Isilon, Forged in Fire of Last Recession, Looks to Expand Its Data Storage Business in This One

Some tech companies seem to be at their best when things are at their worst. Those are the ones you really need to keep an eye on, especially in a recession. Isilon Systems is one of those companies.

The Seattle-based data storage firm (NASDAQ: ISLN) is announcing its third-quarter earnings this afternoon, and it will be interesting to see how well its products are selling across a wide range of industries—everything from movie studios and media companies to financial institutions and biomedical research organizations. I recently sat down with Isilon’s founder and CEO, Sujal Patel, for a wide-ranging interview about the nine-year-old company’s technology and business strategy. It makes for a pretty compelling case study of a tech startup’s growing pains, and how it has bounced back from adversity to become a leading player in a crowded and competitive field.

In case you don’t know all the twists and turns in Isilon’s history, here’s a quick recap. Patel, a former engineer at Seattle-based RealNetworks (NASDAQ: RNWK), co-founded Isilon in January 2001. The basic idea was to provide cheaper and more efficient data storage for companies needing to host or deliver video, music, and other multimedia content that requires a lot of storage space. In his previous role as chief architect of RealNetworks’ media delivery software, Patel had seen many customers struggle to upgrade their storage capabilities. So there was a real problem to solve. But the tech bubble had collapsed, so customers weren’t necessarily in the mood to buy. Patel says he “pretty much timed the worst spot of the decade to start a company.”

What’s more, there were already about 250 venture-funded storage companies out there, Patel says, and about 50 of them sounded just like Isilon. Patel says he built his business plan around solving the specific problem Real’s customers had, and “how that problem would be pervasive across all mid-range to large enterprises over the next decade.” To start with, he set an incredibly narrow customer focus on photo-sharing and streaming media websites, and media companies.

Isilon’s technology approach was to cluster together a large number of storage “bricks”—each one includes disks, memory, processing, and networking—into a single storage unit. It was a novel approach in the field of network-attached storage, which today is a $4 billion industry with big players like NetApp, EMC, and Hewlett-Packard. Isilon’s technology requires solving some very tough software problems, but the payoff is better storage performance that is also cheaper and easier to manage, for companies dealing with huge amounts of unstructured data. “We can build one gigantic network drive, and we can scale it as the customer’s needs change over time,” Patel says.

Venture capitalists were sold. In August 2001, Isilon closed an $8.4 million funding round … Next Page »

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