Silicon Valley-based company SoftIron likens open source distributed storage technology Ceph to a ‘Swiss army knife.’ It does block, object, file, legacy attach, and all flavors of different things. Therefore, it’s the basis for the company’s flagship product HyperDrive. HostingJournalist sat down with SoftIron CEO and Co-Founder Phil Straw to learn more about his market vision, the value of software-defined, and the company’s go-to-market strategy.
“Software-defined storage, for me, allows you to get the best flexibility and future-proofing. But hardware is a part of our story, too, but not in defining the storage protocol. We see it as just the opposite – the storage protocol should define the hardware,” said SoftIron CEO Phil Straw. “That’s not where the industry is today, is it? It seems that largely, the idea of software-defined storage has been translated to mean that hardware doesn’t matter, and that’s led to a sort of innovation malaise that is largely detrimental to the industry. This is increasingly true in an era where data centers are being pushed out of central facilities, out toward the edges where the data is being generated. People are finding what we’ve known all along, which is that commodity hardware isn’t built to provide the level of sophisticated operation that is required at the edge, and even in the traditional data center at scale.”
“You can’t solve fundamental bottlenecks with software optimization – you ultimately end up scaling the waste that is in these systems. This is the opposite of what you want to do at scale, particularly if you’re trying to reduce costs or even your carbon footprint. So, what we’re doing at SoftIron is going back to ‘first principles’ about how you build a technology company, and innovating at every level with, ultimately, the customer outcome in mind. The results of these efforts are creating the ultimate in data infrastructure products, whether it be storage, which we’re most known for right now, servers, and more.”
SoftIron brings Ceph-based, open-source object, block, and file storage protocols in a single unified storage system to the storage capabilities within data center environments. Why open-source and why Ceph?
“Our commitment to open source-based products is really about customer advocacy and customer freedom ultimately. Together, we can all contribute to open source to get to something better than something that is proprietary and closed. It also allows customers to truly own their own product, and to have the reassurance that the thing is long-lived. Moreover, it gives them some independence from the vendor – it serves as a kind of like a little mini-constitution that keeps SoftIron honest and committed to our customers. And increasingly, the world really operates on open source now. That’s the world we live in.”
“You ask ‘why Ceph,’ and it’s because of how robust and capable Ceph is – it’s an incredibly interesting technology. We liken it to a ‘Swiss army knife.’ It does block, object, file, legacy attach, and all flavors of different things. It has enormous numbers of configurables – all the options providing an uncommon level of flexibility and control. But actually, the reason that I like Ceph, most of all, is the juicy center of how everything works is one mechanism. It just makes it amazing in lots of different use cases. It gets more performant – faster, better at data recovery as it scales. And it scales enormously – virtually infinitely. We see Ceph as the ‘Linux of storage,’ and have basically built the ultimate productization of it with our HyperDrive appliances.”
In terms of workload categories and vertical markets, who are Ceph’s primary users?
“For us and our rather unique productization, we are seeing everything from cloud to virtual machine use, and everything from one performance and density envelope to another — from backup all the way to HPC. That’s probably more commentary on our productization than how Ceph is being used out in the wild on hardware that is not optimized around its performance. That’s what we mean when we talk about being ‘task-specific’ and building hardware to match the specific needs of the software. The benefits come through in performance and the elimination of bottlenecks. With Ceph, you have a really stellar piece of software with a lot of capability. The question is, can you get all that capability out of it without building the hardware for that purpose? The answer is simply, no, you can’t.”
Isn’t Ceph sometimes regarded to be tough to use?
“For Ceph in the wild, yes, that’s the reputation. For SoftIron, we live to make Ceph a great experience – maybe even one that will change your perspective on storage entirely. It’s all about abstracting away the complexity without reducing its function. It’s about giving customers all of the options and making it really slick and easy to use. And not just Ceph, but the whole productization – we’re a company that loves the hardware, that puts attention to detail on the hardware. So what can we do at that level to make the customer’s life better? There are plenty of things. Our customers rave about the details that we’ve put into our appliances. Whether it’s the installation details or the actual utility that they get out of them, we’ve created an experience that our customers love – and that’s from the end-user to the controller counting the beans, to the CEO who is able to talk about minimizing a carbon footprint. By optimizing the package at the hardware level, we’re able to innovate in ways that simply does not exist in the current landscape. You can’t find it. We’ve tried.”
