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Stealth company Actifio looks to improve virtual server DR, data protection

Last week, I attended the New England VMware User Group (VMUG) meeting, and sat in on a presentation in the afternoon from a new company called Actifio, which recently raised an $8 million Series A funding round and will begin shipping products in August.

The company’s focus and heritage is in storage. President and CEO Ash Ashutosh is best known in the storage world for founding AppIQ, which he later sold to HP; AppIQ became HP’s Storage Essentials product line. But it’s also relevant to virtual server users, who have told me during my own transition from covering the storage market to covering server virtualization that backup and storage I/O are still an issue in their environments.

One of the reasons virtual server backup and storage have been difficult is that as virtual machines ‘sprawl,’ so too does their data, putting additional strain on already stressed-out disk arrays and backup windows. Until the vStorage APIs for Data Protection made available with vSphere, VMware Consolidated Backup (VCB) was an option, but such a kludge it was avoided by most backup administrators.

Enter Mr. Ashutosh and his idea for a new “data management virtualization” product, an appliance which would act as a kind of connection broker for back-end data associated with virtual machine images and their backups. For example, new clones of a virtual machine may be created for test and development purposes, then deleted. While they are being used, however, creating snapshots takes up CPU cycles from either the disk array or the host, and copies to a test bed require more disk space.

What Ashutosh’s company Actifio proposes is “collapsing the copy makers into a single operating system with one retention scheduler.” Actifio’s AOS appliance would handle the distribution of data in the environment through “virtual copies,” whether backup to disk, a secondary DR site (Actifio is working on certification with VMware’s SRM) or the delivery of clones for test / dev.

The interface for this appliance, as demonstrated by Ashutosh last week, uses business rather than technical terminology, handling data copy and retention schedules according to application name and service level agreement, rather than the traditional LUNs and volumes familiar to storage managers. The Actifio box would handle figuring out where application data resides at the physical storage layer and present what’s needed to the application on request. While targeted in its first release for secondary and disaster recovery storage, Actifio also has designs on fronting primary storage systems.

While Ashutosh has the most “brand recognition” in the storage world, and Actifio’s technology is focused on storage, it’s easy to imagine the possible inroads its product could make in the virtualization space, potentially demystifying the language around storage subsystems and backups for the virtualization manager, and combining features that today require multiple sets of tools from multiple vendors. Since storage systems are where virtual machine data ‘lives,’ it’s also easy to infer the potential applications of this technology to virtual machine lifecycle management.

Of course, there are also some drawbacks — any grizzled backup veteran will tell you that multiple copies of data are sometimes made for a reason: redundancy. This was the principal argument against data deduplication systems when they first came out, as well. I can also envision this causing trepidation among storage managers averse to too many eggs in one basket.

And then there’s the matter of cost — pricing hasn’t been finalized yet, but numbers quoted during the session were in the six-figure range. Something that expensive from a new company which means to take at least partial control of the storage infrastructure could be a tough sell in the conservative storage market. Even if users are willing to jump on the bandwagon, what to do with existing systems? As one attendee at the VMUG session put it, “I wish I’d heard about this before I went and bought everything else.”

Definitely worth keeping an eye on, though, if you’re a virtualization manager looking for new approaches to solving storage and backup problems. If Actifio’s concept intrigues you, you might also want to check out Virsto, another new company claiming a better mousetrap in virtual storage.

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