Isilon Systems has made a name for itself as a pioneer in the field of clustered storage systems. Now, the company feels that 2008 will be the year when unstructured data becomes a pressing issue for most enterprises.

But what exactly is unstructured data? Well, according to Jeff Alsford, technical director at Isilon, traditional storage was designed for transactional, well understood blocks of data. "That is not what we do," said Alsford. "We do unstructured data, which is rich content like photos, Mp3s, and even seismic images like cancer or DNA research. That is very different to data like Word files, databases, email etc."

He cites IDC figures, saying that unstructured data represents 60 percent of newly created content, and it is doubling every year.

Techworld talked to Isilon's founder and CEO, Sujal Patel, to find out more about unstructured data and how he realised its potential all those years ago.

How it all began

"Isilon was founded in 2001 on the premise of unstructured data was going to grow at a very rapid rate and that traditional storage architectures would not keep up," said Patel.

Patel and several of his colleagues used to work at Real Networks from 1996. "We saw that customers couldn't keep up with the storage required," he told Techworld.

"We realised that initially it would be mostly media, post production, special effects companies etc that would buy into unstructured data, but in ten years time we knew it was going to spread to most of the enterprise. This year has been the crossover year for unstructured data."

Isilon began by selling into the digital content, media, film, entertainment, and then web industries, and then expanded from there into life sciences, engineering, and to the enterprise space in general.

Geographic reach

Outside the US, Isilon's next largest markets are Asia (Japan, South Korea etc) and Europe. "Unusually, we expanded first to Japan, which had a year head start over Europe, but Europe is catching up quickly," said Patel.

The UK is Isilon's largest European market, followed by France. This is because media and special effects are bigger in the UK than in France. In France, Isilon says that demand has been driven by web 2.0 demand such as Daily Motion. In Germany, demand is more driven by research.

The financial picture

"In the five years of selling products, we have transformed the company from zero sales, into a company with a $100 million run rate, $80 million in cash, and no debt," explained Patel.

"We are concentrating on innovating rapidly, and becoming a thought leader in our sector. To this end, we are investing heavily to increase our footprint in the unstructured segment," he said. "We will continue to expand, and OK we are not profitable at the moment, but our main focus is on growth and not profitability. After all, we have $80 million in the bank."

Patel feels that Isilon occupies a sweet spot in the storage industry. "Right now, all vendors are looking at clustering, but for them it is a major problem. HP, EMC etc all have got plans in this area."

"As a company focused on building a sustainable business, we are looking at unique and large opportunities to create a rival storage player that is sizable and focused on our piece of the storage industry."

"This is our crossover year," he states, as Isilon looks to move from its traditional heartland in the entertainment, life sciences, and engineering heartlands, into the more mainstream enterprise market.

Patel acknowledges the danger of his company being acquired by a larger storage player, but points out that this is not his aim. His focus, he claims, is to continue creating a specialist company that excels in its segment.

To this end, in the first quarter, Isilon spent $5m on R&D, up from Q4 and Q3. "We will continue this trend going forward," said Patel. "And we won't comment on acquisition approaches."

Product Roadmap

We are currently undergoing a platform refresh, hence the launch of the Isilon IQ X-Series platform, earlier this year, a clustered storage system that can scale to greater than 1.6 Petabytes of capacity and provide performance of 10 Gbit/s in a single file system and single volume.

"We will continue this platform refresh going forward and will also concentrate on the performance side," said Patel. "We will add a new level to NAS, and will push ourselves much closer to the SAN world. On the software side, we will focus on software to better manage data."

"We also offer a suite of replication tools," he added. "Uptake in the enterprise has been very good, mostly with new customers."

"Four or five years ago, it was different because a lot of customers didn’t know what clustered storage was," said Patel. "It is much easier now, and almost everyone knows what clustered storage is, as almost every enterprise is dealing with unstructured data causing storage problems."

"They know our name now," he added. "Traditional vendors like EMC and NetApps just do not have the applications."

"As a business, we have a market in front of us that is worth billions of dollars," he said. "We only need to capture a small part of that. In the media market, Isilon has become the defacto storage standard. Enterprise penetration has picked up dramatically in the past three quarters."

Isilon does not sell directly, but rather uses partners. In the UK, it has ten to 12 active partners such as S3, Dell HPC, and Integralis. In France and Germany, partners include Bull and T-Systems.

More product announcements are expected in September this year.