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Smaller storage companies have proven that they can innovate

Storage Bin: A handful of big companies dominate much of the storage market, but some of the smaller guys have proven that they can innovate and have caught the eye of savvy storage managers.

When you boil it down, there are really only a handful of big, wealthy, powerful players in this business. The EMCs and IBMs have almost all of the power. If they put their competitive sights on you, look out.

Yet, somehow, the entrepreneurial spirit makes some spit in the face of the Goliaths and does its best to run around, underneath or through them. Most get squashed along the way, but some underdogs have outwitted the giants and are reaping their rewards. So are many of you who are taking advantage of their innovations.

Decru was just bought by Network Appliance (NetApp) for 272 million beans. The storage encryption pioneer couldn't get anyone to pay attention to it until the news was full of stories about big banks losing customer information. The fact is, everything worth keeping private will eventually be encrypted. NetApp recognized this and paid handsomely to be the first giant on the block with a story. Now Decru competitors, such as Kasten Chase, NeoScale and Vormetric, are all on the radar screen.

AppIQ couldn't be doing any better. I love this story because it's like Robin Hood--they built a company that tried (successfully, for the most part) to get the old guard to change its proprietary ways and build a better future based on "standards." It's a noble goal, but one that would have had odds of 1,000,000-1 in Vegas. Now AppIQ is the undisputed king of high-end storage management. Engenio, Hewlett-Packard (HP), Hitachi Data Systems and Sun Microsystems all use its software, and it's only a matter of time before the new "I don't have to invent everything" IBM joins the fold.

Compellent is another startup that's starting to hit it big. Founder Phil Soran has been there before with Xiotech. He started this new gig with huge expectations and is hitting them all. First, he set out to build the ueber array--one that does everything you'd ever want, washes dishes and keeps your daughter safe. Somehow he built it and more than 300 people bought it in the first year. Most startups celebrate their tenth customer in a year, but Phil did that in a month.

Engenio is the little train that could. IBM, SGI and Sun are selling truckloads of Engenio gear, and I wouldn't be surprised to see HP and Dell join the family. You may not know Engenio because it's an OEM provider, but it builds rock-solid gear and is the only real OEM provider in the mid-/high-end space. This is the next real storage IPO, if the market ever allows it.

Riverbed makes your WAN scream. Boring? I thought so, but 200 customers in a year make me rethink my position. I love the remote IT consolidation space, and with Cisco buying up Actona, Riverbed and Tacit are the only independents left standing--and both are doing great. This stuff solves real problems, which is always nice.

Who's going to be the next superstar? I like boring, old Iron Mountain. If it can get its act together, then who better to provide digital archive and backup encryption to the masses? How about Pillar Data Systems? Larry Ellison's summer camp for storage misfits is finally shipping product and with Uncle Larry's market presence (and lets face it, dough) this has the opportunity to wreak havoc for a long time.

So hang in there. If Tom Cruise (who appears to act insane as of late) can survive vicious space aliens, then a few of you can surely outmaneuver Microsoft for a while!

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