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NetApp Plasmon’s Trojan Horse for Enterprise Data Centers

Since he sold Softek to IBM and was appointed CEO of British-based optical storage vendor Plasmon last November, Steven Murphy has had a tough row to hoe. Plasmon is one of the few survivors–if not the only survivor–of the optical storage market, which historically has been stunted by usability and cost concerns.

Because of optical’s past, Murphy is pitching Plasmon as an “archiving solutions provider.” He says Plasmon led too much with its blue-ray optical media in the past. “It’s important, but what’s more important for IT managers is a conversation about managing their data requirements,” he said. “This is a change for Plasmon.”

Plasmon began its transition with software for its Archive Appliance that allows applications to access the optical drives through standard CIFS and NFS interfaces, rather than requiring applications to understand the optical media management going on under the covers. That extended to its Enterprise Active Archive software, which supports multiple media libraries as a grid and offers encryption-key-based data destruction for individual files.

Last month Plasmon introduced RAID disk into its branded systems for the first time through a new partnership with NetApp. The main goal of the resulting integration, called the NetArchive Appliance, was to give users a nearline single-instance NAS-based archive for rapid recovery of archive data, since optical media typically has at least a 10 second response time, according to Plasmon chief strategy officer Mike Koclanes. 

Plasmon has several irons in the fire when it comes to a turnaround strategy under Murphy, including licensing its media for resale by other channel partners, and riding the wave of interest in archiving brought on by amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in December 2006. But it’s still going to take some doing to get tactically-oriented IT folk thinking on as long-term a strategic scale as Plasmon’s value proposition demands–users worried about putting out fires aren’t going to be moved by talk of reducing data migrations over decades.

This is where the NetApp partnership comes in. Plasmon has a big task in front of it, trying to bring a medium back to some of the same doorsteps where it has already been passed over before. Maybe if it’s disguised as NAS, goes the current strategy, it could help get a foot in the door.

Koclanes gave the example of one customer who said he was interested in Plasmon’s archiving, but wouldn’t get funding for a new capital equipment project. When the NetArchive product was discussed, it occurred to the customer that he did have built-in funding for more NAS space. “We’re trying to focus on the ways the archive can solve other problems, and ways for users not to have to try to get an entirely new platform put in,” he said.

Plasmon’s newly-minted direct sales force will also emphasize that single-instance archiving to an optical jukebox provides backup relief by removing stagnant files from primary storage systems, has inherent WORM capabilities, and can natively be used either as an on-site part of a library or an off-site data copy for DR, Koclanes said.

Still, anybody checking purchase orders carefully at such a company might notice some unusual costs–while Plasmon systems go for anywhere from $50,000 to $800,000 (“That’s not a price range,” one of my colleagues said when given these figures, “that’s the entire pricing spectrum”), the “sweet spot” according to Murphy is around $225,000. Each optical disk costs about $33–cheap in absolute terms, but not when compared with the cost-per-GB ratios available in today’s hard-drive-based systems.

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