The flash-storage market is exciting these days, just because it has all the hallmarks of technology bloodbath. Some people will get killed and others will make a killing.
What do we have so far? Exciting IPOs producing risky, volatile public companies with heavy financial losses. Check. Large public companies paying large amounts of money on dubious acquisitions. Check. Salivating VCs piling in hundreds of millions of dollars into “hot” companies, while they beat their chests to say they have the “best one in the market.” Check.
It’s all there! And it’s not surprising that it’s getting a bit crazy, because the stakes are huge. Big transitions such as the move from hard drives to flash, or solid-state technology, only happen once a decade. Because the larger technology players such as Dell (DELL), Cisco (CSCO), EMC (EMC), HP (HPQ), IBM (IBM), and Network Appliance (NTAP), among others, have built their storage empires on hard-drive technology, so they may have to open up the pocketbooks to get into next-generation cloud storage technology, which is moving rapidly to flash, or Solid State Drive (SSD) technology as it is frequently referrred to.
Why the interest? Flash is coming to the forefront because it stores data on a chip rather than a hard drive with moving parts. This offers many more efficiencies, one being speed of data transfer, and although flash is still more expensive than hard drives, the prices are dropping fast, powered by Moore’s Law. We’ve all seen what Moore’s Law can do with PCs and mobile devices.
Cisco’s purchase of flash-drive Whiptail in September for $415 million surprised a number of people following the market. Several venture sources in Silicon Valley have told me in recent weeks that they were surprised by the deal, because Whiptail was not considered to be the leading acquisition candidate in networked flash storage space. “Maybe they bought them cause they couldn’t get the company they wanted,” one source told me in confidence.
It’s also possible it’s just jealously. No doubt, the Cisco deal was a bit odd. It was technically a “spin-in” because Cisco was an investor in Whiptail and Cisco was working all along to integrate the technology into Cisco systems. But to counter the naysayers, Cisco did pay $415 million, there was an exit. At some point the musical chairs will get more intense of a bevy of emerging private flash-storage companies and they will want to cash in, as Whiptail did.
What are the likely targets? Nimble Storage is acknowledged by many to be among the “hottest” of the new flash-storage generation, though technically it markets a “hyrbid” solution, one that combines flash with hard-drive technology. It may in fact be too late to buy Nimble, as the company has already raised a ton of cash, claims to have revenues of more than $100 million, and is gearing up for an IPO.
Another startup, Pure Storage, is marketing an all-flash solution. Others in the space include Nimbus Data and Tintri. I can’t handicap them myself — I’m just telling you what others tell me. So far, Nimble is considered the gold standard and most likely to have a big IPO.
Nothing is a slam dunk. Just take a look at what’s happened at some earlier flash technology startups that have gone public. Fusion-IO Inc. which was arguably a pioneer in flash storage systems, went public in 2011 at around $20, but it’s now clear at its IPO price it was egregiously overvalued. it has booked heavy losses and gone nowhere but down in value since, recently trading hands around $13 per share. The company lost $23 million in the quarter ending June, showing how dangerous it can be on the “bleeding edge” of a new technology market.
Flash provider Violin Memory (VMEM) went public just last month but had a disappointing reaction on the market. Violin, led by former Fusion IO CEO Donald Basile, has been very aggressive in going to selling an “all flash” rack-mount system for cloud providers. Its heavy financial losses so far raise eyebrows for a public company, and you have to wonder if investors have a Fusion-IO experience ahead of them. These losses point to the danger of being too early in selling expensive systems.
That doesn’t mean the market won’t progress, it will. You’ve already seen flash replace hard drives on mobile devices, and starting now, laptops (yes, believe it or not, once upon a time there was a hard drive in an iPod). The implications of a big move to flash will be even greater for enterprise networks — especially for large cloud-computing environments — where improvements in performance and cost of storage can save huge amounts of money.
The enterprise market will also be filled with complexities. It’s not just about flash technology, but how it is integrated with software and complex computing architectures to deliver the most efficiency. If you want an idea of the complexities that IT buyers face in making storage purchases, check out this thread on Spiceworks.
That’s just more reason the big boys will have to lay out some cash. Yes, they’ve done some deals, but expect way more. Storage is always a question of price and speed, and when a more efficient technology comes along with rapidly dropping cost, it threatens the prior technology.
Below, a summary of M&A and startup acivity shows you why the market is active.
Some recent flash deals:
EMC Buys XtremIO (Est. $430M — May, 2012)
NetApp Buys CacheIQ (Nov., 2012
IBM acquires Texas Memory Systems (Oct., 2012)
Cisco Buys Whiptail for $415M (Sept., 2013)
Interesting Potential Private Targets (amount raised)
Atlantis Computing (Est. $35M+)
Nimble Storage ($100M)
Nimbus Data (private investment not disclosed)
Pure Storage ($245M)
(Disclosure: No position in the private or public companies mentioned in this article.)