Panasas Pins Future on Unproven Spec

Startup treads tightrope, building a NAS system based on a developing standard UPDATED 7/13 2:15pm EST

July 13, 2001

5 Min Read
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Pittsburgh Advanced Network Attached Storage, or Panasas Inc. for short, says it's developing a next-generation file system to blow the socks off todays technology. But it faces a challenge: The success (or otherwise) of its goal rides on the adoption of a new standard that pretty much the entire storage industry must adopt for the Panasas technology to fly.

Still operating in cloak-and-dagger mode, Panasas has nonetheless revealed the bare bones of its plans to Byte and Switch.

The company name (paNASas) is a big giveaway; as are its close ties to Carnegie Mellon University and its recent hiring of Varun Mehta, former chief software engineer at Network Appliance Inc. (Nasdaq: NTAP). They all spell [ed.note: ha ha] a company focused on network-attached storage.

Carnegie Mellon University, just down the road from Panasas offices in Pittsburgh, has a storage system research center packed with engineers working on supercomputing, clustering, robots, and projects for NASA. A select group of them are also tinkering away on a potential standard for storage networking that could revolutionize the way storage is managed on a network, Panasas claims.

Several of these engineers are now holed-up at Panasas but remain closely connected to the work going on at the university. The standard, known as object SCSI device interface (OSD), allows for disk storage to be expanded on the fly simply by plugging in more drives. This is a major advance on the way it’s done today.Currently, IT managers have to back up their data, then add more space, then restore the data across the new drives. This can take hours and hours if there’s terabytes of material. There are even more laborious ways to do backups, too, which is why OSD is so compelling.

Essentially, OSD removes the file system management component (the piece that holds the "meta data" information about how important data is and where it belongs) from the operating system and moves it onto the storage device. This means the storage device is now intelligent enough to manage the data itself rather than relying on the operating system to do it.

Panasas says this will lead to marked improvements in manageability, performance, and compatibility of storage networks.

With this model in mind, Panasas is building two hardware devices: a Smart Drive that will hold multiple gigabytes of data; and a Storage Manager, or virtualization engine, that will make all the Smart Drives on the network appear as one pool of storage to multiple servers accessing that storage. Distributed file system software, which is 80 percent of the solution, the company says, makes it possible to drop in more Smart Drives as needed. These are then seamlessly assimilated into the network.

Panasas and Carnegie Mellon University are not the only ones working to define the technical specifications for OSD. Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HWP), IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM), Quantum Corp. (NYSE: DSS), Seagate Technology Inc., and StorageTek (NYSE: STK) are also pushing the standard. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) T10 committee has been set up to approve the spec, which its backers hope will happen by the end of this year.The first iteration of the Panasas device will not support OSD. However, like the majority of other NAS devices out there today it will provide file system backup and other services through industry standard protocols such as NDMP, NFS and CIFS. "Our company is based on industry standards," says JP Gallagher, product marketing manager at Panasas.

"Nirvana will come for the customer when OSD happens though," qualifies Rodney Schrock, president and CEO of Panasas.

But for OSD to really fly, it will require the operating systems vendors to cooperate, as well as the hardware vendors. Middleware suppliers such as Veritas Software Corp. (Nasdaq: VRTS) and Legato Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: LGTO) will have to modify their software. The database developers will have to retune their engines to accommodate the new structure, and, likewise, the host bus adaptor vendors will have to tweak their products to work with OSD devices.

This is a big bet to take for a small startup. And not only that, Panasas faces steep competition from industry heavyweights like Network Appliance, Compaq Computer Corp. (NYSE: CPQ), and EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC); as well as a multitude of startups, including, Zambeel Inc., FalconStor Software Inc., DataCore Software, Lefthand Networks, and KOM Networks Inc., among an increasing pool of companies that are working on next-generation network-attached storage.

In its favor, Panasas has an impressive executive team. Rodney Schrock, president and CEO, was previously CEO at AltaVista Corp. Prior to that, he spent 12 years at Compaq, where he climbed to senior VP and group general manager of Compaq's consumer products, a $4+ billion business.Several of Schrock’s colleagues have followed him to Panasas, including three VPs from Compaq.

The biggest coup for the company was signing Varun Mehta as VP of software engineering. Among network-attached storage circles, he’s considered to be one of the best in the business. Mehta built the software team that developed the Network Appliance operating system.

Is Panasas worried about a potential lawsuit from Network Appliance for snapping up Mehta? (à la EMC Sues Over Secrets?) Apparently not, as prior to joining Panasas, Mehta spent a year as VP of engineering at FastForward Networks, which was acquired by Inktomi Corp. (Nasdaq: INKT) for $1.3 billion.

“He got his non-compete year out of the way at FastForward Networks, which was great timing for us,” says Schrock. His expertise in network-attached storage will be critical to the success of the Panasas product.

On the funding side, Panasas received $10 million in September 2000 from early-stage venture capital firm, Mohr Davidow Ventures. Schrock says the company will go for a second round when the product is ready to go mid-next year.“Right now it’s heads down for execution mode,” he says.

— Jo Maitland, Senior Editor, Byte and Switch

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