Ceph has also been criticized for being sluggish in comparison to other software solutions for block, file, and object access. Can you rebut that?
“This comes down to the issues with software-defined storage and the broad expectation that you can put software on commodity hardware and expect performance out of it – and that’s just not the case. The reason is that we design our storage to simply do just storage, or our transcoders to do just transcoding. It’s really designed around the needs of software at the source code level. We don’t just start with something generic and then try to optimize through the code or the configurables. So, with regards to Ceph in the wild, you might get sluggish performance, but in our application, we’re able to beat relative offerings in terms of performance. You might have seen recently we made an announcement about NCI Australia purchasing 12.5 petabytes of HyperDrive storage for use in their integrated HPC storage environment. They’re one of the largest network data consumers on the planet, and they’re using our Ceph-based object storage because they need read performance as well as the ability to share data between their different high-performance facilities.”
– interview continues below the photo –
Last year SUSE decided to withdraw from the Ceph market. What’s your vision on that?
“I have to admit that at first, it was a bit of a shock to us. But SUSE has very good reasons for making the decision that they did – it makes a lot of sense for them. We’re happy to have just announced this last month that we’ve partnered with SUSE to offer SoftIron’s HyperDrive capabilities through the Rancher container management platform. We have a great integration with the Rancher product and believe that we’re well-positioned to help anyone who is using Rancher to get the most out of Ceph. We’re glad to be able to partner with SUSE on this level and will continue to find ways to make people’s lives easier, whether they’re scaling in a core data center or innovating on the edge.”
SoftIron is powering its storage appliances with Arm processors. Why specifically Arm instead of x86 CPUs?
“We use both. We got a reputation early for our innovative use of Arm, but there’s a case for using both, depending on the application. Certain products are handcrafted by us to specifically use Arm. But we have other models that are crafted to take advantage of x86 – there’s a place for both of those to coexist. We’re not saying that Arm is better, we”re not saying the x86 is better. We’re saying that when you specifically build a storage product if you just do a generic computer and turn it into a storage product, you’re going to get very generic results. It really comes down to looking at matching the applications to the hardware and getting the most juice out of the fruit.”
How does Arm compare to x86 CPUs?
“You can see them as the same if you just look at it as a generic computer. They both look like processors with different instruction sets. But if you look at them in their true nature, the way that you can use them, they’re very different. Arm has really tightly integrated peripherals. It’s very low power. It’s very specific in its silicon. The x86 approach is not so intimate with peripherals that are kind of stuck on the outside of a computer. It is meant to do compute first before anything else. So they live in different performance categories. For example, on some of our spinning media or denser products, we often use ARM64 – we use it in other places, too. But by the time you get to the place where you just want performance at all costs, we’re gonna end up on x86. It’s a beautiful world that both of these two things exist. I can tell you that our product portfolio looks like it does for a reason – you can do amazing things with one, and you can do amazing things with the other. The question becomes what do you need to prioritize?”
Softiron is one of only three storage controller companies globally (as far as we know) that use ARM CPUs. What does it say about SoftIron’s choice for Arm?
“Well, all of our products are designed electronically from the ground up by SoftIron engineers. I mentioned before that we’re really going back to first principles, and to that end, we are innovating at every level – we’ve designed our own boot system, our own UEFI, our own out-of-band management system, a BMC. We have a dedicated caddy system that allows you to integrate into the network in the Ceph cluster – how you identify, manage, monitor, and replace drives. It’s very radically different than what people are used to – but in a good way. It’s all designed to make lives easier. We designed our own high-speed backplane in to connect everything together.”
