One of the overarching trends in IT in recent years has been the decoupling of hardware and control software, leading to ‘software-defined’ data centre infrastructure utilising commodity servers, networking and storage. The advantages, in broad terms, are lower capital and operational costs, plus higher levels of utilisation and enhanced flexibility.

A leader in the software-defined storage (SDS) sector is Nexenta, a startup founded in 2005 to exploit Sun’s open-source OpenSolaris operating system, creating Nexenta OS as the basis for a ZFS-based software-only SDS platform.

I recently met with CEO Tarkan Maner, who in August 2013 joined Nexenta from Dell — which had acquired his previous employer, Wyse (where he was president and CEO), in 2012.

“I was running all the Dell infrastructure services for cloud,” explained Maner, “and we realised that storage is a very difficult proposition for hardware companies — NetApp, EMC, Hitachi…a lot of these companies were having a hard time, and Dell was no different. At every customer we visited, we found Nexenta popping up with Dell servers as a software-defined storage platform, and our sales people kept telling us: ‘Dell should buy this company’. But the investors said ‘Tarkan, we don’t want to sell, we want to IPO — how about you join us and we’ll IPO the company together?’.”

And that, in a nutshell, remains the plan. Those investors, incidentally, include Dell, flash-memory-maker Sandisk and Maner himself.

“What we liked about Nexenta as investors,” said Maner, “was: one, it was super-disruptive in an industry hungry for disruption over the last two decades; two, it had an open-source model; and three, it was very well liked by customers, with strong IP — 35 patents as of today, to be exact.”

Nexenta currently has about 6,000 enterprise customers, of whom some 2,000 are service providers, with the remainder divided among financial services, healthcare, education, manufacturing and government agencies, among other sectors. Half of the company’s revenue is generated in the Americas, with 30 percent coming from EMEA and 20 percent from Asia Pacific. The customer base is a roughly 50-50 split between mid-market and large enterprise organisations — SME customers are catered for via service providers, which, as noted above, form an important part of Nexenta’s clientele.

The open-source aspect is very important to Nexenta, said Maner: “We have about 50,000 members of our open-source community — these are all storage administrators, mostly very technical people. Just recently we put an open-source version of one of our products on the community website — day one we had a thousand downloads. These people are very interested in Nexenta because we were the first software-defined storage solution in the industry — and in terms of revenue, customer base and capacity we’re the largest.”

On the capacity question, Maner noted that Nexenta has nearly two exabytes (2 million terabytes) of storage under production today, comparing that to Nimble Storage, which, he said, IPO’d with 400 petabytes (400,000 terabytes) in the field.

Nexenta’s portfolio

Nexenta’s core product is NexentaStor, a block- and file-based scale-up storage technology based on the open-source ZFS file system. “The file system is extended and always open-sourced,” said Maner, “but all the applications on top are IP — we keep the licence and we license the product.”

“Most open-source companies don’t license anything,” Maner continued; “they just get service and support revenue. We sell product licences on the open-source file system, we get maintenance, service and support revenue, but also on top of that we have technology to manage those systems that we sell — it’s a great model: our customers win, we win, and our ecosystem as a whole wins.”

NexentaStor was on version 3.0 when Maner joined the company in August 2013, and version 5.0 is set to be unveiled at VMworld in San Francisco at the end of August. Over the past 24 months, Nexenta has added three new products to its portfolio. NexentaEdge is a scale-out storage system based on an in-house-developed object file system called Cloud Copy On Write (CCOW). “We are the only company, today, that covers all protocols: iSCSI/Fibre Channel for block; NFS/CIFS/SMB for file; or Swift/S3 object interfaces for scale-out,” claimed Maner.

Customers appreciate this flexibility, he said: “With our software-based solution, across any disk or flash, across any protocol or cloud platform, we tell the customer: ‘You can make Nexenta what you want it to be, based on your application requirements’.”

