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March 13, 2009updated 19 Aug 2016 10:06am

What’s the deal with clustered storage?

Sujal Patel is founder and CEO of clustered storage vendor Isilon Systems, which is back under his leadership after some accounting irregularities were uncovered by a self-imposed financial audit back in 2007. I caught up with him in London last

By Jason Stamper Blog

Sujal Patel is founder and CEO of clustered storage vendor Isilon Systems, which is back under his leadership after some accounting irregularities were uncovered by a self-imposed financial audit back in 2007. I caught up with him in London last month to get the latest on that turnaround and why he believes clustered storage is the future…[click continue reading for more]…

Q. You were CEO from the founding of Isilon until August 2003, then served as chief technology officer. You took the reins again in October 2007 when the irregularities were uncovered: what led to that decision?

A. Isilon grew well in 2007 but I believe it can and should have grown even faster than that [it grew by 28.6% in 2008, just announced]. I took the CEO role again in October 2007 to focus on top line growth and build market share. We needed to dramatically improve revenue recognition, systems, processes and even people.

sujal patel.jpg

Sujal Patel: founder and CEO of Isilon Systems.

Q. The board shuffled management quite a bit?

A. As well as me becoming CEO again, I hired a new senior vice president of engineering, new vice president of operations, and a new CFO. That whole process is now completely behind us – that chapter is over – and I’m excited by our prospects.

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We’re just over the $100m run-rate now [fiscal 2008 saw revenue of $114.4m]. I believe we have the opportunity to be a significant player in the space: if I look five years out I think there is the opportunity to get to $1bn run-rate.

Q. Your closest competitors are probably EMC and Network Appliance. What do you see as your differentiators from them?

A. We most commonly run into NetApp. A lot of environments are now about storing unstructured data, and NetApp is not as suited to unstructured data. The key problem with rival storage architectures is that they are very monolithic: they are servers with lots of disk. You access the data via the server, and you scale by adding systems.

Our clustered storage approach, which we call scale-out NAS [network attached storage] can scale to 100x the size of NetApp and up to 20x faster than NetApp. But many of our customers have EMC, or NetApp or something else as well – they are using us for their unstructured storage needs.

Q. Tell us a bit more about how your approach works: I know more of your customers use the technology for high throughput, online storage access if you like, rather than backup?

A. It mirrors server clustering really: it’s about inexpensive nodes on a fast network. We have 2U rack-mountable nodes, and on a fast network you can have 3 to 96 nodes in a single cluster. Access to the data is then distributed evenly across the nodes, using Infiniband to connect between them. Customers are using this to store their unstructured data files, because it grows faster and less predictably than block-based data, but it still requires high throughput.

Q. Let’s talk ‘feeds and speeds’ then – what sort of numbers are we talking about?

A. We can scale to over 2.3 petabytes and 20GB per second throughput. But one of the key metrics in this environment is that once racked, a 10, 50 or 100-plus terabyte cluster takes less than 10 minutes to configure and set up, and additional capacity can be added in under a minute with no downtime.

Q. You went public in December 2006, with one of the hottest IPOs of that year, raising $108m and being valued at that time at $1.4bn. Your market cap has fallen pretty dramatically since then…

A. The stock market has a very short memory, and I’m not focused on market capitalisation but growing the business. I think if you look, the whole technology market has fallen, and valuations today are very different than they were when we IPO’d.

Q. We’ve seen a fair few companies that are making under $200m in sales be bought in trade sales or taken private again, because the cost of compliance with the SEC, Sarbanes and so on is too much of a drain on companies if they are relatively small. Can Isilon survive being public?

A. I certainly believe so. It’s certainly true that if you make $100m and you are growing at 8% a year you are not going to have a very good time. But I believe that with our growth rate, we can make it work. And of course going public gave us not just visibility but significant cash to grow the business [it still had $77.8m in cash and equivalents at December 31].

Q. How important will acquisitions be to your strategy?

A. I think for the next two to three years you will see us concentrate on organic growth, because we have a head-start on the market from a technology standpoint. When we start to get closer to $500m run-rate then we will look at whether organic growth alone can take us to the $1bn mark.

Related blogs on Isilon:

Law Blog –

HPCwire: Current HPC Storage Challenges –

Tech stories – TechChuck –

All News –

Online Storage Optimization –

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