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"You don't have to travel very far to encounter companies experiencing substantial storage pain," says Kieran Harty, founder and chief technology officer of storage start-up Tintri. "In the last year or so," he continues, "we've found those companies to be increasingly receptive to the idea of investing in new technologies to cure that pain."
That's good news for Tintri - but it's good news, too, for its two main competitors, both of which are also young, ambitious companies based in California's Bay Area: Tegile Systems and Nimble Storage.
All three are in the business of selling hybrid storage appliances that combine spinning disks with solid state drives (SSDs) and all three argue that this hybrid approach enables customers to take best advantage of the massive, low-cost capacity offered by hard disk drives and the performance benefits of faster, but more expensive SSDs. It’s a good selling point because, right now, very few CIOs have been persuaded to splash out on an all-Flash approach, and when they have, they're applying it only to very specific high-performance workloads.
Tintri’s main difference from Tegile or Nimble, Harty claims, is its focus on virtual environments. That line is somewhat debatable: both rivals also play up their suitability in for virtualised environments, too, "but they only do that because that's the way the market's moving, that's what customers want," Harty argues.
What can't be dismissed is Harty's own pedigree in virtualisation: prior to founding Tintri, he was executive vice president of engineering at VMware, where he worked between 1999 and 2006, leading R&D during the company’s stellar early years.
"I founded Tintri expressly to develop products that I knew from my own experience were needed by companies that had virtualised their server environments," he says. Their biggest pinpoints, he adds, are that, post-virtualisation, “they spend too much money on storage; and they find it too complex to manage."
In fact, around 60 percent to 70 percent of virtualisation budgets are spent on storage, he claims. And while many IT teams attempt to re-purpose legacy storage systems for the newly virtualised environment, general-purpose storage simply doesn't fit the bill. What's needed, according to Harty, are specialised storage appliances, accompanied by smart software, that enable IT administrators to manage data storage not at the LUN [logical unit number] or volume level, but at the virtual machine (VM) level.
That means that they can manage storage from a specific, virtualised application - Oracle Financials, for example, or Microsoft Exchange - that previously would have needed to run on a standalone system with legacy direct-attached or SAN [storage area network]. It also gives them better, application-specific control over what data is stored where and how often it’s backed up, for example. Overall, says Harty, "the customer benefit [from using Tintri] is up to ten times savings on capex-based storage cost per workload and up to sixty times reductions in opex-based management costs.”
Those are big claims, but since the first Tintri VMstore appliance was brought to market in 2011, the company has accrued over 250 corporate customers and attracted around $60 million in venture capital funding.
Those who lump Tintri in with Tegile and Nimble, in a 'hybrid storage' category, miss the point in any case, Harty seems to argue. "We're using hybrid today and that's an economic decision: it won't be economically feasible to use all-flash for anything but the most high-end workloads in the next few years, but our architecture is designed so that we can support all-flash in the future," he says. "In any case, it's not really about the hardware, or the kind of disks you use, it's about the software and, more fundamentally, the software's ability to tackle the pain points of cost and management complexity."
And in Tintri's case, it's that software element that provides end-to-end performance monitoring in a virtualised environment, enabling administrators to pinpoint bottlenecks and troubleshoot storage issues. "In our environment, everything takes place on the VM level, so you can see statistics associated with the VM, take snapshots of the VM, replicate at the individual VM level," he says. By contrast, approaches that continue to manage storage by LUNs or volumes are simply not as successful at getting the most out of storage and, in particular, supporting an optimum number of individual VMs from the same appliance.
Still, Tintri faces stiff competition from Tegile and Nimble and none of these companies, either way, have taken much ground yet from the big storage incumbents, NetApp and EMC. Individually, their market shares are pretty miniscule right now, but if anything, Nimble Storage edged slightly ahead of the pack with its successful IPO in mid-December 2013.
The hybrid-storage race is far from over, however. Tintri's principal challenge in 2014 will be to scale its business, which will require it to partner more quickly and more widely with resellers than it has done to date, as well as ramp up its own direct sales efforts. Harty says his company's "targeting an IPO" itself and has just brought in software industry veteran Ken Klein as CEO. Around 40 percent of its 250-plus customers have opted for repeat business with Tintri, buying additional systems. Now that its Tintri Global Center technology - basically comprising clustered Tintri VMstore appliances - can host up to 64,000 VMs, he feels the company's ready to make a play for very large enterprise customers.
"Our the product line-up is pretty much there - our goal now is to grow," he says. It's an expensive market to be in, he says, even if the value of these products lies primarily in high-margin software rather than low-margin hardware - and that's because of sheer number of storage start-ups jockeying for customer attention. "The expense lies in sales and marketing - press coverage, lead generation, seminars and so on. That stuff, you have to pay for. You have to pay to get noticed."