Narayan Venkat turned around, and there was Joe Tucci, the chairman, president, and chief executive officer of EMC. It was a bit like one of the Vandals receiving a visit from the emperor of Rome.
Over the past 30 years, EMC has built a $52 billion empire selling beefy hardware contraptions where the world’s businesses can store massive amounts of computer data, and Narayan Venkat works for one of the many upstarts intent on storming the gates. Traditionally, EMC’s storage technology is built with hundreds of good old fashioned computer hard disks, but Venkat’s company – a Silicon Valley outfit called Violin Memory – takes a different tack. It builds hefty storage devices using flash, the same super-fast storage tech that holds data and applications on your iPhone.
Last month in downtown San Francisco, at one of those enormous trade shows where countless tech outfits show up just to jockey for mindshare, Venkat was hawking Violin’s flash gear from a booth on the show floor when Joe Tucci appeared – seemingly out of nowhere.
A mutual acquaintance introduced them, and Tucci asked the questions. “He said he wanted to know about Violin,” remembers Venkat, the company’s vice president of product management, “as if he didn’t know already.” According to Venkat, they talked about how flash is gradually remaking the data center. They discussed EMC’s recent acquisition of XtremIO, another flash-minded outfit. And apparently, Tucci paid him a compliment. “You guys,” he said, “are making me run faster.”
This brief exchange in the middle of a trade show floor tells you just about everything you need to know about the changes underway in the world of big storage. Following in the footsteps of an outfit called Fusion-io – which went public last year after inking deals with the likes of Apple and Facebook – myriad companies are now crashing the storage game with devices based on flash, and Violin is making more noise than most.
Violin gear helps run the online services operated by the likes of eBay and AOL. The Mountain View, California-based company topped $100 million in revenues last year, according to a report citing Violin CEO Don Basile. And according to another story from Bloomberg Businessweek, the company is preparing a stock market IPO – or initial public offering – that could value its business at $2 billion.
But that moment between Venkat and Tucci is telling in so many other ways. Minutes after the exchange, Violin posted a photo of Tucci and Venkat to its website with the kicker: “Do I sense some concern from EMC?” The storage business, you see, is as much about PR and politics as technology. After all, everyone’s hardware is built around the same commodities: hard drives and flash.
Violin knows this all too well, and it’s intent on painting itself as the anti-EMC. “Violin has gone from being a very technical company run by engineers to being a company that knows business and PR,” says Jim Handy, an analyst with research outfit Objective Analysis. “There a very strong belief that if you build a better mouse trap, the world will beat a path to your door, but that really doesn’t happen. You can make something better, but that isn’t all it takes to be successful.”
In some ways, Violin is indeed a threat to EMC. EMC has so much invested in hard-drive-based devices. But the larger story is that EMC is changing its operation. EMC has long sold its own flash hardware – it goes so far as to say that it ships more flash gear each quarter than “the entire enterprise storage industry put together” – and it spent a reported $430 million to expand its options with the acquisition of XtremIO, an Israeli outfit slated to launch its first product next year. This isn’t just a tale of Violin taking on EMC. It’s about flash slowly shifting the entire industry. The hard drive – still much less expensive than flash – won’t vanish anytime soon. But it’s on the decline.
Violin was founded in 2005 by a man named Jon Bennett, and in the beginning, it wasn’t a flash company. Bennett, an engineer based in Boston, originally built a hardware device packed with DRAM, or dynamic random access memory, the traditional computer memory that feeds the processor on your desktop and laptop. In other words, Bennett didn’t build a storage device. He was trying to improve the performance of computer servers by plugging them into enormous amounts of memory where their processors could temporarily cache data.
But in 2008, Bennett and company built a new version of the device equipped with flash rather than DRAM, and the following year, Donald Basile arrived. Basile spent about a year as the CEO of Fusion-io, and during that year, Fusion topped $10 million in sales – at least according to his math. But he was forced out of the company in 2009, well before its IPO, and he immediately went looking for a new flash venture. He eventually settled on Violin.
Basile helped raise over $180 million from such names as Toshiba, Juniper, and SAP and rebuilt Violin’s mission. The result was a flash storage device that’s unlike any other. Known as a flash memory array, the device is a means of sharing storage across a large number of servers, but unlike arrays, its not built from flash that already been packaged into individual solid state drives, or SSDs. It knits raw flash chips together with its own fabric.
Typically, the device is used to help run large databases from the likes of Oracle, SAP, and Microsoft. But it’s also used in tandem with other software platforms, including virtual desktop infrastructure, or VDI, which lets companies serve up virtual desktops to their employees over a network.
