As Paris Hilton might say (well, if she were a systems administrator or enterprise storage expert), file virtualization is totally hot. Earlier this month, Acopia was snapped up by F5, becoming just the latest file virtualization company to be acquired by a bigger storage player. Indeed, with the acquisition of Rainfinity by EMC, NeoPath by Cisco and NuView by Brocade, only Attune Systems, a relatively new player in the file virtualization space, remains independent.
Does being the last file virtualization player left standing bother Attune or its growing list of customers? Not at all, said Attune's vice president of marketing, Daniel Liddle, a veteran of NeoPath. In fact, both analysts and customers, particularly Windows shops, like Attune's approach to managing unstructured data. But with EMC, Brocade, Cisco and others vying to be number one in the file virtualization space, can Attune continue to attract new customers and survive?
Making Sense of Unstructured Data
Arun Taneja, founder and consulting analyst at The Taneja Group, said file virtualization is in vogue right now because of the explosive, unmanaged growth of unstructured data that is, data not contained in a database, such as e-mails, Word files and audio and video files. And enterprises are desperate to get a handle on this data without having to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in hundreds or thousands of NAS boxes or petabytes of disk-based storage. So until the growth of unstructured data slows, which isn't likely any time soon, there is room for multiple players.
"Data is being created willy-nilly everywhere, so managing and harnessing that data has become practically impossible with existing technology," explained Taneja. "That's why file virtualization is a crucial technology. File virtualization hides all of your physical devices by putting a layer on top of them and essentially providing a logical view of those NAS boxes to the outside world. So you effectively make the management of your NAS boxes significantly easier."
"The reason that we're here is that the demand for storage continues to increase beyond what can effectively be managed in an efficient fashion by systems administrators," said Liddle. "There's a big gap between what systems administrators can manage and the amount of data they're having to manage and that gap is widening and getting worse."
Will Do Windows
What makes Attune different from other players in the file virtualization space is that its Maestro File Manager is based on the Windows platform and manages unstructured data in the Common Internet File System (CIFS) format, the data format used by Microsoft Windows and by the majority of enterprises in the small-to-mid-sized business market, the market Attune is targeting. Most of (if not all) the other file virtualization companies (Liddle cites Acopia and NeoPath) are Linux- or Unix-based and are focused on managing unstructured data in the Network File System (NFS) protocol. So for Windows-based SMBs looking for a file virtualization solution, Attune offers many advantages, including being Microsoft's only sanctioned file virtualization partner.
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For Massachusetts-based Granite Telecommunications, a leading wholesaler of telephone, broadband and inside wire services to Fortune 100 and other companies, Attune was its only choice when it came to picking a file virtualization solution.
To other systems administrators out there dealing with vast amounts of unmanaged, unstructured data, Granite's story will sound all too familiar. When systems administrator Brian McStowe came to Granite, he inherited a network "that had unstructured data all over the place. We didn't know what was up," he said. "I knew we had duplicate files. I knew that we had unused disk space all over the place." And he knew he couldn't keep buying more disk storage.
In fact, in early 2007, Granite acquired more than 20 TB of raw storage area network (SAN) capacity spread among 11 Dot Hill SANnet systems and an Engenio LSI storage array and blew right through it in about six months. The system was supposed to address Granite's storage needs for three years.
As McStowe and his team saw it, they had two options: acquire more storage space, "which would have been pretty tough to get approved by upper management," or do some type of file virtualization. So when a sales engineer/rep from Attune whom McStowe knew contacted him about Maestro File Manager, Attune System's NAS virtualization appliance, McStowe was all ears. "The timing was perfect," he said. "We were on the market for it, and he was selling it. He came in, gave us a demo, we loved it and worked out a deal."
What really attracted McStowe to Maestro File Manager was the device's reporting capabilities. "Basically, you put it on your network and let it collect data for X amount of time, say two weeks," explained McStowe. "And it will go and find every file on your network. It will locate duplicate files. It even gives you suggestions about how you can free up data."
Granite deployed its Attune device in June and it was "surprisingly easy," said McStowe. "It didn't interfere at all [with Granite's existing systems or network], which was a concern for us, because basically it will go out and scout your entire network, and we couldn't afford to have any sluggishness. But it never made a blip on our radar screen."
Buying Time, Saving Storage
What's made McStowe and his team even happier is that in deploying the Attune solution, they've bought themselves more time before they have to think about adding more disk space. "I'd say we're probably good for a year," said McStowe. "We had a lot of unused, untapped resources on our network, in terms of volumes on servers that were untouched or different partitions that weren't being used. This thing found us a lot of data that we can now go ahead and use."
And thanks to the Maestro File Manager, Granite is going to be able to tier its data to further reduce costs. "The Attune system will take our older, less accessed files and put them on lesser storage and free up the more expensive Fibre storage for more current data," said McStowe. "It's fantastic."
So will Attune survive on its own? Or will it be acquired by someone else? "I think Attune is positioned extremely well right now," said Taneja, who believes the company made a wise decision by going the Microsoft Windows/CIFS route. And, he added, he would not be at all surprised if someone comes in and snaps them up.