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Web 2.0 companies go for new managed storage service

Some users prefer the performance and features of Nirvanix's managed storage service to Amazon's Simple Storage Service (S3).

A managed storage service introduced this fall is attracting online entrepreneurs in a bid by the vendor, Nirvanix Inc., to compete with Amazon's Simple Storage Service (S3).

Nirvanix came out of stealth in September, claiming it could overcome the performance issues reported by some large S3 users. Nirvanix promises better performance than Amazon because it is constructing a global network of storage nodes based on the way Web content delivery systems work. By spreading its storage and processing power across nodes in several colocation sites, Nirvanix keeps its resources close to its customers and reduces network latency.

The service also targeted S3 on customer service, offering a 99.9% uptime service level agreement (SLA) to customers, prompting Amazon to come out with its own SLA in October.

Nirvanix has a long way to go before it can truly challenge S3, which has Amazon's global infrastructure and brand recognition to back it up. Nirvanix's 18 cents per gigabyte of storage per month fee, a "slight premium" over S3, is a result of the fact that Nirvanix lacks Amazon's economies of scale, according to Patrick Harr, CEO at Nirvanix. It's also difficult for an unproven service provider to get enterprises to put their data eggs in its basket. But so far, the new service has found some adherents already in the Web 2.0 economy.

Added features in Nirvanix appeal to customers

"Amazon was like a big empty box that we could put stuff in," said Michael Witz, CEO at FreeDrive. "Nirvanix offers more features, like video encoding, with its storage service."

FreeDrive is itself a managed storage service offered to users of Facebook and other social networking sites. Users can put videos, files and images on the drive that they can automatically update through a button on their Facebook profile. When users post information on FreeDrive, their Facebook friends who subscribe to their drive can also access the files.

"With Amazon, we could have stored our data with them, but we would've had to bring it back and then transfer it to the customer," Witz added. "With Nirvanix, we can make a direct connection between the file and the customer."

Although Nirvanix doesn't have all the features he'd like to see built out yet, like document encoding similar to the video encoding it already offers, Witz said the service provider is headed in the right direction. Witz gives Nirvana high marks on the scalability of its back-end storage. "We're adding 2,000 customers per day right now," he said. "I realized quickly that we weren't going to be able to manage the storage for all of that, and actually, I have tried to outsource everything about our company not core to our business. We're counting on Nirvanix to handle it."

Wider, faster pipe offered by Nirvanix

In each of Nirvanix's storage nodes is a global namespace layered over a clustered file system running on Dell Inc. servers residing in colocation facilities. These nodes also perform automatic load balancing by making multiple copies of "popular" files and spreading them over different servers within the cluster. With this storage infrastructure, the company is claiming it can offer users a wider pipe, as well as a faster one, allowing file transfers of up to 256 GB.

This speed and scalability was the main reason the service appealed to Saroop Bharwani, co-founder and CEO of Ogrant Inc., a new Web-based financial aid service for college students. Ogrant invites its audience to submit videos and other multimedia presentations for grants from colleges and advertisers.

"I was literally two seconds away from signing with Amazon when out of nowhere I saw an ad for Nirvanix on my Gmail account," Bharwani said, referring to Google's targeted ads on its Web-based email service. He conducted a little more research and came across the stories about performance problems with Amazon that had been published on the Web.

Bharwani never tested S3, but the performance issues he read about "put a sour taste in my mouth" about Amazon. However, Amazon was an established company, and Nirvanix was just starting out. So Bharwani had some second thoughts until hearing about Nirvanix's $12 million round of venture funding.

In beta tests, Ogrant ran into performance bottlenecks, but Bharwani said they were quickly resolved. "We saw some issues with load time on our videos during tests," he said. "Load time was longer than play time in some cases." Nirvanix made a couple of large infrastructure upgrades and changed the routing of data between its facility in San Diego and Ogrant's in Toronto. That smoothed out the issues within a day or two, according to Bharwani. Since then, the service has worked without a hitch, and the site has had no performance issues with its videos, he reported.

"The way they worked with us during beta tests is important to me as well," Bharwani said. "With Amazon, it's meant for developers, so you're supposed to just figure stuff like that out on your own. I don't mind paying for more customer service."

Bharwani said he also believes that the infrastructure behind the Nirvanix service will suit him better as his site grows. "Nirvanix specializes in storing video and images," he said. "And 18 cents per gigabyte is nothing compared to the dollar per view of the file I would've had to pay for the same thing on our Web server."

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