Pillar Aims for Knockouts

Can Pillar, flush with Ellison's dough, displace storage incumbents? Two users say yes

March 16, 2006

4 Min Read
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Pillar Data Systems, a storage startup bankrolled by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, claims to be replacing some of the industry's big-guns, though the jury's out on whether it can parlay this into a solid market position.

The startup launched its long-awaited midrange storage system, the Axiom NAS and SAN device last year, after spending four years in stealth mode. (See Pillar Leaves Post At Last.) Pillar is touting its Axiom technology as a way for users to consolidate multiple tiers of enterprise storage into a single system. It claims to easily scale up to hundreds of Tbytes, slashing users' IT costs in the process. (See Pillar Data Intros NAS-SAN System.)

A Pillar spokesman says that by the end of February, Pillar had racked up 72 customers. Not a bad start -- for an average startup. But Pillar is not an average startup. Until its formal debut, the vendor was better known as Ellison's storage toy -- the Oracle supremo is Pillar's chief investor, and he has pumped a cool $150 million into the firm. (See Larry's Stealth Storage Startup.)

The hefty backing has caused industry mavens to question whether -- with storage giants such as EMC, NetApp, and HDS, firmly entrenched in customer data centers, -- a newcomer could actually buy its way into the storage market. (See 2005 Top Ten: Memorable Quotes, and Out of the Frying Pan....)

There's no definitive answer as yet. But there's little doubt Pillar is making life unpleasant for its competitors in at least two deployments.Chris Butler, CTO of online market research firm I/PRO, which bought an Axiom NAS system last May, told Byte and Switch that the device has replaced an EMC Symmetrix box, five NetApp 760s, and a NetApp 880 machine, successfully shaving hundreds of thousands of dollars off his annual IT support costs.

"The support costs were outrageously high for those boxes. Next day support was costing me about $10,000 a month," he explains. Although Butler would not reveal exactly how much he has spent with Pillar, he says that the startup's support costs are "significantly less."

Additionally, I/PRO has shifted from iSCSI disks in its old storage setup to cheaper SATA technology on the Axiom box, which is also saving Butler money. But the exec warns that this setup will not work for everyone. "If you need really fast performing disks in your environment, it's not the box for you," he says.

For the time being, Butler says Pillar is more than adequate for I/PRO's needs. The firm currently stores 20 Tbytes of data on its Axiom system, a figure which is likely to double within the next 12 months, he adds.

Over in the U.K, Pete Lethbridge, head of IT at Insight Investment, the asset management arm of Halifax Bank of Scotland (HBOS), told Byte and Switch that he is in the process of replacing two SANs from HDS with a single Axiom box. "Hopefully it will be easier to manage. Whenever we wanted to work with the HDS kit, we had to get an expert in," he says. "What we found was that it was quite costly to maintain."The exec notes that Axiom offers "the flexibility to dynamically allocate space without having to reconfigure servers."

The Axiom systems consist of up to four "slammers," which are controllers for connecting to disks, linked via embedded switches from Emulex. The startup refers to its RAID enclosures as "bricks" and the controllers that host its management software as "pilots." The software, which contains over 2.5 million lines of code, manages system resources to provide multiple quality-of-service (QOS) levels from a single storage pool.

Can slammers, bricks, and pilots ensure success for this well-heeled firm? That is, the kind of success it's aiming for?

At least one analyst thinks it is possible. Greg Schulz, founder and senior analyst of The StorageIO Group , says Pillar's efforts to pay its way into the storage market are not without precedent. "If you go back into the early 1990s, most people barely knew of EMC," he explains. "They came out with a technology, put a marketing strategy around it, and it's now legend."

The jury, however, is still out on whether Pillar, or more specifically, Larry Ellison, can emulate this success in a market full of established players and sharklike fellow startups. According to Schulz, "The question is, Do Pillar and its investors have deep enough pockets to bottle lightning twice?"— James Rogers, Senior Editor, Byte and Switch

Organizations mentioned in this article:

  • EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC)

  • Emulex Corp. (NYSE: ELX)

  • Hitachi Data Systems (HDS)

  • Network Appliance Inc. (Nasdaq: NTAP)

  • Oracle Corp. (Nasdaq: ORCL)

  • Pillar Data Systems Inc.

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