Editor’s note: Avere Systems was first to market as a hybrid cloud storage offering. Avere allows organizations to store their files in the cloud or on-premises yet always maintain on-premises speeds. The solution is particularly useful for industries working with an extremely large amount of files, and four of the world’s largest technology companies by market cap use Avere Systems. Ron Bianchini, Avere’s co-founder, president and CEO, developed NetApp’s scale-out storage clustering technology and holds 24 patents related to distributed systems and high-speed network design. In this interview, he discusses cloud storage solutions and trends; he also shares insights for software startups.
Q: Please give me the elevator speech about Avere.
Ron Bianchini: Avere provides hybrid cloud storage solutions that give companies across a wide variety of industries the flexibility to leverage the cloud in conjunction with their existing storage infrastructure to eliminate high storage costs and mitigate the network latency and security concerns associated with cloud.
Q: What is your product’s differentiation?
Ron Bianchini: With Avere, companies can move data on and off the cloud or on-premises storage and can add and subtract capacity when it’s needed, all of which works to prevent vendor lock-in. What really differentiates us is that we allow companies to have full control over their data – where it’s stored and when. You can think of us as the ultimate enabler for modern data storage. With hybrid cloud, organizations can get the best of both worlds.
Q: How did your company originate; what inspired you to launch the company?
Ron Bianchini: The idea for Avere was born during the coming of age of solid-state storage, more commonly known as flash storage. At the time, people thought that solid-state storage was going to solve all kinds of storage problems since the performance provided by flash is unbeatable. But, I could see that an all solid-state data center would be too expensive, particularly since 90 percent of the data that companies produce is not active.
What I wanted to do was find a way to leverage the advantages of solid-state storage and spinning disk (how storage was done before flash was invented) and give IT a way to grow storage performance independent of capacity.
The ultimate solution, to me, was to combine the performance offered by solid-state storage with the capacity and low cost of spinning disk into a tiered storage solution – and that is the solution that Avere brought to market in 2010. We’ve subsequently built upon that vision by adding cloud into the mix and now offer a hybrid cloud solution that marries disk and flash and provides an on-ramp to cloud resources.
Q: What is the story behind your company name?
Ron Bianchini: In Italian, Avere means “to have” or “to hold.” “Having” or “holding” data is what storage is all about and, as I happen to be of Italian heritage, the name made sense.
Q: What factors are driving organizations to a hybrid cloud storage solution and how does Avere address those needs?
Ron Bianchini: People are attracted to the cloud because it is versatile and gives organizations the ability to scale at a moment’s notice. For example, if you find yourself running out of storage capacity, new capacity can be provisioned in minutes. Or if you need to analyze a large-scale data set quickly, you can rent CPU cycles from one of the three big public cloud providers.
Behind the scenes, Avere helps organizations move to a more heterogeneous storage environment that includes cloud. Avere is different than other cloud enablement storage providers because it truly allows for freedom of choice in where company data is stored, as well as the flexibility to move data between different storage providers quickly and cost-effectively. This aspect in particular will become essential in the following years so that businesses can avoid becoming hostage to cloud or traditional vendors alike.
Q: In what ways do you believe cloud storage solutions will change over the next two to three years?
Ron Bianchini: One trend that we are seeing in a lot of next-gen storage solutions is flexibility, or at least the claim to flexibility, and businesses will ultimately choose vendors that have the capability of evolving with their future storage needs.
Businesses now are running into the issue of cloud provider lock-in, which is really just another form of vendor lock-in, similar to what businesses experienced with traditional on-premises storage providers. The potential for lock-in comes from the difficulties or costs of moving datasets. Businesses will start to explore vendors or solutions that allow for data mobility to avoid becoming a “cloud hostage.”
Flexibility in cloud providers will become a must-have for businesses. Vendors that can easily integrate with or provide flexible cloud-based services will have the edge and be able to change cloud providers as the industry matures.
Q: Prior to founding Avere, you founded Spinnaker Networks (acquired by NetApp) and Scalable Networks (acquired by FORE). And your core team in those two companies is now with you at Avere. How did you originally find this core team?
Ron Bianchini: It all revolves around Carnegie Mellon. The intelligence around data storage has always been incredible at CMU; in fact, it’s emerging as the number one research center for file systems and data storage in the United States.
While I was a student and later a professor at CMU, I was surrounded by some of the best technology minds. For example, I first met Mike Kazar, our CTO, and Dan Nydick, our director of software engineering, at CMU. In addition, many of my former students are now employees. We continue to recruit the best talent from CMU for our growing team.
Q: How has Avere benefitted by having this same core team in place from the outset?
Ron Bianchini: By having the same core team, we’ve been able to build a huge amount of trust. We all know that everyone has the best intentions for the company, so we are able to build great working relationships with each other. It also means that we know each other really well, strengths and weaknesses included. We know who to go to for specific jobs or tasks and can trust that they’ll do it right.