“What we really strive to do electronically is to make something that’s not optimized for computing at all – it really shouldn’t be. In fact, I wouldn’t advertise it as a computer at all – what it is, is an IO pump that does dedicated DMA that’s really good at getting data from the network to the storage, and from the storage to the network. It’s very low power. It’s very specific, very minimal, and really quite fast for that category. It’s a really radical approach in an era where people are abandoning hardware and selling the idea that they can overcome bottlenecks through code – they can’t. What they end up doing is creating more waste – more heat, more power, more need for real estate, more need for cooling. And then when they need more storage or more performance, they end up scaling that waste by adding another box. Of course, once data has landed it’s very expensive to move, so they end up locked into inefficient systems that they’re committed to maintaining perpetually.”
Why should companies within the cloud, hosting and data center industry opt for specifically an Arm-base storage appliance?
“The features of the silicon allow you to do different things get to get you different benefits – but at the end of the day, for SoftIron, it’s really about flexibility in balancing performance and efficiency and matching the application to what’s best for the workload – which, by the way, also translates to what’s best for the balance sheet and your TCO figures. If you want to build a storage product with over 100 terabytes, and you want it to be one-fifth of the power of an x86 box – let’s say you’re doing something that has a low power footprint – a data center that’s maybe a little bit more off the grid than a core downtown data center. There are distinct things that happen when you design specifically on those two pieces of silicon. We have customers that celebrate different benefits, with different products and different workloads. It’s everything from saving money on co-location costs, to meaningful reductions in CO2 to help reduce carbon footprints. It’s amazing the diversity of the product portfolio, you can build, again, all on this one technology. The flexibility is remarkable.”
What do you think of NVIDIA’s aborted acquisition of Arm?
“It’s a shame. I would love to see Arm inside Nvidia and reach that next quantum leap for the Arm vision. There is a need for Arm in the world. It needs to be coherent. Given this setback, it looks like there is maybe some temporary uncertainty. You hate to see a solid technology caught in the crosswinds. I wish them the best.”
You mentioned somewhere in an interview that SoftIron is delivering more than a storage appliance. Can you elaborate on that?
“As you’ll see if you browse our website, we’ve been very focused on storage. The things we’ve been talking about recently doesn’t require too many dotted lines to realize that we’re starting to do things in networking. Those things will be just as different as what we’ve done to date with Ceph – we’re looking to turn some heads. We also have a video transcoding product that hints at our future – there could be more dotted lines there. We’ve created, what’s essentially a building block technology that we can manufacture anywhere in the world. We’ve even played around with the idea of placing a manufacturing facility into a shipping container so that we can ship our technology virtually anywhere in the world and build whatever is needed for a fully functional data infrastructure on site. Storage is foundational and works as a great solid first step for SoftIron, but our full capabilities reflect a much more aspirational company.”
One of the latest funding rounds for SoftIron was in 2020, when $34M was raised. How important are these funding rounds for your go-to-market strategy?
“They are very important for the whole company. We have really aggressive plans. This is certainly not the last financing round you’ll see SoftIron make. We’re trying to do something very ambitious and aggressive here. Funding, of course, feeds that innovation. We will continue to seek avenues to expand and achieve that vision.”
SoftIron is now working on the set up of global edge manufacturing capabilities. At the end of last year, Australia was added as a manufacturing location. Why is that?
“Well, we’re in many places, actually – we like to say that we’re a globally distributed, locally embedded company. Currently, our primary manufacturing facility is located in Newark, California. A lot of people are surprised to find out that we’re manufacturing all of our products out of a manufacturing facility in Silicon Valley, but when you look at it, you’ll see that it’s a sort-of ‘proof-is-in-the-pudding’ validator for us. If we can do it in California, and make all the economics and supply chain pieces work, we can do it anywhere. We’ve built a core technology platform from the ground up with this idea in mind – to be able to deliver locally embedded manufacturing, and to distribute that around the world as more governments, and business leaders recognize the need, and desire to be able to produce equipment to underline their own particular sovereignty.”
