Formation Data Systems Exits Stealth, Plans Storage Industry Disruption
By Joseph F. Kovar on September 17, 2014, 3:18 pm EDT
Formation Data Systems this week came out of stealth mode with a mission to disrupt existing storage infrastructures with a new technology that aims to move customers away from legacy hardware and software to a unified storage solution that supports all types of formats and media. Fremont, Calif.-based Formation Data Systems also said it received funding to the tune of $24 million from a number of investment companies including one strategic investor, Dell. Also investing in the company are a number of individuals who see the value of data center disruption, including Box CEO Aaron Levie, Seagate CEO Steve Luczo, Riverbed CEO Jerry Kennelly and InMage CEO Kumar Malavalli.
Formation Data Systems co-founders include CEO Mark Lewis, former EMC executive vice president and CTO and former general manger of the storage division at Hewlett-Packard and Compaq, and COO Andy Jenks.
Formation Data Systems is trying to help move the storage business from one that is siloed according to different vendor offerings, or different technologies like SAN and NAS, which has created poor manageability and efficiency for users, Lewis told CRN. Lewis also believes current moves to fix storage, including the wave of software-defined storage technologies now hitting the market, mean fixing the problem for a coming boom of new types of applications, including big data, require a new storage architecture. "Now vendors are trying to create a new layer to manage storage called software-defined storage," he said. "But that doesn't eliminate the top problem: There are too many foundational platforms. We're starting from scratch and doing what Google and Facebook did: Write our own storage platform. Customers don't want to deal with so many platforms. We feel it's a great idea." The company, in response, has developed Formation XV, or Formation eXtensible Virtualization, a storage virtualization technology based on standard off-the-shelf hardware. Formation XV embraces flash and spinning disk storage, along with API-based cloud storage, Lewis said. "The whole idea is to open up all media types and virtualize across them," he said. Formation XV includes a data connector that projects a virtualized data layer for any operation. For example, Lewis said, applications needing block storage see the technology as a SAN, those needing file storage see it as a NAS, and other applications see it as block storage like that projected by Amazon Web Services or Swift-based technologies.
The Risk of Asking Customers To Drop Old Storage Tech: "It's analogous to the creating of the smart phone industry," he said. "For the first generation, you had a phone, a GPS and a music player. That was good until people realized all the devices had similar hardware, with all the functions coming from software. Apple came along with its iPhone, but didn't make a better phone. It made a good phone, a good music device and a good GPS all in one." Formation Data Systems is doing the same for storage by virtualizing all block, file and object storage and projecting it to customers as needed.
However, Lewis said, the company does not see itself as developing a technology for every use. "There will be 'corner' requirements for specific purposes," he said. "Someone will find an all-flash storage array better for specific purposes. But our solution will fit 95 percent of user cases." However, unlike most new storage technologies that aim to either take advantage of customers' existing hardware or software or gradually wean them off prior platforms, Formation Data Systems expects customers to replace existing infrastructures, Lewis said. "Our difference is, we are completely incompatible with old platforms," he said. "One potential customer recently told us we have to embrace all their old platforms. I said, well, I guess we're not going to sell to you."
Formation Data Systems' technology does not support the most common storage industry technologies including SCSI, Fibre Channel, NAS and hardware RAID, Lewis said. "I can't make the old stuff cheaper," he said. "I can't make 30-year-old proprietary technology better. But look at Google and others. All the new successful platforms have rarely been built on existing platforms." The most disruptive things happen when one needs to get rid of existing technology, Lewis said. "That's why people add this vendor for NAS, that vendor for dedupe, this vendor for flash. Now they're adding a new vendor for big data and Hadoop. It's a pending earthquake. CIOs look at what Facebook and Google are doing, and ask why they are paying so much more for storage. They are asking their IT departments why they can't do that."
Solution providers who have known Lewis from his Compaq days said getting customers to part with their existing storage technologies will be tough, but that he is the person with the experience to succeed with such a strategy. Lewis is correct when he talks about the problems in managing disparate storage platforms and the need for unity, but will find replacing tried-and-true storage platforms a long-term job, said Rich Baldwin, CIO and chief strategist at Nth Generation Computing and a former colleague of Lewis from over 20 years ago when they both worked at Digital Electric Corporation (DEC) before Compaq acquired it. The kind of management skill and experience needed to manage Hitachi Data Systems, EMC and NetApp in the same data center is already difficult, but it becomes a big stumbling block when one even thinks about replacing them, Baldwin told CRN.
"I can walk into a customer to talk about HP's 3PAR storage, and the customer may say, 'Wow, that's great. But I have four EMC VMAX arrays now and want to replace two. But one is one year old and another is two years old, and I need to get the ROI from them,'" Baldwin said. "They may like the 3PAR but would need two different storage teams. And then when they add Hadoop or data warehousing or some other new platform, they face a new, major learning curve." However, Baldwin said, Lewis built the DEC StorageWorks business that eventually became the core of Hewlett-Packard's storage business, and at EMC worked closely with the team involved in mergers and acquisitions related to new technologies. "Lewis has a lot of credibility in the storage industry," he said. "And he has the background and the connections with the kind of people who can make Formation Data Systems work." Carl Wolfston, principal at Pleasanton, Calif.-based HP solution provider Headlands Associates, also worked with Lewis back at DEC, and told CRN Lewis' background and knowledge gives his new venture a lot of potential. "He's a great manager and a real geek at heart," Wolfston said. "My only complaint is he has gotten investment from Dell and not from HP." Wolfston said he is excited to see where Lewis will go with his new technology. "I love the concept," he said. "But if Formation Data Systems is trying to be a new storage platform, why won't it work with existing equipment? Look at Linux. If it's open, it has to work with everything." An even bigger question, Wolfston said, is how Formation Data Systems will work with the channel.
Lewis said his company, like most startups, will initially work directly with customers to get its footing and to understand the market and its requirements, but "we want to expand into the channel as soon as possible," he said. Lewis said Formation Data Systems is a 100 percent software-focused company and has three primary initial target markets. The first is large enterprises that are building and developing a number of front office and customer-facing applications and want flexibility without giving up their "crown jewels" to Amazon Web Services. The second is new SaaS companies that are scaling their operations and are ready to build their own data environments. The third are large companies that have already scaled their operations but are looking to build their own platforms, he said. Formation Data Systems' technology is currently in beta testing, and the company hopes to take it to general availability in the second quarter of 2015, Lewis said. "In mid-2015, I expect we'll start working with channel partners who are integrating solutions for our specific target markets," he said.