Storage Newsletter’s Exclusive Interview with Floyd Christofferson, SVP Products at SBDS

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StorageNewsletter: You’re now part of a new storage adventure, StrongBox Data Solutions. Could you share with us the genesis of the project?

The StrongBox solution, an LTFS NAS active archive, has been deployed globally for over eight years in some of the world’s largest data environments. The core value proposition is to make tape storage as simple to use and manage as a NAS.

As we looked across our customers, we saw a recurring theme: how to simplify and automate global management of data and storage resources. Our customers have many different file systems and vendor solutions, they want seamless data management and to reduce the cost and complexity of their storage infrastructure.

This need to simplify complex data was the genesis of StrongLink, our cognitive data management platform. It was designed to create an open platform to provide customers with a vendor-neutral solution for complete control of their data as well as bring order to the chaos of heterogeneous storage resources from any vendor, any file system, anywhere.

And what the structure of the company? Are you fully independent? Did you raise money, how much?

The company was formed nearly two years ago, when we bought the entire StrongBox business from Crossroads. StrongBox Data is an independent private company with no debt, and no dependencies on venture financing. But we just recently received additional backing in the form of a $27 million financing round, which included an investment from The Fonds de solidarité FTQ, a $13 billion development capital investment fund, and additional funding from SBDS’s controlling shareholder, Partner One Capital. The investment will be used to further accelerate worldwide market expansion.

What’s revenue range, we heard something between $10 and $15 million?

As a private company, we don’t disclose this type of information. Having said that, we are deployed in very large data environments worldwide, including government, higher-education and research, life sciences, manufacturing, media and entertainment.

You started with StrongBox LTFS NAS Appliance to provide both the mobility and cost advantage of tape with the flexibility and standards-based approach of a NAS server? What are the differentiators of your solutions?
As noted above, StrongBox is the perfect active archive storage platform and is the only solution purpose-built around the LTFS standard. It was designed to make using tape as simple as possible while enabling users to take advantage of tape economics without any of the classic tape issues. StrongBox is designed for users that need to keep a lot of data protected, accessible cost effectively for long-term retention. Customers appreciate the fact that they can simply set it and forget it. Users simply see network shares that make tape storage look like a disk-based NAS, and it works with any library vendor or drives.
StrongLink is the next step in the evolution of storage simplicity, bringing automation to data and storage management for any file system or object store. It leverages the power of metadata and machine learning to automate the life cycle of data, giving users global control of all their data, across vendor platforms.

Our customers have consistently complained that they do not want to be locked into a particular storage type or vendor. Rather, they want the flexibility to design their infrastructure around use cases, budgets, etc. which may require different storage choices from more than one vendor. The problem is how to do so without crushing IT staff with a lot of manual complexity to overcome the incompatibilities of different storage choices.
We realized that the real problem was the ability to connect anything to anything, and to provide an automated management platform than provides global control of the data and storage. Customers wanted something that gives IT managers and users alike a vendor-neutral solution that bridges incompatible systems, and can automate and simplify what are otherwise extremely complex environments.

We call this Cognitive Data Management.

How many did you sell so far? In which industry or verticals?

We have hundreds of StrongBox deployments worldwide in big data environments, including government, higher-education & research, life sciences, manufacturing, media and entertainment, and more.

With that you realized that you finally address only a portion of the need and the data management aspect is not controlled by you, is it the main reason you introduced StrongLink?

Yes. StrongBox simplified tape, but was still another storage platform. You still had to get the data into the StrongBox, connect with other storage, and classify the data. By introducing StrongLink, we are now able to provide a global solution to automate data classification, and to simplify storage management in any environment.

How is this product positioned on the market as there are plenty of solutions and for a pretty long time? Is it a software or a physical offering?
StrongLink is software and can be delivered as an appliance. However, I’m not sure I agree that there are plenty of solutions that do what StrongLink does.

There are solutions that address portions of StrongLink’s features, but none that come close to offering the whole value proposition that we offer. However, StrongLink stands alone in its ability to solve problems such as cross-platform metadata/data management, automated data classification, integration with the cloud, multi-vendor storage resource management, versioning and audit trails to enable continuous data protection, workflow automation, etc.
The reality is that such solutions you may find in the market that can address a few elements of StrongLink’s value proposition are usually either ‘build-it-yourself’ science projects, or a collection of point solutions that require integration and may add complexity for IT managers. In addition, a subset of these capabilities may show up as part of a storage vendor’s vertically integrated solution stack, but which only work within that vendor’s ecosystem, and don’t provide global functionality across another vendor’s storage.
The problem is that customers don’t like being trapped into a vendor’s file system, or proprietary stack. We call these ‘storage-centric’ solutions, because they are typically driven from the constraints of the storage platform.

StrongLink uses what we call a ‘data-centric’ approach, which works across any storage type from any vendor. Customers have strongly appreciated this approach, since it gives them the freedom to choose any combination of storage that is best for their use cases and budgets, instead of having to compromise by adapting to the limitations of a single vendor platform.

What is the evolution and next features you plan to add?

