Storage service providers are treating stored data as highly transactional

When George Gilder, who has become something of a Nostradamus to the technology industry, declared “The End of Storage” in a recent issue of his newsletter, IT managers may have raised an eyebrow. In reality, what is ending is the way storage has been perceived and managed to date.

Before the Internet, companies regarded storage as an operation in which large disk farms stood ready to relay requested information. As storage requirements grew, corporations began implementing separate storage-area networks (SANs), which manage storage as a unit and can be easily attached to the Internet. But SANs are still contained and managed within the corporation at great expense, largely due to the cost of finding, hiring and retaining skilled IT workers.

Now a group of startups called storage service providers (SSPs) is taking a new approach to storage. These companies treat storage as a utility much like electrical or telephone services. They offer exactly what SANs offer, but the network infrastructure and storage are managed by the SSP, not an internal IT staff.

Start-ups such as StorageNetworks, StorageWay, Centripetal, WorldStor, Intira, Vixel, 3Pardata and Desana Systems (the latter four firms are Mayfield Fund investments) are testing concepts related to providing storage as a service. Storage utility services are being provided through centralized SANs at collocation facilities interconnected with direct Internet backbones. Architectures based on EMC Fibre Channel and network-attached storage systems, a fabric of Brocade switches, and back-up, restore and file system replication software from Veritas or Legato (a Mayfield investment) are also being deployed.

All of these companies treat stored data as highly transactional rather than archival. This approach fits the Internet world, where stored data is continually being requested and modified.

Estimates for how large the SSP market will grow over the next several years are fairly aggressive, ranging from US$5 billion to US$7 billion worldwide by 2003. However, a number of hurdles need to be overcome. In theory, an SSP is supposed to deliver the same capacity and performance as on-site storage. But right now, there are limitations to Fibre Channel connections. Because of distance restrictions, SSPs have to locate in large metropolitan areas. Deploying a large-scale storage system may require an entirely new fiber network to provide Fibre Channel connections to the various host bus adapters, storage switches and hubs.

Early SSP adopters will be small companies, mainly e-commerce and companies, which cannot afford the hardware or manpower to meet their storage requirements. Large corporations will take a slower approach, initially using such services as disaster recovery or back-up. In any event, SSP start-ups will have to prove to potential corporate customers that they can provide high levels of reliability and security.

Fong is a managing general partner with Mayfield Fund, a venture capital firm in Menlo Park, Calif. He can be reached at