ClearSky Combining Storage, Networking to Advance IT Infrastructure

Xconomy Boston — 

[Updated, 12:45pm. See below] The Boston tech industry is entering a new age of enterprise IT. Long known for its companies in data storage, networking, and business software, the local sector is seeing a boom in startups that have a new spin on these traditional fields.

One of them is ClearSky Data, a roughly two-year-old effort from founders Ellen Rubin and Laz Vekiarides (pictured) that is finally talking today about what it’s building. Rubin, the company’s CEO, previously worked at Netezza and co-founded CloudSwitch, while Vekiarides was a veteran of EqualLogic. All of those companies were eventually acquired for big money—by IBM, Verizon, and Dell, respectively.

ClearSky raised $12 million from General Catalyst and Highland Capital Partners early last year. The 30-person company is building what it calls a “global storage network” for Fortune 1000 enterprise companies. This network is a “fully managed service” for primary data storage, Rubin says, and it’s managed locally from metro areas starting with Boston, Philadelphia, and Las Vegas.

“We’re working through a set of early customers, adopters, and partnerships,” Rubin says, adding that cloud services company Xtium and Sentinel Benefits & Financial Group are among the startup’s customers. “We’re trying to cover the U.S. and major metro areas as soon as we can.” [This paragraph was updated with early customer names—Eds.]

It’s useful to say what ClearSky isn’t doing, first. It’s not a cloud-backup company. It’s not competing with public cloud-computing services like Amazon Web Services or Rackspace. It’s not trying to be the next Dropbox or Box. And it’s not selling database as a service.

ClearSky seems to be aiming squarely at the primary storage market dominated by entrenched players like EMC, NetApp, Dell, and Hitachi. As Rubin puts it, the traditional strategy from data-storage vendors is to make their products “better, faster, cheaper.” Newer entrants such as Pure Storage, Nimble Storage, and Qumulo use flash-memory technologies and software to improve on-premise systems. “But you’re still managing your storage,” Rubin says.

If you’re an enterprise company, she says, every 18 months you’re buying more storage arrays to add capacity, putting them in data centers, and managing things like disaster recovery and backup. “You have to optimize it, figure out what’s going wrong, and make sure you don’t lose any data,” she says. “No one gets rid of data.”

While the world of IT infrastructure has evolved in areas like cloud computing, virtualization, and software as a service, Rubin says, “storage has stayed pretty much the same.” She adds, “IT is under lot of pressure right now to be more service oriented.”

Other notable IT infrastructure startups in New England include Actifio in data management, CloudHealth in cloud optimization, DataGravity in smarter storage and security, Plexxi and in networking, Storiant in cloud storage, and VMTurbo in data center control.

The goal with ClearSky, then, is to make the entire data-storage process more agile, efficient, and, most of all, low-touch, on-demand, and cheap. “We’re worrying about the hardware and software, and any scaling,” Rubin says. “We are all about the operations here. It’s a service. We’re doing it in a repeatable way.”

And, of course, security is a huge issue. “We’ve taken a very strong approach from the get-go. We have customers in highly secure and regulated industries,” Rubin says. ClearSky uses full encryption at every level, for data that’s in transit or at rest, she says. “We have access to the system but not to customers’ data.”

Storage as a service isn’t a new idea, so you might wonder who has tried to do this before. About 15 years ago, a company called Storage Networks (for one) was working on the problem, but the market wasn’t ready yet—no cloud, no virtualization, connectivity issues. And managed hosting has been around for decades, but it tends to be expensive and not always responsive, Rubin says. (Outsourcing storage usually just means shelling out for Cisco and EMC products, she says.)

The key, of course, is whether ClearSky has the intellectual property and technical know-how to deliver its system—which sounds great on paper—to big, demanding customers. Rubin says the company has filed several patent applications around primary storage systems and distributed architecture. On the delivery side, she says, the company has learned the importance of local partners in different metro areas, co-location facilities (basically data centers for rent), and “what’s available in terms of network connectivity in data centers.”

In the end, what might be most interesting about ClearSky, from a conceptual standpoint, is the way it is combining advances in networking with advances in storage. Stay tuned to see how well it all works—but it’s certainly ambitious.

And who would ClearSky’s role model be among the pantheon of successful IT companies? Rubin had a surprising answer that shows the importance of networking to her startup’s effort: Akamai. “They wrote the book on this,” she says. “They did this when it was much harder to do.”