restore, and the portability of tape. They are manufactured and supplied to OEMs by two companies, Tandberg Data and Imation. Tandberg  had shipped 90,000 docks by September last year, a little less than two years after starting manufacture. It supplies cartridges and docks to Dell, Fujitsu, Fujitsu Technology Solutions, NEC and HP.
The HP deal is interesting as HP also ships and develops DAT, the low-end tape format. The DAT 160 format tops out with 80GB capacity cartridges (160GB compressed), so RDX has it beat on both speed and capacity grounds. Sony and HP said in July last year that they were jointly developing DAT 320, a new format with doubled capacity with an initial ship date for the first half of this year. However, DAT 320 has not yet arrived and it looks as if HP is hedging its bets.
Imation has scored a supply deal with IBM  and one other, unidentified OEM. It's thought that Imation was able to leverage its tape media relationship with IBM to help win the RDX supply contract. IBM came to the market at the end of the first quarter and sales are starting to ramp up.
The only other removable hard drive game in town is Iomega's REV which, with a 120GB maximum capacity, is not in the same ball park. It appears that ProStor has the backup to removable hard drive business pretty much to itself. According to Georgis: "Every major system player in the world will be on RDX by the end of the year."
He said that RDX sales in the second quarter grew 30 per cent compared to the first quarter, with 70PB of shipped capacity in total. He points out that "The low-end of the tape market is in serious decline and has been for several years. Some of those customers are coming to RDX."
"There is no lack of demand for higher capacity. It seems to be an unending hunger." RDX cartridges will increase capacity to 640GB in the fourth quarter and then should quite quickly move to 1TB as that capacity level becomes available to OEMs. Georgis says that for the moment, WD is concentrating its 1TB 2.5-inch drive efforts onto its external drive products. We might expect a 1TB RDX in the first half of next year
Encryption had been planned for the RDX drives, but encryption has become a relatively standard feature of backup software. Key management could be carried out by that or other software, saving ProStor the bother of adding it to the RDX drives.
The InfiniVault archive appliance is a more ambitious undertaking. It combines fixed 2.5-inch hard drives and RDX slots to offer online storage with a network-attached storage (NAS) interface, nearline storage and offline RDX cartridges. In a way this is a variant of a spin-down architecture, as offline RDX drives are spun-down and use no power.
The InfiniVault runs a ProStor software environment, which offers compliance features such as file audit trails, write-once, read-many (WORM) functionality, key word index, an MD5 hash-based immutability system and content-addressing, single-instance file deduplication, compression, AES-256 level encryption with key management in the device, legal hold facilities, retention period management, and digital shredding. There is also replication so that one InfiniVault can send its data to a remote one.
General availability of three models came in February last year. The starter Model 30 is a self-contained tower with 700GB of online disk, 1.5TB of RDX online capacity and three RDX slots. The mid-range and rackmount Model 30 has 2TB of networked disk capacity and 10 to 30 RDX slots packaged in 10-slot RDUs (removable drive units) giving it 5-15TB of online RDX capacity.
The high-end Model 100 has 20 - 100 RDX slots, meaning two to ten RDUs and 9TB of networked disk storage. ProStor says the offline capacity is effectively infinite, limited only by the number of RDX cartridges a customer has. Each cartridge has a unique ID so that files in the appliance's index can be located on a specific cartridge.
ProStor sells these appliances through a 2-tier channel, and has pursued software certifications from Arkivio, Bridgend, CommVault, Crossroads, Kazeon, Quest and QStar so that archival data moving applications can use the InfiniVault as a hardware platform.
ProStore's marketing VP, Buzz Walker, goes into company and product booster mode when talking about the appliance: "It's forty times cheaper than regular RAID drive arrays at the 20TB capacity level. It's half the cost of tape." That is, when you take into account drive format migration and other matters.
InfiniVault sales in the first quarter exceeded sales in all of 2008, the company says. Second quarter sales were twice the first quarter number and, in this third quarter, InfiniVault sales are 125 per cent of the second and looking to be three times the first quarter sales level. Naturally, actual unit numbers were not quoted, but ProStor is not yet profitable so they are not that high.
Georgis and Walker talk about potentially larger RDX libraries, ones with hundreds of slots, and suggest that robotics might be needed then, presumably to transfer cartridges from the entry ports into storage slots. They say ProStor would not manufacture such libraries itself, indicating that existing tape library and robotics manufacturers might do it.
Why is ProStor doing comparatively better than Copan? Georgis said: "Copan has a technology looking for a reason to exist. You still have a big disk farm."
That doesn't seem right. It's possibly the case that Copan is selling to enterprises while ProStor is in the SME space. Copan's potential customers haven't found a mission-critical need for its products in sufficient numbers, particularly in the recession. ProStor's small and medium businesses, facing backup sessions taking too long and restoring files the typical tape pain, have taken to RDX and, latterly, InfiniVault.
It is possible that Copan's prospective customers simply went the de-duping storage array route to solve their lengthening backup time problems, leaving Copan high-and-dry. The small and medium enterprise customers served by ProStor do not have that luxury.
ProStor is lucky; there is no other competitive removable hard drive product. It can use commodity 2.5-inch hard drives in a shock-proof case for the cartridges and there are none of the drive format generation problems which bedevil tape, with the need for backward compatibility and expensive drive products. Any capacity 2.5-inch RDX cartridge can fit in any RDX dock. It's simple and straightforward.
Customers are locked into ProStor's products, albeit with competing RDX manufacturers and distributors for the InfiniVault. The thirst for capacity seems unending. Its poor customers are being assaulted with various compliance-type regimes and the need for legal hold facilities on the one hand, and slow tape being unable to backup their hundreds of thousands, even millions and tens of millions of files in the time available. REV doesn't fit the bill, tape is out, optical storage a joke for the majority of them, and de-duping storage arrays offering no offsite cover unless you get a second remote one and replicate.
ProStor with RDX seem to be in the right place at the right time, to have a clear run for the next few years and to have sewn up the system OEM channel. It's building its business on the decay of low-end tape. If HP and Sony don't bring out DAT 320, then that says HP has seen the low-end tape future, and it's removable disk. Tandberg and Imation will both be delighted: Tandberg has a near-wrecked business to rebuild and Imation is seeing optical media revenues not replacing the glory days of tape media revenues at all. Both need a new media success.
All ProStor has to do is not foul up the execution, keep on developing the products, look forward to the IPO and smile sweetly at Plasmon and Copan's venture capitalists, as that day when they start to pocket the profits draws nearer. ®