PernixData Applies VMware Thinking to Storage

PernixData co-founder Satyam Vaghani wants to disrupt datacentre storage without disrupting customers

It might not be as glitzy as Oculus Rift and virtual reality, Spotify and streaming music or even Dropbox or Box and collaboration software, but datacentre storage is another area of technology that is going through changes. The need for faster access to more data has seen (wait, what’s the collective noun for storage vendors… ah yes) an array of market entrants like Pure Storage, Nutanix, SimpliVity and Nimble Storage, all of which are discomforting incumbents like IBM, EMC, HP, Dell, NetApp and Hitachi Data Systems. PernixData is another disruptor but the company is aiming at what is arguably an even larger addressable market with an offering that is agnostic over storage vendors. In effect, PernixData, built by founders with deep technical knowhow in VMware, is taking a trick from that company’s success, applying a software layer that supercharges the performance of any storage system.

“We built an acceleration platform rather than creating our own box,” says Satyam Vaghani, PernixData’s engaging CTO and co-founder, when we speak by phone and try to differentiate PernixData’s approach form that of the other datacentre disruptors.

“We wanted to be able to walk into any customer and say ‘Look, Mister Customer, use those [storage devices] for capacity and we can do scale-out performance on top’. We’re not waging a mutually exclusive battle.”

PernixData’s selling point is that it understands the highly virtualised nature of the modern datacentre where storage infrastructure has become taxed. Rather than demanding buyers add more disk capacity, change storage vendor and adopt a new approach entirely, PernixData decouples the storage architecture, separating out capacity from performance and freeing up I/O bottlenecks created by rampant VM activity. That means IOPS going where they’re needed, better performance, lower software licence charges and greater resilience. Or, put more simply, what VMware did for server processors and RAM, PernixData is doing to Flash storage.

The formula — disruptive technology without disruption for buyers — is building PernixData a strong reputation with hihg-profile customers.  

“We faced a choice of essentially replacing Dell storage or adding performance tiers,” says Charles Gillanders, CTO and co-founder of Irish fund administration company Quintillion, and a PernixData user. “Upgrading or swapping out would have been disruptive and complex from a management point of view. We were happy with Dell and didn’t look at replacing the array with an alternative vendor. I didn’t want to get involved in that.”

Both Vaghani and co-founder and fellow Indian and thirtysomething CEO Poojan Kumar came to PernixData from the 800-pound gorilla of virtualisation software, VMware. Hyderabad-born Kumar led data products at VMware after having been instrumental in Oracle’s Exadata engineered systems push. Vaghani, born in Ahmedabad, was principal engineer and storage CTO at VMware.

“On the non-technical part we see ourselves as different [to the rest of the New Wave in storage] because we are the only one born out of VMware DNA and we want to show the world what we can do with that,” Vaghani says.

“From a technical point of view we see ourselves as different also. We’re the first company on the planet to write software that goes inside the hypervisor. In storage, it’s usually always about stealing an incumbent’s share: every startup seems to be waging a battle against [the big] guys and trying to convince customers to throw out EMC. But 80% of the world still runs incumbents’ storage systems and that won’t change anytime soon. We can strap on a layer on top of what they already have.”

The complex politics of technology platforms means PernixData must play a game of Realpolitik, working with storage and virtualisation giants at the same time as those giants plot to beat PernixData at its own game. The storage giants want what PernixData has and VMware is also edging into its territory.

“It’s definitely a ‘frenemy’ relationship,” Vaghani says. “Going forward it’s going to be very interesting because it’s an interesting control point.”

VMware has a reputation for playing hardball and has an ecosystem, lots of money and intellectual property in its locker. Vaghani, a cricket fan, says it’s possible VMware could bowl PernixData a technical or other “yorker”, referring to the often unplayable delivery that pitches at the batsman’s feet.

“VMware is a very technical company. Like NetApp, when they see a very interesting problem they want to be the first and only company to solve it but they have had a lot of attrition. Unfortunately, they are technically proud but lack the necessary manpower and technical skills to get this done. Imagine your pants are on fire and there’s nothing to put it out. Everyone realises they need to do this piece that sits inside the hypervisor and becomes the point of control for all these VMs.”

However, recent moves lead Vaghani to believe that VMware is “becoming more of a direct competitor to SimpliVity and Nutanix, so it looks like they’re choosing that battle to fight.”

As for the storage giants, they too have attempted to tread on PernixData’s pitch without notable success.

“When a company with hardware DNA attempts software, it usually fails and vice-versa,” he suggests.

As for the future, Vaghani wants to build on that aforementioned control point.

“The bigger mission is to become the new point of control for storage intelligence,” he says, handling quality-of-service, data services like snapshots and so on.

“The old way of doing things is no longer interesting in a virtualised world. We need to treat tape as a place where data goes to rest and to de-emphasise the value of primary storage. Instead, we should follow the Amazons and Googles of the world — all the difference is in software.”

PernixData also wants to apply its model to other hypervisors and expand through channel sales and a ‘land and expand’ strategy that sees it win bigger shares of IT budgets at enterprises where its technology has been seeded. Just nine months after its software became generally available, and with all the usual trappings of big-name VC and board support (former Symantec CEO John Thompson, and ex-Palo Alto Networks CEO Lane Bess are investors) there is already talk of billion-dollar-plus valuations and an eventual IPO.

Barring that perfect yorker sending its stumps cartwheeling, PernixData has an outstanding chance of realising that aim in a storage sector hit for six by technological change.


Martin Veitch is Editorial Director at IDG Connect