Data Center & Storage Solutions

Nimble Grows on Back of Slimmer, Smarter Storage

It has become computing lore (or perhaps law) that at times of change, incumbents are discomforted by disruptors that have “built a better mousetrap”, that is, taken a technological approach that is better suited to the times than that of the old guard. Nimble Storage is a photo-fit case study for this change process.

“There hasn’t been a storage company ever that has grown faster than us,” says the Californian company’s CEO Suresh Vasudevan, during a lunchtime session with customers in London recently. “In the last quarter alone we added more customers than the installed base of most of the companies starting at the time we did.”

Well, rivals like Nutanix and Pure Storage could also probably summon impressive numbers but the big picture is that these companies as a group are making life very tough for the giants of the sector like EMC, IBM, HP, NetApp and Hitachi. While the enterprise storage fortunes of those companies sketch a horizontal line or dip, the new entrants are flying high.

Founded in 2007, having upped the ante on an original plan to focus on I/O acceleration in isolation, Nimble went public late in 2013 and made a splash on its IPO debut. Even with its stock near the lowest ebb in early April 2014, the company is valued at over $2.3bn. Revenues are more than doubling annually and for its most recent quarter, Nimble took almost $42m.

Success is built on an increasingly familiar platform with the company using both Flash and disk storage and a new file system with built-in backup and a cache management architecture to achieve much faster data access. Another calling card is that Nimble requires a fraction of the hardware resources needed compared to traditional enterprise storage designs, thus saving costs, space and electricity needed. Integrated monitoring and continuous automatic health checks aid uptime.

It’s a formula that’s leading to what India-born Vasudevan says are “astonishingly high win rates” and the usual struggles to recruit talent, for him and an executive team comprised of storage veterans, many of whom have NetApp and Data Domain on their CVs.

“Network storage has always been considered almost recession-proof but if you look at the profile of how much money is going into what, it tells you a story,” says Vasudevan.

Like rivals, he talks a good numbers game but what’s undeniable is the uber-dynamic that’s taking place in storage as the new architectures and technologies like Flash and cloud displace the approaches of the old order. As Vasudevan notes over lunch after his presentation, these companies are turning the tables on incumbents whether you measure by revenues, VC investments, market valuations or IPO appetite. Call them the Datacentre Disruptors, Billion Dollar Babies or whatever you like, this isn’t the old server room.

Of course there are differences in approach among the new crew. While a company like Pure Storage is dedicated to using Flash, Nimble prefers a hybrid model of Flash and disk. That’s because Flash remains relatively expensive with endurance concerns because “the more you write to Flash, the more it wears out and [achieving] high endurance is pricey.” Also, there is a question of recoverability. As Vasudevan puts it, “Flash dies when the server dies. Reconstructing a failed Flash drive is hard and when it fails, it’s like all the drives are approaching the cliff edge at the same time and the likelihood of others failing grows.”

That’s not to say that the company doesn’t see a big place for Flash, only that it sees it as complementary to disk and most cost-effective in high-speed processes that need low latency. Vasudevan foresees “servers with motherboards with terabytes of flash and the best way to use that is as a read cache”. Even if, as expected, Flash prices fall, and developments in deduplication, compression and thin provisioning help its cause, disk prices on a “dollar per gig” basis will fall along a similar curve, Vasudevan contends.

The sheer rate of change in the datacentre is remarkable and it’s likely that we’re only at the beginning of that change process. It’s a situation that’s likely to keep Nimble in good shape for quite a while.


Martin Veitch is Editorial Director at IDG Connect


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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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