Bill Coleman's $1bn gamble
Checking in with Cassatt
Into the Valley Anyone gullible enough to believe vendor press releases would wonder why Cassatt even exists. It's a software start-up trying to compete in a server virtualization market dominated by the likes of IBM, HP and Sun Microsystems. And, in fact, these massive companies have already solved the virtualization problem, according to the last three years of their marketing material.
Customers actually trying to improve their data center management situation don't buy this hype. They've watched HP kill off the Utility Data Center project after billing it as the clear future of computing. They've also seen Sun Microsystems do nothing with its acquisition of virtualization godsend Terraspring and scratched their heads when IBM rolled out "heterogeneous" software that only worked with AIX.
That's why Cassatt exists and also why the company has had a slow go of it since starting out in 2003. Customers have been bombarded by so many disingenuous virtualization pitches that it's hard to believe anything a vendor - big or small - says.
Unlike some vendors that have recently reined in their virtualization claims, Cassatt still promises the world. It doesn't want to serve as one piece in the virtualization puzzle. It wants to be the standard platform for lumping all of your servers into one, big mass and then for controlling how applications make their way onto and off of those boxes. Cassatt hopes that its Collage software will serve as the centerpiece that other vendors plug into with their own software.
Much of Cassatt's ambition comes from CEO Bill Coleman, who helped bring Solaris to life while working at Sun and then went on to co-found and lead BEA Systems. Coleman sees Cassatt as potentially being able to create a whole new software market much like BEA did in the middleware sphere. The problem Cassatt plans to solve is the management of myriad web services used by large companies in the coming years.
"Instead of a thousand applications that a company like HP has now, they will have a few billion web services," Coleman said in an interview with The Register at Cassatt's headquarters in San Jose. "You can't put a man in the loop to manage that anymore. Something had to happen to deal with this."
"It's obvious that there's a new platform here, and that is to automate and provide autonomic capabilities and dramatically lower costs."
Cassatt has tried to avoid some of the pitfalls experienced by other vendors by designing Collage to work without altering existing servers or software packages. Customers install Collage on an x86 server and let it go to work.
"The problem is that systems management requires putting agents on systems, and the more systems you have the more overhead you have," Coleman said. "This is a scale problem.
"The overhead has to be the same for managing one server as it is for managing a thousand servers. We don't put one line of code on customers' servers. We don't require any changes to the applications, the operating system, the hardware or the systems management platform."
We were skeptical about how well Collage would perform. Cassatt's staff, however, showed us a demonstration of what happens after a server fails, and the software seemed to live up to its billing. Collage detected that an IBM blade had been pulled from a rack, found an existing server and got it up and running with a new web server in a few minutes. This process did not require any administrator intervention.
Beyond that, the Collage software looked pretty clean. We wouldn't call it glorious, but the management console showed all of the hardware, web servers, Java application servers and virtual machines from VMware running in the test data center in a digestible format. In addition, it made tweaking policies for the various servers pretty easy if you, for example, wanted to turn off some of the automated features or make sure a given application was always running on a high-end box.
But it's not really a slick interface or fancy sales pitch that larger clients are lacking, according to Coleman. They want a package that will make a major difference to their data center instead of just freeing up more server space here or automating a single function over there.
"If you haven't already convinced yourself that you have to change your business, and you've outlined your objectives, and they don't align with my product, then we shouldn't be talking today," Coleman said.
The one customer Coleman points to most often is drug giant Pfizer, which has apparently seen major improvements in server utilization and lower application server costs as a result of using Collage.
All told, however, Cassatt only claims about a dozen paying customers at this time despite selling Collage in earnest for about a year.
"You have to go through multiple versions of your product, get it in customers' hands and figure out what works," Coleman said. "You have to get to the point where a customer is willing to write you a seven figure check. That's enterprise software, and we got there last July.
"Then, you have to through a period of figuring out how to make this repeatable and calibrating the sales model and gaining references. That's what we are doing now, and that will probably continue through the rest of this year."
The virtualization pitch has long looked iffy to us not only because of the vague promises but also because of the basic premise. You have to buy more software.
Customers struggle today to keep up with all their different applications. Then, a company such as Cassatt comes along and adds not only the main Cassatt package but then has separate packages for managing Java application servers and virtual servers. By mid-year, Cassatt plans to add another package for managing multiple data centers as a single system. On top of all this, third parties will be able to plug in their own takes on management for specific areas.
Coleman insists that all of this software actually saves money in the long run. Customers can use fewer servers and software packages by making Collage their central console. In addition, Cassatt can provide returns in less obvious areas by shipping customers detailed reports on how often software packages are used by various departments and simply by powering down servers that are not in use to save on energy.
All told, this leads Coleman to believe that customers will find this new type of virtualization platform inescapable in the coming years.
"There is no doubt that, by the end of the decade, us or something like us will energize the whole market," he said. "The big guys - it could be IBM, it could be Cisco, it could be EMC, it could be Symantec - have to move into adjacent spaces.
"I think there is a clear path, if I can calibrate this model, to a billion dollar revenue company in the next five years. Now, it may not be this company, but I believe it has to be something close to this model."
Unlike most of the people hawking virtualization wares, Coleman has a handle on the fluff surrounding the market thanks to past experience.
"I remember back at BEA when our tagline was that we were the enterprise middleware solution," he said. "Within a year, Gartner had a middleware magic quadrant, and we were in the upper right-hand corner. Within two years, everyone had defined every piece of software as middleware, and it had no meaning whatsoever.
"Unfortunately, that's what is happening with grid, virtualization, utility computing and on demand. That only way you can imbue meaning into what you do is by having successful customers that validate your proposition."
Cassatt has some tremendous challenges ahead of it. As with any start-up, it needs to expand well beyond a couple handfuls of customers to claim something meaningful. Countless virtualization players have already tried and failed at that task.
In addition, the big boys continue to lumber along with their own products, and they'll always enjoy a more direct line to the large accounts.
Thankfully, the company doesn't claim that it will defeat all of these obstacles in the next couple of months. Coleman's experience turning a start-up into a large, successful company has put the virtualization march into perspective. This is a multi-year kind of thing.
If you don't have thousands of servers, a serious problem and some cash to burn, then it's probably best to ignore the flood of virtualization press releases for quite awhile longer. But the big boys out there might want to go ahead and give Cassatt a try. ®