And there’s more: “What we do on top of this, both for scale-up and scale-out, is deliver global in-line deduplication from a single namespace and data compression — 4X against anybody else’s,” said Maner.

The other two recent products are NexentaConnect and NexentaFusion: the former provides integration with different cloud platforms — “from VMware to OpenStack and everything in between,” as Maner put it, while the latter is a top-level layer that fuses block, file and object storage into a single-pane-of-glass management interface, providing predictive modelling and orchestration of provisioning operations.

Summing up Nexenta’s appeal, Maner stresses three key benefits: “One, we’re super-open; two, we’re super-agile and flexible, connected to any platform — any disk, any flash, any cloud platform on top, and to any protocol; and three, we’re super-low-cost”.

Elaborating on the cost factor, Maner notes: “Typically, legacy storage systems are about a thousand dollars per terabyte — last year, 9 billion dollars-worth of new storage was sold for 9 exabytes. Our average cost is 80-90 percent lower at list price — we have deals at $100-$250 per terabyte…our customers love this low-cost model.”

The ‘rush’ to SDS

So why, given all these advantages, isn’t every enterprise rushing to convert its data centre to Nexenta-style software-defined storage? Most customers with legacy systems are understandably cautious, said Maner: “All these new storage companies coming in, based on hardware, try to forklift the legacy people out. But customers say ‘I don’t want to forklift things out, because I cannot disrupt my business processes — but everything new, all the new workloads, I want to move to software-defined storage.”

And can data centre managers easily reuse existing storage, from legacy systems, in new software-defined solutions? “That’s not difficult at all,” said Maner; “To give an example: about two years ago a customer, GoDaddy, said to us, ‘We are a NetApp/EMC shop, we are using all legacy and we want to move because the cost is so high, but we cannot move everything because we have thousands of end users and enterprises using our system as a service provider, and we cannot have any disruption of data migration. How about we start moving some of our new workloads?’ They started using it [Nexenta’s solution], and six months later they came back and said, ‘we’re going to move more — it works, it’s so low-cost, we love it’. Today, after two years, we run 22 petabytes — almost all their storage. So people are rushing — as fast as they can.”

The SDS competition

How does Nexenta position itself against other software-defined storage players — do they all define SDS somewhat differently?

Maner answered this with an anecdote: “I was on a Citigroup keynote panel with CEOs from Tintri, Nutanix, Tegile, NetApp, Simplivity, Pure Storage…name the company, there were ten of us. We were asked to give a 30-second introduction to our companies, and I was the last guy. Every single one said: ‘We are the global leader in software-defined storage’ and I’m like ‘Oh my God — everyone’s the leader in software-defined storage!’. So it comes to me, and I ask them: ‘Can I download your software, today, from your website and put it on a Fujitsu server, a Dell server or whatever and start running my storage?’. Of course, none of them can. They are nothing different from NetApp — the only difference is their appliances are from SuperMicro or Quanta.”

As for the pure-play software companies, Maner characterised them thus: “VMware wants to sell a complete vCloud stack, and competes against Microsoft and Red Hat; Red Hat wants to sell the complete Red Hat stack and competes against Microsoft and VMware; and Microsoft wants to sell the entire Azure stack against VMware vCloud and Red Hat. Nexenta is the only pure-play software-defined storage solution on any protocol, any architecture (scale up or scale out), any server, any disk and any cloud platform. No one customer uses one stack: they use VMware here, Citrix there, Microsoft there, Amazon services for some workloads…so we give them the choice, unlike anybody else.”

The open-source-driven, software-defined enterprise

With the data universe expanding so rapidly, is there any other way to manage information other than via a hardware-agnostic, software-defined model?

“Economically it [the legacy alternative] is not feasible, it’s as simple as that,” said Maner. “Not only for storage — for compute, for networking…the entire software-defined data centre. There’s also what we call the ‘open-source-driven software-defined enterprise’ — from the data centre to end users, from the infrastructure to apps. Obviously we are a small piece of that, but a very important piece.”