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E-business boom a boon to older storage technology

A 26-year-old technology--a sort of cross between conventional computer memory and hard disks--is commanding new attention because of the growth of the Internet.

A 26-year-old technology is commanding new attention because of the growth of the Internet.

Imperial Technology makes what's known as "solid-state disks"--a sort of cross between conventional computer memory and hard disks. The devices have the quick response time of memory but can be shared by many computers like a standalone disk system.

Solid-state disks have been popular among high-end customers--including financial institutions such as the Nasdaq--and telecommunications companies such as Alcatel, said Robert David, Imperial's senior vice president of sales and marketing. Now the Internet has provided a new type of buyer, with online auction site eBay being one of the company's largest customers.

"About 40 percent of our business is e-business-related," David said. "That's up from 5 or 10 percent in 1999."

With that new demand, the company hopes to double its revenue, growth rate and employee count by the end of 2001, he said.

The technology is part of an even more important sector: storage. Established storage specialists are seeing booming business, start-ups are cropping up left and right, and computer makers are giving more prominence to their storage businesses.

A solid-state disk is good for frequently accessed parts of a company's database, David said. The device typically responds 30 to 100 times faster than a disk storage system, he said, and two to four times faster than a high-end disk system, such as EMC's Symmetrix, that includes a large amount of cache memory.

Imperial's solid-state disks range in capacity from 134MB at the low end to an entire terabyte spread across 10 modules that bolt to a floor-to-ceiling rack, David said. Low-end products cost $10,000; customers typically purchase systems costing $100,000 to $250,000, and high-end customers will spend $750,000 for a solid-state disk, he said.

Imperial isn't the only one with the devices. Its biggest competitor is Quantum, a storage specialist with its own line of solid-state disks.

At first blush, sinking memory prices might seem to help a company like Imperial. But, David said, the effect also means people are likely to boost the memory of their regular servers instead.

The solid-state disks have some advantages over regular memory, though. For one, with dual battery and a disk backup, the systems don't lose data if the power goes out. And because the systems behave like a hard disk array, multiple computers can use the solid-state disk simultaneously.

Imperial is working to adapt its product line to two newer storage methods that have been catching on: storage area networks (SANs) and network-attached storage (NAS). The two technologies are different ways of splitting off storage systems so they're separate instead of directly attached to servers.

By the end of 2001, Imperial hopes a third of its products will be used in ways other than direct-attached storage, David said. One hurdle is getting hardware certified by SAN network equipment companies such as Brocade, he said.

Imperial, based in El Segundo, Calif., has more than 50 employees and was founded in 1974. Its three investors are Celerity Partners, GMS Capital and Post Investors.