Two years ago Acopia had emerged into the open with a single product, five customers and one office. You have got to start small if you want to grow big and Acopia, from that acorn-like beginning, is turning into a whole wood of oak trees.

The product is a virtualising NAS appliance or switch, that sits in-band between servers needing to access files from a group of heterogeneous network-attached storage (NAS) products and the NAS boxes themselves. The servers see a single NAS namespace. The NAS boxes see a single NFS or CIFS client.

Customers and sales pitch over-view
Customers now include Merrill Lynch, Bear Sterns and Goldman Sachs in the finance area, Time Warner and Yahoo in the media area, and Toshiba and Raytheon in high-tech manufacturing. The sales pitch is straightforward. Find a business with a heterogeneous NAS environment. Find out if the demand for NAS services is growing and if management of the NAS products is becoming onerous - it generally is.

Ask if the business would prefer its NAS products to be managed more easily, to have their capacity growth reduced and to remain free of NAS supplier lock-in - the answer is generally yes. Ask them if they could use a product to do this, an appliance, which sits on the LAN, uses no software agents in the servers, doesn't affect the NAS software at all, can load-balance between the NAS products, can grow to huge capacity, and has high-availability features as well as replication for business continuity purposes. The replication could be from tier one-class NAS arrays to tier two and take place locally or remotely.

The answer is generally: "How much?" and the customer sales contact is the CIO. It is a focused selling approach to a single individual.

Acopia ARX products only require a fraction of a Sysadm's time to manage and are not management-intensive.

Products and components
Acopia now has a 3-model range: The ARX 6000 is a 24-port chassis switch costing around $100,000-125,000; the ARX 1000 is a 2U, 6-port fixed configuration rack unit costing around $50,000. The ARX 500 is a 1U, 2-port system priced around $25,000.

The products work by having all NAS requests routed through them in-band. They map the file requests to individual NAS boxes which then serve the files. Acopia CEO and president Christopher Lynch says that Acopia's appliances use purpose-built hardware and are "not PC appliances with software." This delivers wire-speed performance. The design has separate data and control planes. The CPU is driven by a Linux-based real-time operating system. Acopia appliance latency is in the micro-seconds range whereas NAS disk read speed is at the millisecond level. Essentially the Acopia appliances are invisible as far as latency is concerned.

The hardware is hot because Acopia's CTO is Rick Gillett. He is ex-Digital Equipment Corporation and holds patents for VAXclusters and DEC's Alpha processor. Think of the ARX products as NAS virtualising hot-rods.

The products drive up NAS disk utilisation from around 30 percent to 80 percent or so. Lynch says: "We sit in front of NetApp and EMC and make them more efficient." If a customer gets more than 2X improvement in NAS disk utilisation then not so many and not so big NAS boxes are needed.

Competition
What happens if NetApp produces its own virtualising NAS function, as ONTAP GX will deliver? Lynch says: "It will only virtualise NetApp NAS and only do NFS. We sit in front of it and virtualise the virtualiser. We also do both CIFS and NFS." Customers with an Acopia product don't need to buy any additional software or hardware product from NetApp.

Acopia makes the point that its products don't use a risky new file system like the Isilon and PolyServe NAS virtualisation and acceleration products.

Growth
Acopia is expanding strongly. It has a sales function in the UK with eight pairs of sales representatives and system engineers. There is an office in Germany and a regional director for EMEA, Philip Turner. He should break the $2million revenue a quarter figure soon. Europe is set to deliver 25 to 30 percent of Acopia's global revenues. Lynch says Acopia is on target to have thirty sales offices world-wide by the end of the year.

Acopia recently closed a $20 million funding round which is paying for the office expansion. An IPO is expected in 2007.

IP SAN
Having an intelligent controller sit in front of NAS boxes and virtualise them is analogous to HDS and Sun's approach to virtualising SANs; have an intelligent controller sit between the SAN drive arrays and the network. Unlike the SAN world where each manufacturer's drive array has to be certified supported because of unique and proprietary interfaces, virtualising NAS boxes is relatively easy. The Acopia appliance is just a standard NFS or CIFS client to them and the interface is absolutely standard and well understood. In effect, any manufacturer's NAS product can be virtualised by Acopia, simply because it is a NAS box and has a NAS interface; QED.

The company is taking advantage of having a very intelligent and high-performance design to add iSCSI, 'just another protocol', to the existing NFS and CIFS support. It means the ARX could serve blocks from an IP SAN, just like EqualLogic and Left-Hand Networks. Lynch says: "We have definite plans to produce a product, probably shipping in the fall. In fact, it's already built."

It will be delivered by a partner with market presence, according to Lynch: "One called by a 3-letter acronym and it's not EMC." Well ... HDS doesn't generally OEM or resell other suppliers' products. IBM has three letters; so does Sun but 'Sun' isn't an acronym.

It looks as if Acopia is building up a steadily increasing market momentum. It has a controlled product set, a focused product development strategy and impressive, blue-chip customers. If their sales people knock on your door, give them some air time.