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Igenous CEO Kiran Bhageshpur (left) and Chief Marketing Officer Steve Pao.
Igneous CEO Kiran Bhageshpur (left) and Chief Marketing Officer Steve Pao.

All the benefits of public-cloud data storage, behind your own firewall. That’s the promise Seattle startup Igneous Systems is making with its first product offering, which it’s announcing today after three years of stealth operation.

Called Igneous Data Service, the new offering provides object storage of very large unstructured-data sets in a customer’s data center, using hardware that Igneous custom-builds and then remotely maintains through cloud-based, automated management software. Customers buy no equipment and install no software.

“Today, when people talk about the private cloud, it usually means customers are still buying hardware, installing software and managing infrastructure,” said CEO and co-founder Kiran Bhageshpur during a recent interview with GeekWire. “We think of ourselves as private cloud for real, as true cloud for local data. As our customer, you just consume storage resources across an API.”

Igneous Data Service is only the first of the company’s planned offerings, the execs stressed, declining even to hint at what may come next.

Founded in October 2013 by Bhageshpur— the former vice president of engineering in the Isilon Storage Division at EMC — Igneous has kept a low profile, even as its venture capital coffers swelled.

It has raised $26.7 million to date, including an eye-opening $23.7 million round in 2014. That investment included participation from Madrona Venture Group (an early investor in Isilon); New Enterprise Associates (an early backer of Tableau Software); Redpoint Ventures (an early investor in Twilio); and Isilon co-founder Sujal Patel.

Seattle-based Isilon sold to EMC in 2010 for $2.25 billion, and it remains to this day one of the biggest success stories in Madrona Venture Group’s portfolio.

Igneous recently moved to offices in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood with room for 100 people, though only 41 are on staff at the moment, most of them engineers.

Organizations might have several reasons to keep their data on-premises, said Bhageshpur and chief marketing officer Steve Pao. They may value the speed of accessing it at LAN speeds rather than the internet speeds encountered when using the public cloud. They may judge the data to be too valuable or confidential to upload. And their data may accumulate so rapidly that it’s impractical to upload.

The Igneous hardware consists of a standard-sized rectangular box filled with twin columns of 30 vertically positioned 3.5-inch hard disk drives, each enhanced with an Igneous-designed, ARM-based circuit board that monitors the drive’s health and manages its data distribution.  The drives are linked by Ethernet, I/O constraints are minimized, and if one drive goes out, “it’s cattle, not a pet. We replace it on our schedule, but it’s nothing anyone has to care about,” Pao said.

The total capacity per box is 212 TB usable, and boxes can be added to increase storage capacity in 212-TB increments. Data is inspected and indexed as it’s imported and is stored in an unstructured fashion, as objects.

Customers access their data through Amazon Web Services’ S3 API, which Raj Bala, research director for the Gartner Group, said has become an industry standard. In contrast, accessing even unstructured data stored in a conventional, network-attached filesystem requires only an operating-system call. Such filesystems are severely limited in their ability to scale. Still, the need to use APIs to access unstructured data in object storage has slowed the growth of such storage, Bala said.

Depending on an API for data access needn’t be an impediment, according to Igneous’s Pao. Applications’ data-access method can be converted using any of numerous S3-compliant toolkits. Or customers can use a commercially available gateway to translate. An option for simply browsing Igneous-stored data is to use one of several available S3-compliant data viewers.

Gartner’s Bala, who was briefed on Igneous’s plans, said the company is creating its own niche.

“Their take on storage is unique,” he said. “Igneous takes things to the extreme of making storage easy to manage and deploy, saying the customer only has to provide power and cooling. That’s absolutely a good thing.”

The market for object storage is so small at this point that this is the first year Garner will release one of its highly regarded Magic Quadrant reports on the segment. Igneous won’t be in it, because it lacks the threshold revenue.

But the object-storage market after many years of quiescence appears poised to go mainstream within three to five years, Bala said.

“So maybe Igneous will have timed the market just right. And I must say, I’m already getting customer calls asking me about their product. That’s fairly unique so early in the life of a company.”

Igneous puts its total addressable market at $10 billion. Bala puts it at one-tenth of that.

“Our estimate is based on who is selling infrastructure into the enterprise data center market, including EMC, NetApp, Dell, IBM and HP,” Bhageshpur wrote in an email. “We are not going after EMC, per se.  We aim to solve for customer requires in the world of IT-as-a-service going forward  that just aren’t met by traditional infrastructure vendors.”

Igneous customers will pay about $40,000 a year for the basic 212-TB box and service, Bhageshpur said. That equates to 1.5 cents per gigabyte per month, compared to the public cloud’s 3 cents, he said. It equates to under $200 per TB per year, which compares favorably to the private ownership capital-expense model of $1,000 per TB per year.

Why did it take three years to emerge from stealth mode?

“Three years focused on R&D is what venture capital is for,” Pao said. “The innovator’s dilemma keeps an incumbent vendor from doing this kind of R&D. Our venture capitalists understood the vision and provided us with the capital to realize this vision.”

The company already has 11 patents under its belt, he noted.

Updated to provide more about the competitive landscape.

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