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Data storage industry mergers and acquisitions in 2013 focus on flash

Several storage vendors sought to beef up their portfolios this year through flash storage acquisitions, while others went the software-defined route.

Right about now, you might be suffering from a flash cache hangover. The 2013 flash binge started in January when Violin Memory Inc. picked up GridIron Systems Inc. and it was still going strong in September when Western Digital Corp. scooped up Virident Systems Inc. for $685 million. The buy marked the third flash acquisition Western Digital made in a four-month span.

But it was Cisco Systems Inc. -- a surprise guest at the party -- that made everyone stop and stare. Cisco's Whiptail acquisition startled plenty of people in the data storage industry, and Cisco executives acknowledged they hesitated before deciding to make a move that had the potential to place the company in direct competition with longtime partners EMC Corp., NetApp Inc. and Hitachi Data Systems.

Indeed, Paul Perez, vice president and general manager of Cisco's computing systems product group, wanted to ensure everyone understood that this area of technology represented a "safe overlap" with Cisco partners. He tried to calm concerns by assuring folks that Cisco wasn't out to disrupt the storage market -- just the server market. Despite Perez's careful positioning, the Whiptail acquisition had boardrooms buzzing as the IT industry speculated on how the deal might impact storage array vendors.

In many cases, this year's flash acquisitions filled obvious gaps in product lines. When Western Digital paid $340 million for sTec Inc., data storage industry analysts were quick to say that Hitachi solid-state drives (SSDs) -- running on an Intel controller -- had lost its competitive edge and was in need of sTec's expertise. At the same time, sTec was struggling. The company had once been an exclusive provider of SSDs to EMC but lost its early lead in this market as more players came along.

The sTec SSD technology was integrated with Western Digital subsidiary HGST (formerly Hitachi Global Storage Technologies).

Last summer, Western Digital bet on flash again when it scooped up VeloBit Inc., a company selling server-based caching software for block-based primary storage and SSDs. Western Digital acquired PCI Express (PCIe) flash startup Virident a few months later to complete its flash pickups -- for this year, anyway. The three 2013 Western Digital deals were part of a plan CEO Steve Milligan said had been in the making for the last five years, when the company started evaluating flash technology companies.

Server-side flash vendor Fusion-io Inc. made two flash software acquisitions in 2013, and company executives said more are likely as the technology evolves. Fusion-io grabbed U.K.-based ID7 for an undisclosed amount and paid $119 million for NexGen Storage, a company using Fusion-io PCIe cards along with hard disk drives in its n5 hybrid systems.

EMC's acquisition of ScaleIO in July had the company joining the flash action. EMC executives said ScaleIO would be folded into the company's flash product division and that the acquisition complemented EMC's plan for its ViPR software-defined storage initiative. Earlier in the year EMC had acquired iWave Software LLC, its OEM partner and a developer of storage and cloud automation technology that EMC used in its VMAX Service Provider Platform.

At first glance, the first data storage acquisition of the year, in early January, had nothing to do with flash, and everything to do with spinning disk. Imation Corp., in an attempt to remake itself as a storage company with offerings outside of tape media, paid $120 million for Nexsan. But a flash angle does exist within the Imation-Nexsan deal. Nexsan's data storage portfolio has expanded with the addition of its NST500 hybrid flash multiprotocol storage.

Of course, software-defined storage -- a technology getting as much attention as flash -- also made an impression on buyers in 2013. When VMware Inc. acquired software startup Virsto Software Corp., the move was described as a way for VMware to bolster its software-defined data center strategy.

And last month, two struggling vendors in the data storage industry -- Overland Storage and Tandberg Data -- threw each other a lifeline in a late-year merger that means the two companies will combine to try to make next year a money-earning one. The all-stock transaction means the companies will bring $100 million in combined revenues heading into 2014.

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