Enterprise

Taking the Pain Out of Virtual Computing


The story of virtualization software has been a high-tech fairy tale. Once upon a time, corporate-tech users had to buy a server for every application they used. Human resources systems, general-ledger programs, sales and marketing software—all needed their own individual machines. Then along came an extremely geeky but important innovation called virtualization technology, much of it built by the software maker VMware (VMW), that let companies cram pretty much whatever they wanted onto their servers. Businesses saved money by purchasing less data-center hardware, and VMware turned into a giant valued at $32 billion.

All is well in the world, right? Not quite, according to Kieran Harty, who helped develop VMware's technology. The problem is that virtualization has progressed faster than the storage devices needed to hold data. In the old days, each server would have its own storage system, just as a PC has its own hard disk. Now dozens of virtual servers have to fight for access to that storage. "It's an archaic model," says Harty. "Storage companies designed their systems before virtual servers even existed." Further complicating matters is the worldwide deluge of data: Companies are creating more information than ever.

All of this leads to a computational mess that bogs the whole system down, often enough to cause companies to give up on virtualization. Combating this slowdown—known in the enterprise tech industry as "the VM stall"—has turned into an industry obsession. There's been plenty of interest in storage; Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Dell (DELL), EMC (EMC), and Network Appliance (NTAP) have spent the past two years in bidding wars over smaller companies in the business. Lately a host of startups has emerged, all trying to break through the VM stall with supercharged hardware.

The newest player is Tintri, a three-year-old Mountain View (Calif.) startup that's starting to talk publicly about its technology. Its founder and chief executive officer is Harty, who left VMware in 2006. ("Tintri" is Gaelic for lighting. Harty's from Ireland.) He and his team have come up with a device the size of a small suitcase that works like a giant USB thumb drive for data centers—it's a fast, relatively cheap way for companies to manage virtual servers. The system combines flash memory, standard hard drives, and sophisticated compression technology to perform data triage. The most in-demand information goes on the high-speed flash memory, the rest to slower hard drives. The segregation cuts down on data traffic jams during busy times. All told, a $65,000 Tintri system can do the work of $350,000 worth of standard systems, according to Harty.

Early reports from customers are positive. Don St. Onge, chief information officer at business software maker Tibco (TIBX), has been testing a Tintri system to run some Oracle (ORCL) business applications on virtual servers. Tibco found it could process a huge database twice as fast and with about one-fifth the storage capacity as before. "If we can keep doing that, I won't be buying nearly as much storage," St. Onge says. North West Group, a company that produces Google Earth-like satellite imagery and tailors it for specific industries such as oil and gas, got similar results. It stores large images in a database and feeds them to customers via the Internet. The Tintri devices reduced download times by about 80 percent, to a third of a second. "This stuff screams," says John Welter, North West's vice-president for technology.

Of Trinti's 35 employees, seven have PhDs, including the CEO. Despite that pedigree and a pile of patents, Tintri will face growing competition in helping customers defeat the VM stall. As Tibco's St. Onge says, "There's a lot of small guys doing impressive things right now."

The bottom line: A new kind of technology may help companies handle complex "virtualization" software and cut their spending on storage systems.

Vance_190
Vance is a technology writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in Palo Alto, Calif. Follow him on Twitter @valleyhack.

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