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Panasas storage yearns for expanded enterprise presence

After six years as chief operating officer, Panasas CEO Tom Shea took the helm last year to pilot the company's storage roadmap.

Faye Pairman led Panasas as CEO for 10 years before stepping down last year. Pairman oversaw the revamp of the Panasas ActiveStor flagship NAS array and the introduction of the PanFS parallel file system for high-performance computing. Now, COO Tom Shea has moved into the CEO role, vowing to continue the expansion of Panasas storage to serve emerging workloads.

Shea takes over amid the hurly-burly of COVID-19, which continues to reshape how businesses buy and consume storage and other IT services.

Prior to joining Panasas in November 2014, Shea logged time as an executive with Sandisk (now part of Western Digital Corp.) and Symantec. He also served as president and CEO at two storage startups: caching appliance vendor Gear6, which was acquired by Violin Memory (now Violin Systems), and sync-and-share vendor Mirra, which Seagate acquired.

SearchStorage recently spoke with Shea on the state of the storage industry and his vision to make Panasas storage more competitive with scale-out NAS products such as Dell EMC Isilon, NetApp FAS and Pure Storage FlashBlade storage systems.

What was the most challenging aspect of doing business during COVID restrictions?

Tom SheaTom Shea

Tom Shea: It's one of those things where we got lucky. Two years ago, we made an investment in [buying] all the systems we need to bring our team together from different parts of the world. We have our headquarters in Sunnyvale [Calif.] and another office in Pittsburgh. We didn't miss a beat when going remote, in terms of productivity of our engineering team or our support team. There's no question, though, that it is a lot harder to deal with customer installations when you're remote. Most of our installs over the last year have happened remotely between us and our customers.

What's your strategy to expose Panasas storage to more enterprises?

Tom Shea: As our business changes and our strategy changes, we are going to add people in areas of the company that that have not been a big point of emphasis for our company in the past.  The plan is to increase our sales footprint. We have some good partnerships, but I'm focused on expanding our external partnerships with either OEMs or resellers. We aspired to do that in the past, but it wasn't practical until we made the new platform portable to run on different qualified hardware. Now we can work with [additional] partners more easily than we could before.

The Panasas ActiveStor redesign is based on qualified Intel-based storage nodes. Will PanFS be licensed as a software-only product at some point?

We made it so our software will run on just about any hardware that meets the specs.
Tom SheaCEO, Panasas

Tom Shea: That isn't what we mean by portability. We have separated the software from the underlying hardware by moving to Linux. We made a bunch of different changes, but we don't make any modifications at the kernel level. We made it so our software will run on just about any hardware that meets the specs. That said, our users still expect us to deliver the experience of high-performance computing, so we have to be choosy about our partners. That's why we refer to PanFS as being portable, as opposed to software-defined.

Competition among HPC storage providers is heating up, with established vendors trying to move upstream. What's your plan to gain ground in the enterprise segment?

Tom Shea: With our previous Panasas-specific hardware, we had a couple different models that were all  fairly similar. That made it hard to take market share. The new ActiveStor platform makes us more competitive on larger deals. There are many enterprise-type customers where the decision-maker in IT is fundamentally trying to figure out how AI and HPC infrastructure elements can be combined to create strategic business value. That decision-maker is our target customer.

Our customers are airline manufacturers, engine manufacturers, that simulate alternative fuels. We're now seeing a lot of progress [selling to] bio labs. They've got all these pieces of equipment spitting out huge amounts of data. Those folks don't think like traditional HPC guys, in terms of wanting to build their own stuff or work with open source. They're looking for an appliance and a great enterprise-type experience.

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