It’s one thing to write a job description, but it’s an entirely different ballgame to see people in action – how they behave outside of the box or beyond what is in the job description. I’ve seen my team face all kinds of hurdles and problems and know that they’ll act for the good of the company.
Q: Please describe one of your company’s lessons learned and where it occurred in the timeline of your product’s development.
Ron Bianchini: Early on, we thought that we would partner with traditional storage companies, but we realized that the more lucrative partnerships would be with cloud service providers. By late 2014, we had partnered with AWS, and last month we announced that Avere will now work with the Google Cloud Platform as well.
Like I said, we’re seeing how disruptive cloud can be as customers come to us and ask us to help in transitioning their environment from an all on-premises setup to one that leverages the cloud. Avere initially aimed to separate storage performance and capacity, and the move to the cloud is really the ultimate embodiment of this.
Q: What are some of the things that took longer than you anticipated in getting your product to market?
Ron Bianchini: When we went to do our first customer installations, we were surprised by the complexity and diversity of our customers’ environments. We hadn’t anticipated such complexity or disparity in customer environments. It took us a while to get used to this and to figure out how to best implement Avere.
The size and scale of some of our customers’ environments was also a surprise to us. We had to adjust the time to do simulations to fit to the sheer scale of the infrastructure.
Q: How did you find your first few customers?
Ron Bianchini: We were lucky in this respect and actually didn’t have too much trouble finding our first few customers. When I started Avere, I had already made close relationships with customers from my other companies, Spinnaker and Scalable. I felt comfortable enough contacting them about Avere and they wanted the product. That’s one of the benefits of successful serial entrepreneurship.
Q: How did you determine the right pricing for your product?
Ron Bianchini: We sell our product in a multitude of ways – from an appliance, to a software-only subscription version in the cloud. Pricing is based upon the amount of active data that we hold in our solution.
Q: What was your toughest moment at Avere so far?
Ron Bianchini: Oddly enough, our toughest moment was moving offices from our suburban startup office to our bigger, city location, where we are at now. It was a point of contention in the company, mostly because of the commute issue. You can think of it as moving from an Oakland to San Francisco location – some commutes are going to be longer and some shorter. We were split about 50-50. The move turned out to be the right choice. Being closer to downtown has helped with recruiting young talent from the many universities in the area (plus we’re right near the best lunch spots in town).
Q: From your observation, what is the most challenging aspect of innovation, and how have you overcome that challenge at your company?
Ron Bianchini: Finding good people is definitely the most challenging aspect of innovation. We are lucky that we are situated right next door to the top minds in storage, with our proximity to CMU, but finding the right minds can still be tough.
At Avere, we’ve found that the first step to finding the correct talent is convincing them to share our vision for what we are building. One great selling point for us is that, since we are smaller, engineers and developers play a significant role in developing the company. We also find that offering equity is a good way to cinch the deal.
Q: What did you, as the company leader, do to build a corporate environment that enabled your employees to move beyond the early stage of a startup?
Ron Bianchini: Avere is driven by the customers. We focus on their needs and take their feedback seriously. After all, the product is for them. It’s important to listen to what they have to say and what they are requesting from our product.
Too many companies start by saying, “Here’s a cool idea … we’ll find the market later” when really it should be the other way around. I’m a believer in first discovering a customer problem, then creating a solution around it.
Q: Is there a business leader or other person who has greatly influenced your approach to your work?
Ron Bianchini: Speaking frankly, no one person has influenced how I run a company more than my mother. Maybe this is an unusual choice, but I learned so much about how to create harmony in a group from her. I grew up in a large extended family and can thank her for giving me the tools to create a peaceful and cooperative work environment.
Q: What do the next 12 months hold for your company?
Ron Bianchini: This next year we are looking to aggressively scale. We’re planning to introduce our product to new markets, regions and customers. We’re also looking to go deeper into our existing relationships with cloud service providers and to develop new ones – as evidenced by our newest collaboration with Google. We’re also looking to go deep into several key verticals including media and entertainment and life sciences. We recently announced John Hopkins University as a customer and think this is one vertical in particular where our technology can really have an impact.
Q: If you could change something about the software industry, what would it be?
Ron Bianchini: One aspect of the entire tech industry, which is particularly troublesome in software, is the broken patent system. The struggle is that nowadays, patents are so meaningless and can actually prevent innovation rather than foster it. Patents used to be a more rational process. I’d like to see a reform that brings them back to their original, useful purpose: that of rightly protecting IP.
Ron Bianchini is co-founder, president and CEO at Avere Systems. Prior to Avere, Ron was a senior vice president at NetApp, where he served as the leader of the NetApp Pittsburgh Technology Center. Before NetApp, he was CEO and co-founder of Spinnaker Networks, which developed the scale-out storage clustering technology acquired by NetApp. He was also vice president of product architecture at FORE Systems and co-founder of Scalable Networks (acquired by FORE).
Kathleen Goolsby is managing editor of SandHill.com.