“Add to that the fact that we can give our customers the ability to audit the internals of our products to ensure the total provenance of the appliances, giving our users the knowledge that they’re running on a ‘clear box’ out of the gates. People can see the geopolitical situation. And COVID taught us a lot of things. More people are realizing that having local, sovereign resources for their infrastructure is a very good idea. I’ve got to commend the Australians. I’ve been in conversations with the Australian Government in various different departments, classified and not classified, and they’re very farsighted. I find their vision to be very impressive.”
“We’ve been hinting at our bigger vision, but we’ve always known that it wouldn’t happen overnight to get there. We’ve always looked at the future as a marathon that we would have to run one leg at a time. We have the capability to do edge manufacturing. We also have the ability to centralize manufacturing in a single facility, but we do it distributed for a lot of the reasons I’ve talked about. Today we’re in preparations to ramp production, building, and exporting from Australia — who knows what the future holds? With that facility up and running, and others to follow, we would have the capability to add others almost ad infinitum. The world is a small place these days, and with our technology, with our platform, and with our productization, we could stand up facilities for any friendly nation that wants sovereignty capabilities in their countries to manufacture sovereign critical IT infrastructure at virtually any scale.”
Why are you aiming at a distributed manufacturing capabilities?
“For all the things that distributed gets you versus centralized. The industry has gone to making money from volume on producing generic hardware. What we’re doing is making very specific things from a unified technology platform that encompasses manufacturing, so that we don’t have an incumbent assumption on volume in order to make money. We don’t have to translate that to be a low-margin manufacturing environment where volume is the only way you can make margins. I personally feel really strongly that the technology community, on the whole, has taken a misstep there that may have a financial assumption behind it.”
“But what SoftIron is actually proving is that if you actually design it right, and you internalize manufacturing right into the design using the latest manufacturing technologies, you can manifest a product that’s of way higher quality. There is more resilience on the reuse of components, and it even changes the balance sheet of the company by having ‘common things’ buying power – meaning we’re still getting the benefits of bulk materials pricing. So even at low volume, we can go toe to toe with the cheapest there is out there. That’s a remarkable thing for us to have proven with our flagship pilot facility in Newark. And now you can see Australia is asking us to do it for them. They see the benefits and are recognizing that it’s possible to do it. And they are recognizing the truth that generic comes with baggage, and specific is very lean.”
Your manufacturing model seems to be unique, during a unique time. How has COVID-19 impacted your business, and equally, how has your unique model of operation help you impact your customers facing issues around the pandemic?
“Through COVID, we’ve all learned a lot of lessons. One of them is that product lead times and supply chains were a lot more fragile than previously believed. One missing piece will sideline a product line – we’ve heard this story happening repeatedly with people telling us they were seeing lead times approaching 40 weeks in some cases. In our case, because we have this unified technology approach, and we do all of the manufacturing and manage our own supply chain, we fared much better. We were not entirely immune, of course, but we really didn’t suffer badly from COVID. Our mode of operation was already built to be very resilient, with many of our people already working out of home offices. In the end, the pandemic helped us validate the resiliency of how our business is built and the reasons for doing the things that we’re doing.”
How are the design and distributed manufacturing of SoftIron’s HW/SW arrays being controlled in a unified way?
“We own the technology. We created the technology. So, everything from the mechanical engineering, the electronic design of the software, the build of software from open source — the way we assemble it – the manufacturing is all baked into one core thing. The manufacturing and the design are effectively inseparable. We take something, say, in California, and we replicate it with tooling and products that we make for ourselves. We’re not sending our manufacturing somewhere else on another continent, to make thousands of them. Our products are made to order in our own facilities. Where the process that surrounds the current status quo of manufacturing in the industry is totally external, that can be, frankly, fairly risky.”
“Oftentimes, the person or group who’s doing it doesn’t really have that deep an understanding in what you’re actually trying to accomplish. We don’t have that problem, as the people who design this, SoftIron engineers, are the people that assemble it. It becomes indigenous, as you have local people making the hardware that will be used locally. Using digital twin technology and the latest Industry 4.0 technologies and techniques, we’re able to replicate our manufacturing environment and build the same thing somewhere else in the same way we’re doing it at the flagship facility.”
What’s the importance of the IT channel for SoftIron?
