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Upstart storage companies aim for niches

Isilon Systems is targeting its networked storage device at digital content companies, while Panasas is focusing on organizations that use Linux clusters.

A pair of upstart data-storage companies launched products on Monday designed to let companies easily ramp up data capacity and manage files with a minimum of effort.

Isilon Systems is targeting its networked storage device at digital content companies, while Panasas is focusing on organizations using Linux clusters.

Arun Taneja, founder of the Taneja Group research firm, said the companies' focus on niche markets could help prevent the overall market for networked-attached storage (NAS) devices from getting too crowded. NAS machines are dedicated computers that serve up files on a network.

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"It's good for the industry that five companies didn't go smashing in on the same space," Taneja said.

Taneja said Spinnaker Networks is another relatively new company with a NAS product, but it is targeting a broader market, one that's also served by industry veteran Network Appliance.

Spending on NAS machines declined 13.8 percent last year, to $1.54 billion, according to market researcher IDC. But IDC projects that the market will bounce back to $1.77 billion this year and jump to $3.17 billion in 2007.

Seattle-based Isilon is unveiling a product dubbed Isilon IQ. The product is based on a file system that's distributed among a number of storage device modules and essentially knits them together to create a single pool of storage, according to the company. Each of the modules holds 1.44 terabytes of disk capacity. A key feature of the product, Isilon said, is that extra modules can be added easily, in less than 30 seconds. What's more, as capacity is added, an "AutoBalance" feature automatically redistributes content without manual intervention, according to Isilon.

The product is tailor-made for the large video, audio, image and graphics files common in fields such as entertainment, digital imaging and health care, according to Isilon. Some initial Isilon customers include Paramount Digital Entertainment, Technicolor and the University of Washington Medical Center.

David Baron, vice president of programming and production at Paramount Digital Entertainment, is using a three-node Isilon IQ device to assist in the creation of new products that take advantage of Paramount's library of television programming. The Isilon product appealed to Baron because it specializes in storing video files and allowing them to be shared. Paramount Digital Entertainment has used standard NAS boxes, but felt there was a better way to handle large amounts of video data.

"There would have been ways of doing it (with traditional NAS technology), but it wouldn't have been optimal," Baron said.

Isilon was formed in 2001, but the Isilon IQ is its first product. The company has raised $23.4 million from sources including Sequoia Capital and Atlas Venture.

Fremont, Calif.-based Panasas' product, the ActiveScale Storage Cluster, targets areas that are adopting Linux clusters, such as life sciences, government, and the oil and gas industry. The product uses a modular hardware approach, made up of "StorageBlades" and "DirectorBlades," which coordinate activity between server computers and the StorageBlades.

The ActiveScale Storage Cluster appears on a network as a NAS device, according to Panasas, but it has an unusual architecture echoing that of a Linux cluster. In a Linux cluster, a number of server computers running the Linux operating system are linked to increase computing power. Panasas said its product offers parallel data paths from the storage device to the Linux cluster, resulting in a much higher data transfer rate than that of traditional NAS products with comparable configurations.

Panasas said a key to the product is a file system that views data in variably sized "objects" compared to traditional, fixed-size blocks. The data objects can grow as a file grows. The object approach allows for a single data storage space that can permit an application to assume more disk capacity without manual intervention, Panasas said.

Taneja said the object-oriented approach sets Panasas apart from competitors. "I'm not aware of anybody else that is using that fundamental technology and applying it to NAS," he said.

Similar to Isilon IQ, the Panasas product automatically rebalances data on the system when additional blades are added, according to Panasas.

Panasas said its customers include the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Center for Integrative Genomics at the University of California at Berkeley.

The ActiveScale Storage Cluster is the first product for Panasas, which was founded in 1999. The company said it has raised more than $72 million from backers including Mohr, Davidow Ventures; Carlyle Venture Partners; and Intel Capital.