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September 1, 2010

On Par for 2 Billion: 3PAR Discusses Cloud Strategy

Nicole Hemsoth

Back in April when Forbes Magazine released its list of the top 25 tech companies on the swift upward climb, the editors noted that “Cloud computing, off-site data storage, on-demand application delivery, data protection and optimization are all taking importance for companies looking for efficiencies in their information technology systems.” Accordingly, wedged alongside Riverbed and Compellant Technologies in the number four position was 3PAR, a Fremont, California-based storage vendor that has recently made headline news in the mainstream media—and major waves in tech circles following an intense bidding war between HP and Dell that rages on and has stopped at the $2 billion mark.

The core of 3PAR’s business is aimed at the very large-scale and their ability to scale even larger without tremendous investment in new datacenters. The beauty of the model, at least to the big name companies that have used 3PAR to handle these needs, is that they can have just as much storage as they need with rapid scalability and pay for what they use. When it comes to investing up-front capital into alternatives such as those offered by EMC or NetApp, the benefits are clear as well.

3PAR’s “Consistent Cloud Strategy”

Having a chance to discuss the trajectory of 3PAR with someone from the inside was rather limited given legal constraints but it was useful to gain some insight into the cloud strategy of the company, which makes it rather easy to draw some conclusions about why the company would have been so attractive to both Dell and HP if you’re so inclined, although there are already about a thousand blogs on the subject, most of which see clear value in the company but are slightly taken aback not only by the price of the bidding saga but the ferocity with which it was fought.

What’s been difficult to get a handle on is where 3PAR sees itself in the space, both in the historical sense up until now, where they are still making major inroads, including with VMware and Nissho Electronics, both of which were news items this week on top of the bidding bevy.

Interestingly, according to 3PAR’s VP of Marketing in a phone interview with HPC in the Cloud, the company’s cloud strategy hasn’t changed much at all since the company was founded in 1999. Nunes stated, “We’ve had product in the marketplace since late 2002 so we’ve been maturing this utility storage—which is really storage built for internal and external service providers; what the market now calls the public or private cloud—we’ve been building that platform since we were founded in 1999 and we introduced product in 2002.

While the basic cloud strategy has been the same at its core, despite changes in the names of their various products, Nunes notes that there have been some major shifts in IT in general that led to their growing dominance in the market (and might explain, at least in terms of conjecture here, why they were perfect fits with HP or Dell’s currently mysterious cloud strategies.

In Nunes’ view there are two trends that have converged to bring 3PAR to its current position in the cloud ecosystem, and while he was certainly unable to discuss any specifics about the acquisition, his answer does shed some light on the meshing of technologies and IT trends—all of which presented some wide open doors for a company that found a way to make large-scale enterprises and cloud providers themselves take heed.

The reason we have the customer base we do today and the interest in our platform now is due to two major tectonic shifts. First, people running datacenters have figured out that they don’t need the physical dedicated infrastructure for applications; they can virtualize and share that and more flexible infrastructure by doing so; this is the whole move to the virtual datacenter.

The second shift is the move to IT as a Service; companies have been able to provide economic advantage to allow them to avoid investing in their datacenters, but investing in IT by the sip on a monthly basis based on needs.

Those two trends, with the latter enhancing and stimulating the former, is the impetus for really a whole new set of infrastructure. We see the interest and desire to deploy things like VMware on the server side and that same interest on the storage side in terms of highly virtualized storage platforms which bring a lot of the same benefits like efficiency and flexibility.

Core Competitive Elements of 3PAR

During the phone conversation, I hinted that there are companies who are doing some of the same things that 3PAR is doing, which definitely added some fuel to the conversation. While it may be true that there are really no other storage vendors operating on 3PAR’s same core set of systematic offerings for customers, what they’ve done to revolutionize the storage space in the age of virtualization is starting to garner some considerable attention and momentum.

The category of virtualized storage is smaller than the market has to offer today and the list gets rather short when you start thinking about virtualized storage arrays. Think about a lot of the arrays now like the Clarian, the NetApp array, the HP array—all of those traditional dual controller arrays, they’ve been around since the 90s and were built for that dedicated Unix or Windows Server world and now they’re trying to be repurposed in this virtualized datacenter but they really don’t bring the attributes that people are looking for in terms of virtualization and efficiency.

