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New Cleversafe CEO aims at holes in storage status quo

Object storage startup Cleversafe switched CEOs today. Founder Chris Gladwin gives up the CEO post and becomes vice chairman while continuing to set Cleversafe’s technical vision. John Morris moves into the CEO job after spending four years at Juniper Networks as EVP of field operations and strategic alliances, three years with Pay By Touch as COO and then CEO, and 23 years with IBM.

Chicago-based Cleversafe is among a group of object-based storage startups – a group that also includes Scality, Amplidata, Caringo and Exablox – looking to crack the market while the major vendors rev up their own object platforms to handle petabyte and perhaps exabyte data stores that push the limits of RAID.

Morris spoke with Storage Soup today to outline his plans for Cleversafe.

What brought you to Cleversafe?

Morris: As I left Juniper, I wanted a chance to lead a company. One of the spaces I was looking at in technology was storage, where I think there is a lot of status quo ready to be challenged. I had heard of Cleversafe and followed it a little bit in the local Chicago media. I’m a Chicago guy anyway, and as I got more into learning about the company from Chris Gladwin and [chairman] Chris Galvin and the other board members, it seems to me it’s a great combination of technology that’s ready and accepted by customers, and momentum that is building dramatically.

It’s a great time for me to come in and join the company and bring a depth of experience in scaling businesses to match up with the company’s great technology.

Chris Gladwin is staying with the company, so it seems like Cleversafe won’t be going in a completely new direction with the change. Is this a signal that Cleversafe is moving into a new business phase, and why was the change made now?

Morris: I have to be careful not to disturb the phase we’re in now. We brought in a million dollar order last week. We have a couple of other strategic big orders that we expect to bring in this week. The company is on a tear with customer momentum building, but we also want to make sure that we’re growing in a way that is sustainable and allows us to scale to the heights we want. And that’s where I’m going to be helping to bring in approaches we take to not just have a great few quarters but to have many great years.

How many customers does Cleversafe have?

Morris: We have dozens of customers, that’s as specific as we’ll get. But we’re growing every week.

What’s your biggest challenge in this job?

Morris: We’re attacking an entrenched status quo of big entrenched competitors. In reality, there’s a lot of square peg for a round hole because the kind of data that we’re great at storing is not very well attacked by the status quo technology, in particular the RAID technology out there. So the biggest challenge is making sure the customers understand there’s an alternative out there that gives them better reliability and scalability at a lower cost. As a small company, it’s hard to make yourself known out there so that’s probably the biggest challenge I have now.

What’s the headcount at Cleversafe?

Morris: A little over 100. We’re definitely growing.

Who do you consider the major competitors in the object storage market?

Morris: The dominant players out there – EMC, HP, IBM, Hitachi Data Systems – those are the guys dominating market place and the competitors we think about. They’re throwing the wrong tool at the problem. We think we have a much better tool. Those are the guys I wake up thinking about.

We think we have a much better alternative for the fastest growing part of their market, which is the unstructured data around video and photos and audio and image files, and that sort of thing.

What about some of your fellow startups who sell object storage?

Morris: We’ve shipped more object oriented storage than anybody, by a long shot. Certainly more than the smaller players out there.

When was your last funding round?

Morris: In 2010 we raised $31 million in our C round. We’re in a  fortunate position, we have investors who like what we’re doing and are anxious to help us do more. So fundraising as a big challenge is not something I come in having to face.

Does that mean you’re close to profitability?

Morris: One of the fun things for me about moving into a private company is [laughs], we have an easy answer to that question, which is we’re not releasing any type of financial data around revenue.

Object storage seems to be a big piece of the ViPR software EMC announced last week. Do you expect to see more focus on object storage from the big vendors?

Morris: One of the hardest things that we had to try to do when I was at IBM for a couple of decades was eat our own children. And I’m counting on our large competitors having the same sort of trepidation. While they have offerings in this space, I think they continue to lead with what drives a lot of profit in their current business and that’s an opportunity for us.

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