Z-force Thinks Zmaller

Under new management, NAS aggregation switch startup sets less ambitious goals

July 23, 2003

4 Min Read
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NAS aggregation switch startup Z-force Inc. -- after almost three and a half years in development mode -- says it's now shipping its first product beginning this month.

But the company's newly installed management team has scaled back its original ambitions. For Z-force's initial foray into the market, its ZX-1000 switch will support only the Common Internet File System (CIFS) protocol, which is typically used in Windows environments, and not the Unix-oriented Network File Systems (NFS) protocol. And rather than trying to broadly market the NAS switch, Z-force has decided to focus on a specific industry niche: users with digital media and imaging systems that require large amounts of cheap storage.

Pat Burns, who joined as president and CEO in May 2003, says Z-force's previous strategy -- which would have put it in the line of fire of the two NAS superpowers, EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC) and Network Appliance Inc. (Nasdaq: NTAP) -- didn't make sense for a small company with limited resources.

"It was clear that the team that was built wasn't the team we needed for this launch," he says. After he came on board, around eight Z-forcers were let go, leaving the startup's headcount at 31.

Burns, whose background is primarily outside the tech industry, has been in various management positions at Bechtel Corp., DHL International, and Ford Motor Co. Z-force's previous CEO, Gary Johnson, quit in April to become the chief of digital entertainment technology company PortalPlayer Inc. (see Z-force CEO Departs).Another new addition is Francesco Lacapra, VP of advanced development, who was previously the lead engineer on BlueArc Corp.'s clustering software team -- an initiative that BlueArc appears to have put on the back burner (see BlueArc Clips Clustering Team).

Before Z-force revised its strategy, the startup was proposing that users aggregate all of their existing NAS infrastructure behind its switch -- including systems from EMC, NetApp, and others like BlueArc or Spinnaker Networks Inc.

Says Dan Cloer, Z-force's new director of product marketing: "It's a big market with a lot of entrenched players. We realized we're not going to take the whole watermelon in one bite." [Ed. note: Just think of the seeds you'd have to spit out...]

Now the pitch is to let customers gang up dozens of Windows-based NAS systems using the Z-force ZX-1000 switches. Priced at $47,000, the switch will be available directly from Z-force or through one of its partners, which include Bell Microproducts (Nasdaq: BELM), Dell Computer Corp. (Nasdaq: DELL), Rackable Systems Inc., and Rorke Data Inc.

Arun Taneja, founder of consulting firm Taneja Group, says Z-force looks as if it's settled on the right approach. "I think they have focused the thing down into something that can be well packaged and provide some meaningful value to an end user," he says.But although Z-force is scaling down its go-to-market plans, the startup says its technology can scale up to handle very large environments. It claims that up to 16 switches can work together in a single file system to support as many as 256 NAS devices, for a total of 1.5 petabytes of storage. A single switch is able to handle 190 Mbyte/s, which is faster than the 170 Mbyte/s per switch the company demonstrated last year (see Will Z-force Be Brocade of NAS?).

So far, Z-force has landed one customer it can tell us about: Sanborn Map Company Inc., which is using the NAS switch to store geographical imaging data. In addition, the startup claims four other wins, including one Fortune 500 account.

Meanwhile, Z-force is hoping to close a third round of funding of up to $15 million by early September, according to Burns. He says the funding would carry the company to profitability, though he wouldn't say when that might happen. Burns says each of Z-force's existing investors is participating in the round, along with some new ones.

In December 2001, Z-force received $16 million from Allegis Capital, Alloy Ventures, Rock Creek Capital Ventures, and Quantum Technology Ventures, the venture capital arm of Quantum Corp. (NYSE: DSS) (see Z-force Is With Us). Founded in late 1999, Z-force is now based in Santa Clara, Calif., and has engineering operations in Laguna Hills in Southern California.

Can Z-force make a living by taking "the aggravation out of aggregation," as Burns pithily puts it? Now that it's planning to skirt EMC's and NetApp's playing fields, its chances are surely better.Todd Spangler, US Editor, Byte and Switch

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