Tired of developing storage management tools for some zettabyte factory? If so, two former IT professionals know how you feel. However, Chris Hickman and Steve Anderson - both veterans of Microsoft's MSN - parlayed their knowledge of load balancing to raise an initial $7 million in venture capital in 1999, and to set up Viathanin Seattle, Washington. This startup solves one key problem faced by many e-services - how to allocate Web database storage dynamically.
The duo joined MSN when it was a proprietary service with about a million users. Anderson, Viathan's CEO, says, "We were working on scaling initiatives for what we thought were a lot of users. Microsoft then opened the floodgates and we had our work cut out for us." Once opened to the Web, MSN jumped to four million users within a few months. The Hotmail acquisition took MSN to 20 million users. Anderson says that "very few companies had seen this type of scaling."
Anderson says that scaling at the applications server layer was easy to do. However, scaling broke at the backend SQLServer database layer. The two wore their fingers off writing code to get backend databases to accommodate armies of new users and to keep track of new information about each user. They also got tired of being available around the clock to wake up servers that took a siesta.
Together they found that e-commerce relational databases yield two types of information - catalog information, which grows statically; and user information, which grows exponentially. Anderson says, "Amazon.com may add 200 new titles to its book catalog daily, but add 5,000 new users each day, along with information about current users. The database has to keep track of each user's purchases, shopping cart history, and pages clicked on." Storage management tools can't handle the massive scaling required by this type of Web data, Anderson says.
The duo built its Viathan load balancing software for Web sites, such as Hotmail, and e-storage services that maintain user information in backend SQLServer databases. Chris Hickman, Viathan's chief technology officer, says, "With our software, you don't have to set aside space. You can scale adaptively."
The Viathan software virtualizes backend databases across a cluster of thin Windows NT servers. The software handles all of the partitioning, clustering, replication, and fault tolerance for the entire system. Hickman says, "In just a few minutes, you can increase your storage capacity by adding servers to the mix. If a server goes down, it will be automatically taken out of rotation without the system administrator needing to be called. At MSN, these load balancing functions would have taken us a couple of days."
Steve Duplessie, a senior analyst for the Enterprise Storage Group in Milford, Massachusetts, says, "Viathan's technology represents one of the most compelling and unique approaches to storage virtualization to date."
In September 2000, Viathan rasised a second round on venture funding with Softbank Venture Capital kicking in $17 million. In February 2001, the Washington (State) Software Alliance gave Viathan the "Most Promising New Company" award.
Necessity definitely became the mother of storage management invention for these Viathan boys. Anderson says that many storage management issues for the Web have yet to be solved. "IT professionals shouldn't hold back their entrepreneurial ambitions, especially if their storage management tools can satisfy a universal customer need."
Elizabeth M. Ferrarini is a freelance author based in Arlington, Mass. Your Invited to reach this opinionated writer at email@example.com