10 data storage companies to watch

Innovative start-ups target flash drives, cloud storage, disaster recovery

These 10 storage start-ups could be the industry's next big innovators.

From de-duplication and disaster recovery to flash drives and cloud storage, there's a ton of innovation in the storage market. After looking at companies in stealth mode and those that released their first products within the past year, we identified 10 storage start-ups worth watching. (Compare storage products.) 

Here's a look at each vendor:

Company name: Atrato April 2004 Westminster, Colo. A mix of hardware and software called the V1000 that helps alleviate the I/O bottleneck between storage and servers to improve access to data. Atrato, which exited stealth mode in February, says its technology delivers up to 10,000 input/output operations per second while reducing the rack space and cooling requirements of a typical data center. Offers fast, high-density storage that should prove useful for high-performance computing and delivery of digital entertainment. Co-founders Dan McCormick and Jonathan Hall, both veterans of XIOtech, decided they could improve the performance, cost-effectiveness and security of data delivered at high speeds for customers dealing with streaming content, high-performance computing and enterprise technology. Atrato is named after the Rio Atrato in Colombia, the fastest-flowing river on Earth. McCormick spent almost six years at XIOtech, including a role as vice president of marketing. $18 million from storage industry veterans such as Jesse Aweida, founder and former CEO of StorageTek, and Tom Porter, a former IBM storage executive who was also CTO of Seagate. Dozens of customers, including MusicGiants and SRC Computers.

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Company name: 4Blox April 2005 San Jose 4Mezzo, software that improves performance of iSCSI-based storage-area networks by optimizing communication between iSCSI and TCP protocols. 4Blox's tagline asks IT shops "are your iSCSI solutions ready for 10GbE?" 4Mezzo's technology that reduces the CPU processing power demanded by the iSCSI protocol, which is becoming much more popular. "4Blox has developed a unique software-based approach to performance that sets it apart from current hardware-based iSCSI offload and acceleration products," Scott Caruso of Flywheel Ventures said after investing in 4Blox. Founders Sai Narasimhamurthy and Joseph Hui developed the technology at Arizona State University, where Narasimhamurthy was a doctoral student and Hui was his professor. ASU still owns the company's intellectual property. The founders saw the number 4 everywhere: Their technology has four core components, the first component has four building blocks, and iSCSI is a Layer 4 transport protocol. ISCSI itself enables block-level storage, explaining the "blox" portion of the name. Dan Munro began his career as a software engineer but more recently became a consultant working with early-stage software companies to accelerate their growth or help them be acquired. An undisclosed amount from angel investors and the venture capital firm Flywheel Ventures. 4Blox technology is still in beta with OEM customers, including several "large marquee storage vendors," the company says.

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Picture of IOdrive Company name: Fusion-io June 2006 Salt Lake City The ioDrive, a PCIe flash storage card that's inserted directly into servers. Fusion-io launched the product at Network World’s DEMO event last fall. Rivals like EMC say that attaching storage directly to servers can limit flexibility, but Fusion-io promises a great price/performance ratio, with the PCIe card delivering 100,000 IOPS (input/output operations per second). A 160Gb card and the 320Gb card go for $4,800 and $8,900, respectively. Analyst Deni Connor calls it "a good approach for giving new life to servers . . . running transaction-intensive operations." CTO David Flynn and marketing vice president Rick White were having discussions about embedded devices and decided that there was a market for embedded storage that takes advantage of the speed of flash memory. The name contains "fusion" because the ioDrive fuses CPU and RAM into a single silicon-based device, and "io" because of its speed. Donald Basile has worked in the data networking, cable, telecommunications, computing and semiconductor industries. Most recently, he spent four years as vice president and managing director of investment firm Raza Foundries. $19 million in a funding round led by New Enterprise Associates. 44% of Fortune 100 companies use the ioDrive, the vendor says.

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Company name: Nirvanix July 2007 San Diego The Storage Delivery Network, a cloud storage platform providing highly scalable storage capacity over the Web, optimized for digital media and large files. The service became available last October. Along with Amazon's Simple Storage Service, Nirvanix is one of the first players in the emerging cloud storage market. While Amazon's maximum allowed file size is 5GB, Nirvanix lets customers store files as large as 256GB. Founders Patrick Harr and Geoff Tudor, who have experience in storage, networking and media caching, wanted to develop an alternative to content delivery networks. It's a play on words combining Nirvana and media exchange, using the "I" in media and "X" in exchange. Harr has a background in marketing and previously worked at Enterprise Partners Venture Capital, focusing on investments in content, storage and media services. $18 million from Intel Capital, Valhalla Partners, Mission Ventures, Windward Ventures and European Founders Fund. Content publishing Web sites, businesses looking for data backup and operators of Web 2.0 applications. One customer, FreeDrive, uses Nirvanix to provide an online storage service that is integrated with Facebook and makes it easy for friends to share files.