“Our channel program was established by Phil Crocker, who has a very deep background in establishing extremely successful partner programs. He’s been recognized over the years for his success and in 2021, he launched the SoftIron + Co. program. Last year, the program educated and enabled over 250 leaders across several of our new VAR partners. The program has grown from four partners to over thirty partners, spanning across verticals such as federal, online retail, manufacturing, healthcare, and academic research.”
“As far the types of partners we’re looking for are those who want to be one of the first movers in a new wave. It starts by understanding the impact that proprietary solutions have on scalable data infrastructure and then considering open source as a better way forward. From there it’s about helping the market to understand why they should care about this, and why powerful, open source-based data infrastructure is critical to improving efficiencies that affect their bottom line while providing benefits like sovereignty, resilience, and flexibility that they wouldn’t otherwise have.”
What are your unique selling points to have the solutions delivered through the IT channel?
“It really starts with having a product portfolio that is developed with open source software it the core. That’s table stakes from the outset, and it telegraphs up front that the customer, and for that matter, the channel partner, has the control here in terms of their ability to move flexibly as their data infrastructure evolves and scales. Our channel partners like us because we provide something unique and differentiated that presents real value for their customers. They like open source because they and their customers are not locked into us, so it is relatively low risk compared to other smaller tech companies. They like that there’s lots of ability to add value but the more complex stuff is abstracted away making it a profitable relationship all around.”
SoftIron was founded by yourself, Mark Chen and Norman Fraser. How do the personalities, knowledge and experience of the three of you add to the success of the company, now and in the future?
“The relationship is a very trusted collaboration. The other two are extremely smart and talented. Mark is a consummate technologist — he’s pretty unmatched. In my experience in the security industry, it’s difficult to find people with the level of talent and knowledge that he has. He’s an amazing person. Norman has gone and built two IPO unicorn valued companies — and it’s not an accident. That kind of accomplishment really tells you about the level of skill, dedication, and intelligence that he has. It’s an indulgent pleasure to be involved with SoftIron, not just because of the two of the guys that founded it. There’s a whole family of really amazing, dedicated people that really believe in what we’re all doing together. I’ve never seen anything like this created in Silicon Valley, and I’ve been over here 20 years. It’s a remarkable company.”
What are your goals in terms of company growth, expansion, market position, et cetera?
“We’re doing something that is clearly incredibly unique, with ideas that are really ambitious in their scale. We have had enormous growth in sales. We are focused on the customers and are built around the idea of doing the right things for them. And you know, when you have good products, and you take care of your customers, you’ll find that growth happens. Add to that a great team and the sky is the limit. We’ll keep on doing what customers guide us to do and we’ll keep on driving the growth of the company because what we want to achieve in the long run is even more ambitious than what I’m really able to describe right now. We want to change the industry.”
What new SoftIron products and/or services can we expect in the near future?
“We expect to continue to offer a wealth of storage options for the customer, with evolutions based on how the industry evolves as we continue to push from the core, where scale is needed, to the edge, where right-sized performance, remote administration, and efficiency matter. There is always a new storage technology, we will continue to productize around the periphery. We mentioned, you know, other products like networking and transcoding. But we will be taking our core technology platform and developing things that you can make clouds with from soup to nuts. We want to offer a coherent fleet approach to one technology, one set of provenance, and security properties. And just make it excellent all the way through the product line. We want to demonstrate that you end up with more than the sum of the parts when things really are designed to work together as one fleet – that’s the direction we’re going in.”
To conclude, is there anything you would like to add about SoftIron, about the company’s achievements and goals that are relevant to know to the public?
“Yeah, if you’re a person that kind of wants to be part of something exciting, we are expanding our team around the globe and we are looking for talented individuals who are looking to be part of something truly game-changing, you should give SoftIron a look. Or if you’re an organization with IT needs and you want exceptional products and an exceptional relationship with a vendor that will really truly hold your hands on your own terms, we’re here for you. We’re working hard to change how the world thinks about designing and manufacturing the hardware of today and tomorrow. We’re ready to put real results in front of you – come talk to SoftIron.”