Isilon—Trying to Make Storage DAM Smart


Digital content storage is big and dumb. To effectively do more than sit and store, it requires layers of complexity on top of its simple archival core. But the evolution of digital content has changed our expectations: We don't just want to keep content, we want to access it, collaborate on it, and re-use it. Thus, stuffing assets away in some big box won't do and if getting to it has to be a high-level IT function, then what happens to the goals of building a broader user base?

So digital asset management systems and content management systems have evolved to sit on top of storage and increase content usability. But Isilon, founded in January 2001, made its goal the development of out of the box "intelligent storage systems to simplify the production, archiving, and delivery of digital assets." Late this past October, the company announced its first official product launch, Isilon IQ. While the company says its product targets "content," Steve Goldman, who joined Isilon as CEO in September, clarifies saying, "our system is designed for very large digital content files including video, digital photos, medical, and sci-tech images."

Sujal Patel, the company's founder and CTO says, "This is a break from traditional storage archives like databases and email. This data is very, very large, stored in data stores, and expands rapidly. The first fundamental difference between us and storage products in the marketplace," continues Patel, "is that traditional architectures are basically NAS and SAN, but what you end up with is a bunch of servers on your network with a bunch of disks attached to it. Each ends up a completely separate island of storage." For digital assets to be effectively used, according to Isilon, storage cannot be an island, but rather needs to a be a single, shared pool that can be easily managed and scaled to support applications across the digital content workflow.

Isilon IQ is based on a modular design that includes a storage server and 1.44 terabytes of disk capacity into self-contained nodes, which automatically work together in a single cluster, which they boast, "intelligently distributes content across the entire cluster." Patel emphasizes the modularity of the offering; the initial "buy in" is a 4.3TB cluster that can then be scaled 1.44TB at a time.

Another key component is "smart software." IQ includes a software component that offers: automatic content balancing; real-time policy management, which allows for flexibility in protection levels; intelligent algorithms; and self-healing, which continuously monitors the data and insures its data integrality. "This way," according to Patel, "when you add a node, it is transparent to end-users with no elaborate re-pointing of servers to new data repositories."

While the product didn't officially launch until October 20, Isilon already has several customers using IQ including Technicolor and Corbis. According to Goldman, "we wanted to have real-world paying customers that could help us tell the story."

Patel said Technicolor has been "driving Hollywood to move every part of film production to digital." One big hurdle, however, has been extremely large file sizes. According to Patel, Technicolor "had been using a SAN, which was complicated. Now they use our system so that artists can easily connect to it and touch up the frames and do all the things they need to do. As they scaled up, Isilon was the solution they used because it was easy to set up, offered redundancy, and extremely high throughput."

Corbis holds one of the world's largest collections of digital images. They use Isilon IQ for digital image editing and for the review and distribution of final images to partners and, eventually, the public. A key factor for them has been the increased ease of access to the images for a broader range of people. As Goldman put it, "seventy percent of a CIOs budget is in the people, the more people that can use the system, the easier to demonstrate ROI to investors."

With their rich media focus, it is not surprising that two of Isilon IQ's early adopters are in media and entertainment. However, both Goldman and Patel see large growth markets in the sci-tech, medical, and government sectors. According to Goldman, "Our competition, in the broadest brush strokes, are the storage providers like EMC…but as a start-up company, we are able to be more flexible than [the entrenched players] and more responsive to customers' needs."

"For the people that are making digital content, working with it, storing it, and are concerned about extracting value from it," says Goldman, "we make their lives easier."