So the list is pretty short in terms of newer-generation virtualized array architectures and 3PAR is the only game in town in terms of a virtualized storage array that stretches from the mid-range to the high-end. The high-end of our product line runs stock exchanges and banks and there are really no alternatives for virtualized storage outside of 3PAR in that regard. The same software, the same UI from top to bottom—we’ve done a good job of scaling our product offering to Tier 1 to Tier 2 and so on.

Nunes spent some time detailing how 3PAR is a lone wolf in the market and while it’s tempting to temper the marketing speak that’s inevitable when you ask any company what makes their own better than any competitor, it is apparent that 3PAR does have a unique angle.

Broadly speaking, there are three aspects to our product line that have made us standalone in the industry.

First, around efficiency, (and a marquee product there is thin provisioning) there are loads of what we call thin technologies around copy and integration with things like Oracle and VMware and Symantec that in effect allow you to store more data on less disk than other platforms. That’s something we’ve been recognized for many years running.

Secondly, block storage has traditionally been really hard to manage. You’ve needed smart, separate, well-trained people for every kind of product because they’ve all been different. What we’ve done to block storage is to simplify it and make it what we call autonomic—think of it as a lot of mundane administrative tasks happen in the array without the administrator being involved, which means that as an administrator I spend  90% less time managing storage with a 3PAR array than with another. Our leadership in that area is the reason why many of our customers are with us today.

The third area in terms of our leadership is in the area of multitenancy—supporting loads of different users on a single platform cost effectively. We can grow; it’s a clustered architecture so we can start small and grow organically as we deploy more and more and it’s an innovative architecture that brings great cost structure. For those who started with a small mid-range array and then had to buy a second, third, twentieth, etc.—the operational cost of that scaling that kind of infrastructure crushes them. Our multitenant architecture allows them to grow into the array, not out of it and that’s a special capability that we get a lot of preference for.

It’s efficiency, simplicity and multitenancy where we shine.

The Thin Provisioning Parallel

One of the standout aspects of 3PAR’s business and its long-running mode of attracting customers comes via the art of thin provisioning, a technology that the company pioneered. According to Ted Samson, “Thin provisioning offers a means of essentially pooling all of your various storage resources such that space can be easily allocated to servers on the fly, and just as much as needed. Coupled with storage virtualization, it can help organizations not only get a better handle on storage management but boost storage utilization.” Sampson goes on to note that for many, “storage resources tend to be grossly underutilized” which is wasteful and expensive. Convincing customers of the value of switching to a more efficient platform to eliminate such waste has been a key to the company’s growth, particularly over the last two or three years as big data has increasingly gone virtual.

Of thin provisioning, Nunes stated:

You use the same amount of physical disk capacity but support three or four times the amount of data than you would have so you can, in effect, shrink your storage infrastructure in half or more and you’ll get the same job done for your users and, at the same time, for external service providers, for them to drive revenue is basically as fast as one can move the infrastructure—get it up and moving for the customer so they can get paid. As soon as you can fire up your infrastructure, the sooner you get paid. Now instead of weeks or months for some sophisticated deployments, it’s now hours or minutes. Now there’s a huge return for service providers having the right kind of equipment set in their datacenters.

We talk about these ideas of efficiency and agility being key aspects for these service providers building out these new datacenters and you can measure that at every stage.  

If there is an element of the 3PAR story and product line that seems to fit well with the as-of-yet crystal clear cloud ambitions of Dell or HP, it seems to lie in this concept. While Nunes was unable to discuss how this might or might not be the case, it is at the core of most arguments about the rationale behind the sky-high bidding price for the company.

The Future of 3PAR’s Technologies

Admittedly, by the time you read this article there will be an announcement about who will be the official storage-sugardaddy for the cloud age, but if we step back for a moment it’s possible to see the wider trend that’s emerging in the world of virtualization and storage. When a company that is able to spin up and refine a solid, proven technology that streamlines work and cash flow for large enterprises and providers alike it proves to be an enormous asset—so much so that it’s possible to make tech giants dig deep to pull out enough for a company that until relatively recently, was on the map but perhaps not the radar, at least not from the height Dell and HP look down from. No matter what kind of ending this story has, the tale is just beginning for storage virtualization companies eager to jump into any space 3PAR might vacate—although if 3PAR continues making inroads, they will continue to be a hot force to blow past.

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