The Violin array is considerably faster than traditional hard drive-centric devices – but also more expensive, at least on the face of it. The company’s hardware sells for around $6 to $9 per gigabyte, but Violin’s argument is that you shouldn’t think of price in terms of the number of gigabytes you’re buying. You should consider how much you’re paying for each read and write you make to the device, the company says, and its array – which is the size of three standard rack servers – can provide as many as one million input or output operations per second (IOPS).
eBay now uses Violin arrays to speed database access inside its data centers, part of a recent effort to revamp the infrastructure underpinning its web services. According to Sudhakar Mungamoori, senior manager of systems engineering at eBay, the company still relies on hard-disk-based storage from the likes of EMC and NetApp and Hitachi, but earlier this year, it started using Violin’s flash arrays in a new storage pool that underpins “NoSQL” databases such as Cassandra and MongoDB, which are designed to handle particularly large amounts of data.
But Violin’s flash gear shouldn’t be confused with the tech offered by Fusion-io and its well-known chief scientist, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. Fusion sells flash devices that sit inside the server, plugging into machines via a motherboard connector called the PCIe bus. Violin’s memory array sits outside the server, offering a kind of storage pool you can use across your network.
Why would you use one over the other? It’s complicated. Basically, Fusion-io is well suited to large web outfits such as Apple and Facebook, which run massive software platforms spanning thousands of servers. These companies often store data by spreading it across all those servers, rather than pooling it in one location. Sometimes, they equip their servers with traditional hard drives. Sometimes, they use flash SSDs drives. And sometimes, for additional speed and less hassle, they use Fusion-io’s PCIe cards.
>’In the big data center, no one can afford to use storage the ways we have in the past, and we are all looking for new and different ways to solve that problem.’
Violin targets more traditional businesses who are less familiar with this sort of “cloud” infrastructure. But as eBay shows, Violin can also help drive a massive web operation, and it bridges the gap between server and storage in other ways. The company’s latest product – its 6000 series flash memory array – includes two boards that can handle processing inside the device. Rather than bring the storage to the server, Violin has brought the server to the storage.
Violin is one of many companies breaking down the traditional divisions between server and storage hardware in an effort to streamline data center operations, says Andrew Feldman, the founder of SeaMicro, one of these new-age server makers. SeaMicro was acquired by AMD in February, and just recently, it introduced a device that combines server and storage.
“In the big data center, no one can afford to use storage the ways we have in the past,” he says, “and we are all looking for new and different ways to solve that problem. Sometimes, we do this with software. Sometimes with hardware. And in some cases, we’re taking flash and pushing it right up against the server.”
Fusion-io dismisses Violin’s tech as too far from the server. And Violin turns its nose up at Fusion-io, saying its only suited to big-name operations that can afford to build their own distributed storage platforms. But the point is that both are making headway in a market once dominated by hard drives.
As Violin, Fusion-io, and other startups push flash, so too are the giants of the industry. IBM and HP have worked with Fusion-io to build flash devices for their servers. EMC has long offered its own breed of PCIe-based flash gear as well as flash arrays. And with the acquisition of XtremIO, Joe Tucci and company are pushing even further into this market.
HP is also selling Violin’s flash arrays. At least for the moment. A year ago, after HP had a very public breakup with Oracle and HP could no longer lean on Oracle’s Exadata storage devices, it inked a deal with Violin, agreeing to sell its flash arrays to its biggest customers.
According to another story from Bloomberg Businessweek, HP has now severed its relationship with Violin because it wants to push its own storage company, 3PAR. Violin disputes this, saying the deal remains in place. But whatever the case, this provides a nice little window onto the byzantine politics of the big-time storage business.
Trying to parse these politics is almost fruitless. But what we can say is that like Fusion-io, Violin has successfully inserted itself into the giant chess game that is enterprise storage.
EMC boss Joe Tucci had that chat with Violin’s Narayan Venkat at VMworld, the annual trade show run by VMware, a company now owned by EMC. During a keynote speech a day earlier, VMware told the world that the company had recently surpassed 1 millions IOPs with a single virtual machine, and as it turned out, this virtual machine ran on hardware that included two Violin flash arrays.
Yes, Violin also added this little irony to its PR assault on the tech world. But there’s a reason VMware ran its tests with Violin arrays and not something else. As Jim Handy points out, this is a game of both technology and PR.
Matt Barletta, Violin’s vice president of marketing, also came to the company from Fusion-io, following Donald Basile. It was Barletta who snapped the photo of Joe Tucci’s visit to Violin’s trade show booth, and it was he who posted the photo to the web. He saw an opportunity and he took it. But he also believes Tucci’s visit meant something.
“He is an east coast Italian, as am I and Don,” Barletta says. “Don Basile and I took it as a huge sign of respect. In all honesty.”
As we said: That brief exchange in the middle of a trade show floor tells you just about everything you need to know about the changes underway in the world of big storage.
Correction: This story has been corrected to show that Violin topped $100 million in revenues last year according to a report citing Violin CEO Don Basile.