Because StrongLink is data aware because it aggregates multiple types of metadata into our cognitive engines, our roadmap is focused on how we can increase the use of machine learning and automation to further simplify data and storage resource management. While initially machine learning is focused on anomaly detection and predictive analytics at the storage layer, over time this will get richer as the system is able to provide policy recommendations and other higher-order automation capabilities, plus deeper integration with user facing applications. Our recurring theme is to make things simple for users and data managers alike by automating the repetitive and manual tasks that can be so problematic today.

How do you sell it? Channel, direct, and potentially OEM? Are you looking for new partners?

Our go-to-market is focused on channel sales, with selected value-added partners. We have key strategic relationships in different geographies, including Fujifilm, Hitachi, Spectra Logic.

How do you price the solution?

Again, we wanted to keep things simple.

StrongBox has historically been driven by tape economics, leveraging the lowest cost medium – LTFS tape.

StrongLink on the other hand is disruptive, and we are all about breaking the typical storage pricing curve. This means giving customers the tools to accommodate data growth without just throwing more money at storage infrastructure.

So, for StrongLink we eliminated any capacity charges or per-user fees. It is designed to help customers improve the ROI on their existing infrastructure.

We use a very simple model tied to the number of StrongLink nodes. The number of nodes is directly related to customer’s use case, and not the capacity under management.

This product is more recent that the other one, how many deployments do you have so far? What is the average data volume you have under management? And what is the largest environment? Could you name some users?

StrongLink began shipping this year, and is being deployed at multiple customer sites in the US, Europe and Australia. These include very large environments that scale to hundreds of billions of files, multiple sites, and hundreds of petabytes under management in life-sciences, research, higher education, media and entertainment, manufacturing, etc. But there are also smaller environments that are focused primarily on metadata management, or to enable policy-driven connectivity between local storage and cloud providers.

Do you prefer some use cases, I mean did you find the spot where the product excels?

The more data a customer has, the more valuable StrongLink becomes. Any customer with a large amount of data has to deal with managing migrations for tech refresh, or multiple tiers of different classes of storage. Often, they are not entirely sure exactly what data they are storing, whether it is active or not, or whether it would be better to migrate to another class of storage or a cloud provider.

StrongLink starts by automatically classifying all of the data, thus providing IT managers a global view of all their digital assets in a policy-based management framework. From there, the policy engines will present the data in a global namespace that includes multiple storage resources, including cloud.

From a user perspective, their data is simply available in the global file system. Behind the scenes, data automation policies may be moving the data from one class of storage to another for resource optimization, data protection or other use cases. Users would never know that the data has migrated unless IT wants them to. Their network mount points remain the same.

Customers have told us consistently that they want a solution with more intelligence than just another gateway product. They like that they can virtualize their legacy storage, add new technologies or cloud, with no interruption to their users.

Another strong use case is for those who are focused on the metadata and need a way to aggregate multiple metadata types into a normalized environment, from which policy-based actions may be automated. StrongLink normalizes multiple metadata types, including file system metadata, rich header metadata from certain file types, as well as the ability for users to create their own metadata types, without the need for IT assistance or database expertise.
Again, the core concept is to simplify complex tasks to enable users to be more self-sufficient and productive, and to automate back-end storage resource operations to reduce the load on IT staff.

More generally, how do you see the market, how does it evolve for a decade? Do you believe in software-defined storage?

Data is going to outlive us all, and certainly will outlive the storage it is on today. So, the ability to future-proof a customer’s data environment is essential. This means enabling a tech refresh migration without interruption to users, or to have the freedom to introduce new storage technologies without adding new storage islands.

Software-defined doesn’t change the paradigm… it just removes the software from the hardware stacks, enabling new players in the storage industry to differentiate from the ‘big iron’ enterprise storage players.

So, the trends we see will be around incorporating automation and machine learning to simplify the repetitive and manual data and storage resource management operations.
Metadata will only grow in significance, especially as customers begin to understand how effective it can be for automating their data and storage management. Effective aggregation of multiple metadata types into a policy-driven platform enables customers to dramatically simplify what they do today, and help them reduce their storage and operational expenses.

What is your view on cloud? How do you integrate it with StrongLink? It’s a natural tier, right?

Cloud is here to stay, of course. We view it as just another storage target. The question for customers is simply whether they want to buy or rent their storage, whether they want it local or remote. StrongLink makes it simple to use cloud with any on-premises solution, but leaving the customer in complete control on how they incorporate cloud storage into their strategy. StrongLink automates this, reducing disruption to users and simplifying management for IT administrators.

And unlike other companies in this space, StrongLink does not charge by capacity. Our view is customers have already paid a per-terabyte charge for their storage, they shouldn’t have to pay such a ‘capacity tax’ based upon the volume of data they have under management.

More generally, how do you see the future of the company and the product? What are the next steps, new directions?

We have seen tremendous validation in our approach of aggregating multiple metadata types into a policy-based platform that enables autonomous data and storage management enhanced by machine learning. In this way, StrongLink brings intelligence to the storage layer, reducing operational and infrastructure costs, and enabling customers to get far better business utilization of their data.

Whether it for long-term data curation, retention for compliance purposes, easier access to find and use data, or to simply reduce storage costs, all of these problems are ultimately interrelated.

At StrongBox, our job is to give our customers the platform to make all of this simple, and to be their advocate by giving them the freedom to quickly adapt to new use cases or adopt new or different storage technologies to retain control of their digital and infrastructure assets.