Pillar Data Systems – breath of fresh air or a waste of time?

By | October 30, 2006

Not knowing much about Pillar Data Systems as a company or their technology I was caught by their 6 minute pitch during a keynote presentation at Storage Expo titled “Standing on the shoulders of giants: the future of storage technology”. They talked about how they’d built their product “from the ground up” as a result of listening to the needs of real storage users, rather than having a 10 or 20 year old product line that is based on an old architecture that has been upgraded and patched countless times in an attempt to meet the demands of the modern storage world.

This idea of building a subsystem from scratch, designed for todays storage needs, got my attention. Based on their speech, their product range promised to be a storage professionals dream come true, the answer to all of our customers needs. I couldn’t wait to see it! Show me one! Give me one! …… Unfortunately on arrival to their stand they didn’t have a techie free to talk to me right away, and as I had other seminars to attend I decided to settle for some glossy marketing materials that would serve as light reading on for the train journey home.

As it turns out they only have one product (box), the Pillar Axiom 500, a midsized modular storage array. Not sure how a single box can solve all of my storage needs (I have so many), still I thought Id read on. As it turns out they appear to have spent a good deal of their time tackling ILM needs. The two main things the glossy brochure was making a song and dance about were –

  1. offering SAN and NAS in the same box
  2. offering different tiers of storage on the same disks (rather than having one tier on FC and another on SATA etc)

SAN and NAS in the same box is not exactly ground breaking, and come to think of it neither is their approach to tiered storage on a single disk. The basics of their tiered storage on a single disk approach is to position data (I assume LUNs) on a disk based on the performance requirements of the data. So data with fast access requirements is written to the outer most tracks of a disk where I/O performance is best, and gradually getting closer to the centre of the disk as speed of access requirements become less important. They call this “tiered storage at the disk level”. Essentially short stroking a disk without the wasted space towards the centre of the disk. Access to the LUNs placed nearer the centre of the disk is also subject to algorithms that give it lower priority to the LUNs on the outer tracks. All of this is supposedly managed through and easy to use policy engine and GUI. OK simple.

Despite none of this being earth shattering, and not looking like its going to solve all of my storage needs, I must confess to still being quite interested. However, as always, a box is only as good as the software to manage it (vendors take note!). As Ive never actually worked with any Pillar kit I cant comment on the software, but gone are the days when Im “sold” on a piece of kit based on its speed or coolness – good software to manage it is now a must!!

Anyway, moving on I noticed that Ben Rockwood, on his great blog, is condemning Pillar to the scrap heap of annoying startup companies – its an interesting read.  Ben gets annoyed that the marketing people at Pillar are using the word “revolutionary” when describing their box.  Although I do side with Ben on this one, Im a little less eager to “cast stones” at a company based on what their marketing people write.  At the end of the day the marketing people are always going to write like that.  However, the main point I would like to make in response to Bens post is this – do Pillars ideas have to be new, or even their own to be revolutionary?

Citrix didn’t invent the idea of the dumb terminal and ESX certainly cant be credited with the idea of virtualising servers and abstracting the underlying hardware. However, both companies have built successful businesses around these concepts and are both arguably revolutionising data centres around the globe. Now Im not saying that Pillar are about to revolutionise the storage world, in fact Im reasonably sure they wont. However, lets not knock them just because they didn’t think of all of their own ideas and their marketing folks like to use words like “revolutionise” and “unique”. After all, most of the big IT companies are guilty at one time or another of nicking ideas from somebody or somewhere else. You can hardly talk to a mainframe guy without them telling you how many of the popular technologies in the open systems world have been lifted directly from the mainframe world.

Another thing that Ben didn’t like was the “used car salesman” approach their sales people seem to be taking, always undercutting the opposition. And again I have to side with Ben, up to a point, on this – none of us like that approach. However, on that note, another thing that I quite liked from the glossy brochure was the idea of a single software license (no hidden costs further down the line). To me that’s a refreshing idea coming from a storage vendor. To see the other option read snigs great post on the greed of software licensing.

So to sum it up I will be keeping an eye on Pillar and looking for opportunities to get my hands on their kit. Please anyone with any experience or opinion with Pillar kit speak up – Ben said in his blog he is open to be wrong, and as for me Im still interested.

Mackem

Just quickly… One thing that I did find slightly fresh, albeit rather unimportant, was their approach to naming components within their subsystems. If you’re not a fan of acronyms and cant tell your HDDs and DDMs from your DA’s and ACPs then you might like the Pillar approach to this. The three basic components of their subsystem are the controller, called the “slammer”, the policy engine called the “Pilot”, and the drive enclosures called “bricks”. Not as important as how well the kit works but made me smile nonetheless.

8 thoughts on “Pillar Data Systems – breath of fresh air or a waste of time?

  1. Jesse

    You know – I actually did some research on them after a recruiter called me and suggested it might be a place to land. This was back in February when I started my hunt to leave consulting.

    I passed as I had been burned by making the mistake of going to work for MTI in 2000 and wasn’t really willing to do another storage start-up.

    Did I make a mistake?

