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Storage start-up aims for middle ground

Two very different designs currently prevail in data storage hardware, and start-up Broadband Storage is betting the middle ground between the two will be lucrative.

MENLO PARK, Calif.--Two very different designs currently prevail in data storage hardware. But a new start-up, Broadband Storage, is betting the middle ground between the two will be lucrative as well.

The two prevailing methods of building storage servers that share data over networks are network-attached storage (NAS) and storage area networks (SAN). NAS devices typically are less expensive and essentially plug hard disks into a network for storing files. SANs are expensive collections of networking gear and top-end storage devices.

Broadband Storage is working on a "hybrid of SAN and NAS," president Jack Staub said in an interview during a Piper Jaffray storge conference in Silicon Valley. The company is building storage appliances with the performance of SANs and the simplicity of NAS, he said.

In doing so, the company is taking on the two giants of the storage industry: SAN leader EMC and NAS leader Network Appliance. Both companies have been increasing revenue and profit quickly as companies buy hardware and software to try to keep up with their burgeoning data storage needs.

Broadband Storage likely won't be going it alone, however. The company plans to sign partnership deals with big-name companies also taking on NetApp and EMC, Staub said.

IBM, Compaq, Hitachi Data Systems, Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard are trying to dislodge EMC. Most of those players and a host of others are trying to take on NetApp.

Their interest is drawn by the increasingly important role of storage in the networked economy, a role handled more and more by special-purpose standalone devices instead of hard disks crammed inside a server. Special storage features, such as fast replication of data across several sites, aren't simple to design.

Venture capitalists seem to agree. "We're getting a really good response," Staub said.

Broadband Storage, an offshoot of Delphi Engineering based in Newport Beach, Calif., plans to demonstrate its storage appliances by the end of first quarter 2001, Staub said. The heart of the device is a new custom chip the company is designing.

Each of the appliances, with a rough cost of $150,000, will be able to hold 8 terabytes of data, but groups of them can be joined together for greater capacity.

One of the key differences between SAN and NAS is the networking language used. SANs use a Fibre Channel, which is fast and optimized for storage data transfer, whereas NAS uses the Internet Protocol that underlies the Internet and most general-purpose computer networks.

Broadband Storage is based on Fibre Channel, Staub said. However, the company hopes to bring some security features of NAS to SANs, he added. With SANs, "every computer can talk to any hard disk," raising the prospect that one computer could overwrite another computer's data.

NAS, on the other hand, provides a way to separate sections of data storage so a computer must have permission before it's allowed to write in a particular area.