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Bruce Almighty drives Coraid AoE plan after $10m investment

Ten-year startup gets VC funding jolt

Comment Meet Coraid. This ten year-old startup has got its first venture capital funding and a new CEO who wants us all to understand that its AoE storage protocol is just terrific.

Its product stores data in Ethernet-connected arrays using AoE - ATA over Ethernet - a block storage protocol, which, unlike Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) and iSCSI, is not connection oriented. It's said to be much lighter and less complex than either and much simpler to use.

Coraid was started up in 2000 by Brantley Coile who had a lot of Cisco experience in his CV. He devised and patented the AoE protocol based on transmitting datagrams between servers and SATA disk drive arrays.

Servers link across Ethernet to so-called EtherDrives. A Coraid technical note says: "The communication that would take place between motherboard and IDE disk drive is arranged into data packets and sent through the Ethernet... Packets are addressed to devices using their low-level Ethernet addresses (MAC addresses), not IP addresses." ATA disk commands, such as read disk sector x, write disk sector y, are put directly into standard Ethernet frames.

The AoE protocol, which is not routed, handles packet loss and transmission errors so it is lossless. Find out more here.

Coraid was self-funded with no venture capital (VXC) involvement. James Kemp became CEO and chairman of the board in 2003 and the company carried on in its organic growth way, not looking for any accelerated growth jolt from VC funding.

By 2005, this boutique operation had 16 engineers and was steadily but unspectacularly selling product, such as an AoE driver for Linux. In 2009 it had amassed more than 1,100 customers, from biggies like NASA and the US Navy to hundreds of smaller ones; not bad for a boutique operation but a mere nothing in the wider storage world.

This year, times have changed. Suddenly $10m of VC funding came along and Kevin Brown is the new CEO. He encountered Coraid through a VC firm as he was looking for a new opportunity.

Brown had been the CEO of Decru, the storage encryption firm bought by NetApp for $272m in 2005. After being a security VP at NetApp he became the CEO of Kidaro, a desktop virtualisation product vendor, which was later hoovered up by Microsoft in March 2008 for a rumoured $100m.

He reckons Coraid faces a $20bn market for scale-out virtual storage, with commodity hardware economics lowering costs. Storage has become a large, if not the largest, cost in many IT projects and needs cutting down to size.

Brown says server virtualisation has changed the storage landscape: "The company... realised it had a much bigger opportunity. Organic growth was not enough."

Brown reckons Coraid's technology can be used to cut out complex SAN switching fabrics and have storage and servers talking directly over Ethernet, without the burden of connection-oriented protocols like FCoE and iSCSI. AoE is twice as fast as iSCSI and 30 per cent faster than Fibre Channel, according to Coraid.

There will be no need, in Bruce's bright new AoE world, for TCP/IP Offload Engines (TOE cards) or FCoE Converged Network Adapters (CNAs), or Fibre Channel HBAs and switches, just bare bones EtherDrive SAN HBAs or a standard Ethernet NIC (network interface card).

Brown is set to energise Coraid and talks of a "world-class management team." Coile is the chief technology officer, Kemp becomes the operations VP. An ex-Decru colleague of Brown, Carl Wright, is EVP for world-wide sales. He has Josh Leslie, an ex director of sales operations at VMware, as VP for channels and business development, reporting to him. Coraid will launching a new channel-driven sales model and new products before the middle of the year.

The channel appeal will probably include distinctive, fast, and cheap technology, with a 10gigE Coraid EtherDrive HBA costing $899 versus a $1,000 iSCSI 1GigE HBA, according to Coraid. It will be relatively easy for channel people to get trained, the AoE spec being only 12 pages long, and Brown has a $10m budget to fund market awareness and channel development funding.

All the low-end block storage running is being made by iSCSI right now, with FCoE providing the upmarket glamour prospect for the installed Fibre Channel SAN base. Brown's pitch is that the channel can eat into that iSCSI and Fibre Channel cake and have some of it for themselves with a better technology; better because it's simpler, lighter, faster and cheaper.

This pitch could work, with Brown and his team reckoning they could build another business worth $100m in a few years time. There's a lot of dollars to be made shipping storage data over Ethernet and Coraid wants a bigger piece of it. ®

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