A Series of Forbes Insights Profiles of Thought Leaders Changing the Business Landscape: Mark Lewis, Chairman and CEO, Formation Data Systems.
The Software Defined Data Center market is expected to reach $77 billion by 2020, according to ReportsnReports.com, so it’s no surprise there is constant innovation as new technologies and companies seek to disrupt incumbents. Formation Data Systems was formed to be one of those disrupters.
The company was launched by a team led by Chairman and CEO Mark Lewis to offer software that provides hyper-scale enterprise storage solutions in much the way Google or Facebook enable massive storage capabilities through their own home grown solutions. While Lewis is steeped in the storage business, he is relatively late to the start-up world.
“I was a big company guy for almost 30 years and then started Formation about three and a half years ago. So I get what it’s like to help run really big companies all your life and then all of a sudden to do a start-up. It’s both liberating and daunting, but it’s really the culmination of everything I’ve worked on over my career,” says Lewis.
Lewis spent years building storage solutions at a long line of companies that were innovators at the time they were developed, going back to Digital Equipment, Compaq and EMC. Now he is taking that experience to launch software that will help companies evolve their storage to be more nimble for a cloud-first world. Now he and his team are bringing to market what they believe is a game-changing approach.
“We’re just in the process of releasing product now. We’re doing POCs at a number of customers who are putting, what I call, the finishing touches on the product. What we’ve been able to do is write a software layer that runs on top of bare metal industry-standard hardware and scales out, has all of the normal features of enterprise storage, data protection and all the stuff that enterprise storage people need and can project out to look like any different type of array. We can look like a block array or a NAS filer. We can look like an object storage, we can look like any kind of storage that the customer needs and it’s all an on-demand software product and the economics are literally ten times better than what can be delivered by any of the traditional mainstay storage players today,” says Lewis.
The company was founded in late 2012 and started writing code in April of 2013. So it’s coming up on three years the product has been in development. “It was a very hard project, too, because we have changed the way people view storage and the architecture for storage. The simple analogy I use is that storage today is built like a Boeing 747. You have these big boxes that are specialty hardware, even if they have off-the-shelf processors or memory, they’re very specialty built, and the software they run is incredibly robust because it’s like running a Boeing airplane. If you lose the software, the plane crashes. So you spend a lot of time hardening this software because you have this single entity in the air with your data. The scale-out or the loosely coupled model that’s been used in networking that Google and others use for data center infrastructure now is the model we adopted and it’s simply like putting repetitive packages in a bunch of trucks and not sending them on a plane,” explains Lewis.
It’s called a “loosely coupled model”. While it uses all of the models of modern architecture, it still looks to a storage admin like enterprise storage. It looks like the old array, it has the same kind of features, it projects data the same way so it can be used as a plug-in replacement to most array and most existing application use cases. “So it’s not something you have to go rewrite your apps or you have to change anything, this will work right in that environment,” says Lewis.
The company has been in beta since last May and in alpha for 18 months. They are focused on the Forbes Global 2000, or anyone with large storage needs that understands that they have a huge economic problem, specifically in storage. They’ve had had a couple of Fortune 50 companies testing software for more than a year. “This is not something that will just change overnight. This is more of a what I call a ‘VMware-esque’ approach. We will go in, we will start with running their low-end applications, test environments, back-up apps and the less important stuff while we harden the project, everybody gets more comfortable with the idea but then, overtime, what we expect is that the economics will drive us into more and more of the mainstream production use cases,” says Lewis.
Lewis contends the software can drive performance and agility at a new economic price point. He says customers have talked to him more about the need for agility than economics. It’s the main reason why companies move to Amazon Web Services. It’s simple, it’s easy and customers can have new storage provisioned in 15 minutes. It’s that agility of the business of being able to dynamically respond to change that is the driving force behind Formation.
Lewis started in Storage in 1984, worked as an engineer for Digital Equipment Corporation, (DEC). He was in Colorado Springs in the storage group as what he calls a “lowly mechanical engineer” and worked on the first one gigabyte nine-inch drive, which was revolutionary at the time. “I think we built it for $5000 and sold it for $200,000. We had like 95 points of margin on hardware, it was lovely,” says Lewis.
He spent the next 17 years there until they werebought by Compaq and by then was running the array controller division. And then came along EMC and then NetApp and both fundamentally changed the world of storage. “They decoupled the idea of buying storage from the idea of buying any particular server type. That was really what I call the first major revolution in storage.”
Compaq was bought by HP and then Lewis went to go work for Joe Tucci at EMC as CTO. “I did a variety of jobs, ran the software group for a while, moved out to California, ran Documentum for a while. Out here in California, I started EMC Ventures, did a whole bunch of different things for Joe, mostly Strategy and M&A. I wound up orchestrating more than 31 acquisitions for EMC because, at is core, EMC was a hardware company that really needed to be more of a software play and we went out and bought that capability. I saw in about 2007-2008 that there was going be another big disruption of the same equivalence that EMC and NetApp were able to disrupt 25-30 years ago,” says Lewis.
That big disruption is called “software-based infrastructure”. Otherwise known as Cloud computing as shown by big companies like Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and Amazon, all doing hyperscale storage without buying any enterprise storage. None of them bought from EMC or NetApp or any of the big guys and they wrote their own code for storage. And they all went through all this trouble because storage enterprise arrays were hideously expensive in comparison to the raw storage itself, according to Lewis.
“We have to try to differentiate within all this noise and hype about what’s revolutionary and what’s not. So we like to think we can ultimately wind up being the VMware of storage, something that really decouples the hardware and software, something that really is an economic game changer from a TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) perspective and something that changes the agility model for storage,” says Lewis
Lewis sees a paradigm shift in storage that only happens every 30-40 years and that’s the movement away from a hardware, array based set of architectures for storing and protecting data to a more dynamic software based scale out industry-standard hardware approach. “So we’re swinging for the fences,” says Lewis
Whether Formation is the catalyst to the paradigm shift and then reaps the rewards from it remains to be seen. It is early days for the company and it’s just at the beginning of its product roll-out. But you have to like Mark Lewis’ chances.
“For me, it’s about innovating, being on the edge, doing something radically different. I always tell our customers, ‘we know there’s no way you’re going to switch from EMC to us if we’re 10 percent better, probably not if we’re 20 percent and maybe not if we’re 30 percent better.’ What if we’re 90 percent better? Then they start to go, ‘well, yeah, we might give you a shot.’ And that’s what makes it fun.”
This article was written by Bruce Rogers from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.