Wozniak still aims to simplify: Now, all of enterprise storage

Woz has joined former Fusion-io colleagues at Primary Data, a startup virtualizing data

Primary Data CTO David Flynn, left, with Chief Scientist Steve Wozniak at Demo on Wednesday.

Primary Data CTO David Flynn, left, with Chief Scientist Steve Wozniak at Demo on Wednesday.

The latest bid to simplify data storage comes from a team that includes Steve Wozniak, a guy who knows a thing or two about making technology easier.

The co-founder of Apple has joined former colleagues from flash storage maker Fusion-io at Primary Data, a Silicon Valley startup that says it can put all of an organization's storage capacity in a single virtual pool. The enterprise can keep the gear it already has and even take advantage of public cloud storage, while leaving it up to Primary Data's software to allocate the right resources to each application, the company says.

Wozniak is chief scientist at Primary Data, just as he was at Fusion-io. There's a world of difference between this and his most famous startup because there's a ready-made market for simplified storage, he said in an interview. "It's obvious where this is going to fit in," Wozniak said.

Primary Data's co-founder and CTO is David Flynn, who was CEO of Fusion-io until May 2013. Its CEO is Lance Smith, another former Fusion-io executive. Their former company was acquired by SanDisk earlier this year for US$1.1 billion. Wozniak took the stage with Primary Data on Wednesday at the Demo conference in San Jose as the company debuted.

While server virtualization has made computing more efficient and network virtualization is starting to do the same for communication, storage in many cases remains tied to specific hardware platforms. Existing vendors such as EMC are starting to offer tools to unify those systems virtually for easier management. Primary Data says it's taken virtualization all the way.

The company's software separates the control of data from the gear where it's stored. All storage capacity, from cloud to server-based flash, becomes part of a single global data space that can be allocated as needed for high performance or high capacity, Smith said.

That virtual space can span block, object and file storage systems, keeping specific transport protocols such as Fibre Channel in place but treating all data as files. Instead of using a new protocol, Primary Data's software is based on the widely used NFS (Network File System).

The software consists of a Data Director, which holds metadata about the contents of storage and policies for each application, and a hypervisor in the application server that carries out changes.

Primary Data initially is delivering the Data Director as an appliance, but it will offer software-only versions of it that could also be delivered by partners through a cloud infrastructure, Smith said. The product is in a proof-of-concept phase with a few customers and should be generally available around the middle of next year, he said.

Media companies have shown the most interest in the technology so far, Primary Data says. That's because of the volume of data they need to manage, according to Wozniak. "Where are the hugest amounts of data on the Internet right now?" he said.

But there are more specific reasons, too. For example, the computer graphics in feature films are crafted by multiple artists and teams, sometimes separated by oceans and time zones, and the data involved requires fast local storage. With data virtualization, each artist can find the project using the same universal file name instead of having to worry about where it's stored, Smith said.

Also, files can be automatically moved from one time zone to another based on policy, Smith said. When the work day ends in Hollywood, Primary Data can shift the files for the project over to fast local storage in Singapore where another team is just starting its day.

The germ of the idea for Primary Data came from Fusion-io, according to Smith. Fusion-io introduced a new tier of storage in the form of flash cards attached directly inside servers.

"Customers had a difficult time adopting this new tier," Smith said. "That's where the lightbulb went off." The Fusion-io team learned enterprises needed help dealing with the many tiers and types of data they had, as well as cloud storage, he said. "How do you make all of those work?"

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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