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Company name: Ocarina Networks February 2007 San Jose, Calif. Launched in April 2008, Ocarina's first product, the ECOsystem, is an appliance that shrinks the amount of disk space needed for storage with de-duplication. The system is driven by new algorithms that are "content-aware," meaning it knows what type of file it's working with and how best to reorganize data to save space. De-duplication is common for backup data but not primary storage, says analyst Arun Taneja. Ocarina says it can reduce storage needs by a factor of 10. That's a ratio "any IT shop will kill for" on primary storage, "because it's the most expensive storage," Taneja says. CEO Murli Thirumale and his co-founders polled senior IT executives about their top concerns, and all of them were worried about rapidly growing storage needs. "It just sounded good," Ocarina officials say in an e-mail. "And . . . there are hardly any good start-up names left." An ocarina is an egg-shaped wind instrument. Thirumale was CEO and co-founder of Net6, a maker of SSL-VPN and VoIP technology. He became an executive at Citrix when Net6 was acquired by the company in 2004. $11 million from Kleiner Perkins and Highland Capital. The first customers are online photo sharing sites, including Photobox and XYZ. Unnamed customers include social networking Web sites, e-mail providers and large movie studios.

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Company name: Parascale July 2004 Cupertino, Calif. Parascale says it is developing cloud storage software that "aggregates disk storage on multiple standard Linux servers to present one highly scalable self-managing storage cloud, with massive capacity and parallel throughput." A release date hasn't been announced yet, but it will be generally available within months as a software download, the company says. Parascale's low-cost approach to building cloud storage has some fans at Google. The Parascale advisory board includes Sepandar David Kamvar, the technical lead of personalized search at Google, and Chuck McManis, a Google senior storage technologist. Cameron Bahar, the founder and CTO, developed the Parascale approach to scaling out storage using commodity hardware after spending years building clustered systems at vendors such as HP, TeraData and Locus.Bahar also led the design of a one-thousand-server distributed Internet storage service offered by the now-defunct Scale8. From "parallel" and "scalability." Sajai Krishnan was previously general manager of NetApp's StoreVault division, which develops network storage products for small and midsize businesses. $11.37 million from Charles River Ventures and Menlo Ventures. Early adopter Blue Coat Systems is using Parascale software for online disk-to-disk backup.

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Picture of Plilant enterprise flash drive Company name: Pliant April 2006 Milpitas, Calif. Pliant will launch its first product, a solid-state flash drive, in the fourth quarter. Pliant is joining the emerging enterprise flash storage market, which Sun Microsystems has called "the most exciting thing that's happened in storage in 20 years." Flash storage costs a lot but delivers data at much faster speeds than rotating disk drives and is expected to gain major enterprise adoption over the next few years. Founded by Mike Chenery, Doug Prins and Aaron Olbrich, all veterans of Fujitsu. "Pliant" is meant to convey "a solution that was flexible and scalable to changing application environments," the company says. Amyl Ahola, the former CEO of TeraStor and vice president at Seagate and Control Data. $8 million in a funding round led by Lightspeed Venture Partners. Target customers are OEMs and data centers operating mission-critical, I/O-intensive applications, such as financial systems, Web transactions and streaming video.

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There are a few more companies worth watching from whom we couldn't get much information, because they are in stealth mode. Here's what we know about them:

Axxana:  Led by a team of industry veterans, Axxana promises a data replication plan that will "change the face of disaster recovery." Axxana's board of advisers includes Moshe Yanai, a current IBM fellow who years ago developed EMC's flagship Symmetrix storage systems. Axxana co-founder and CEO Eli Efrat was previously the CEO of MessageVine, which developed messaging products for wireless and Internet providers. Axxana CTO Alex Winokur was named a "master inventor" while a member of IBM's research division, and worked for Yanai at storage vendor XIV, which was acquired by IBM this year. Axxana is based in the United States but has offices in Tel Aviv, Israel. The company plans to make more details public by October.

greenBytes: Due to exit stealth mode on Sept. 15, greenBytes says it is developing "an ultra high-efficiency NAS appliance" that will archive long-term, persistent data, cutting storage energy consumption by up to 50%. While the company declined to release any more information before the self-imposed embargo is lifted, a Google search brings up a white paper on greenBytes technology on the Sun Microsystems Internet domain. GreenBytes, or at least its technology, seems to be heavily affiliated with Sun.The greenBytes ZFS+ file system is based on Sun's open source ZFS file system and reduces capacity needs with nondestructive compression and data de-duplication, the white paper states. Secondly, the greenBytes NAS appliance, known as the Cypress, is based on the Sun Fire X4500 server. GreenBytes CTO Robert Petrocelli is a physicist and computer scientist and was previously CEO of Heartlab, a developer of cardiac imaging software.

Storspeed: Click on this company's Web site and all you'll see is the vendor's name and an e-mail address on an otherwise blank page. What is known is that the Austin, Texas start-up is working on speeding up access to storage with a network-based caching technology along the lines of what the vendor Gear6 offers. Storspeed has former Cisco executive Mark Cree on board and secured $13 million in funding from firms such as El Dorado Ventures, Hunt Ventures, Vesbridge Partners and Palomar Ventures. Cree was CEO of NuSpeed Internet Systems, a storage-area networking vendor acquired by Cisco eight years ago. Storspeed declined an interview request, with Vice President of Business Development Gregory Dahl telling Network World that "we are likely to stay in stealth mode for another few quarters."

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