  2. mackem

    Hi Jesse,

    Funny you should say that, as Ive been thinking of leaving consulting and working for a vendor, or partner, and wondered if Pillar were looking. I get contacted by agencies quite a lot about roles but nobody has ever mentioned Pillar to me. Im not sure how they operate in the UK and may be if they only operate through partners etc?

    I was actually quite surprised to see they were one of 6 platinum sponsors of Storage Expo. The others were EMC, IBM, HP, HDS and NetApp all big hitters. I thought it strange to see a start-up like Pillar up there with them.

    Looks like they are putting themselves about quite a bit and fighting for a share. I guess only time will tell if you passed a good oportunity.

    Let us know if you ever go and work for them!

  3. Jesse

    My wife has nixed me going back into consulting until the kids are old enough to understand why daddy lives in a different state every month.

    I was interested but the position never went anywhere, and I was in such a hurry to get out of my last position that I didn’t give them too much time to contact me.

    I like their architecture, I like their no-nonsense approach, and hope to hear more about them.

    MTI had a good sales pitch, that why I went there. Then wasted a year of my life on a seventh-rate storage manufacturer that’s gone on to be a third-rate professional services partner, only to get RIF’d when I started objecting to business practices…

  4. richard

    Mackem,

    No… there is nothing new in Pillar technology.

    Another effort at differentiating features which are obvious & marginal.
    Never mind the time… just look at what it cost so far.

  5. Ken

    Mackem,
    Great article! I couldn’t agree more with all of your points.
    I am in the process of installing a 20TB Axiom system right now and couldn’t be more impressed. Let me tell you about the installation process.
    Our equipment was delivered by freight on Monday morning. The truck showed up at the same time our Pillar PS engineer showed up. The two of us unpacked everything and took everything to the server room.
    After running through the inventory checklist we realized that Pillar had delivered the wrong PDUs. Engineer on the phone with corporate to have the right ones overnighted for Tuesday delivery.
    We installed the rack mounts in the rack and called it a day until Tuesday when we had the right PDUs.
    On Tuesday morning, FedEx messed up and delivered the PDUs to the wrong building. They called our receiving department and stated that they would deliver it correctly on Wednesday. The Pillar guys were right on the phone with Fedex wanting to know where the driver was so they could go out and get the package from him. The dispatcher realized that they better deliver the package the same day. It showed up at 2PM.
    After delivery the guys proceeded to rack everything up and get the system cabled. By 4:00PM, I was creating LUNs and starting to run through the test plans.

    Overall, the biggest selling points for me were pricing, professionalism, honesty, and the software licensing and support pricing models. These guys are top notch. When the CEO calls you directly and offers the company’s engineers’ time for free to help you get the right product in the door, that says a ton to me for integrity.

    I can’t say that the product line is for everyone’s needs, but you have to at least take a good look and give them a shot.

  6. mackem

    Hi Ken,

    Thanks for the great feedback. It reminds me a little of what we were talking about in the post “HDS – Big iron or little iron” (http://blogs.rupturedmonkey.com/?p=40) where we discussed how some of the smaller companies are far more nimble and you can talk to the right people when you need them. Also some times these smaller companies seem to have more committed staff……..

    Really glad to hear that you’ve had a good experience with them. Here’s hoping that the excellent level of support you receive from them continues now that the kit is installed.

    Nigel

  7. Ken

    So far the support has been excellent, even a week after the install. We’ve been having an issue with one of the cache batteries. I’ve had 3-4 people on the phone checking in to see how the issue resolution is progressing. I’ve had a few questions for clarifying some tasks and I’m getting responses from them within an hour or two.

    Granted, this is only the first week post-install, but I’ve been dealing with these guys for the past year and a half trying to get a system in place. This relationship may skew my experience from others, but I don’t feel that is the case. The staff I’ve worked with so far has been totally straight forward and no BS all the way. And having worked in this industry for over 20 years, I like to think that I have a good read of people.

    There were initially some concerns about the maturity of the system. These concerns were alleviated somewhat with the freshness of their honesty. They were point blank with me about the facts that they have some growth to accomplish and that their code may not be at 100% yet.

    They are very concerned about establishing great relations with their customers. They realize that they are edging into a market dominated by the likes of EMC, IBM, Sun, NetApp, and HDS. What they are trying to work on is making sure that they’re 100% honest with the customers and that they deliver on what they promise. These are a couple of failings that EMC has shown over the past few years. They’re all over you to make the sale, trying to sell you stuff you don’t need, promising the world, just to walk away after they get your money.

    I just hope that Pillar’s growth over time won’t end up putting them into a position where their client relations and support end up in the same playground with the other players.

    If in the end you are reviewing two companies with identical products and pricing, wouldn’t service and support be your top priority to differentiate the two?

  8. Andreas Christen

    We’ve just completed a rather detailed storage evaluation and have now chosen the Axiom for many of the reasons already discussed. During the intensive evaluation phase the Pillar guys were absolutely profesional (compared to EMC…) and the system was the best in most of our tests. It took a while to convince management to go for a smaller, absolute newcomer in Switzerland. But it was no trouble installing the Axiom next to Tagmastores. We are looking forward to the shipment in 2 weeks….

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