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iXsystems: 'weird' but profitable NAS vendor

Here’s something you rarely hear from high tech companies today:

“We’re a hardware company in our heart and soul.”

That is how executive vice president Brett Davis introduced iXsystems during a press tour in early December at the NAS vendor’s San Jose, California headquarters. The company sells open-source based TrueNAS enterprise hardware and FreeNAS desktop systems.

Self-identifying as a hardware company in this software-defined world is only one reason why iXsystems seems out of place in Silicon Valley. The vendor also bootstrapped its financing, turning a profit without accepting outside investment.

“We’re private, profitable and self-funded,” Davis said. “Our heritage goes back to the ‘90s. We’ve just been here. We say we’re unique, but you can say we’re weird.”

But it’s the hardware tag that provides most of the weirdness these days. The iXsystems headquarters includes a manufacturing facility in the back, where Davis said the 130-person company can fulfill 3,000 orders in a day.

The vendor claims more than 4,000 customers, including Sony, NBC, Duke University and NASA.

But the iXsystems strategy of bundling open-source storage software on commodity hardware isn’t that unusual.  Plenty of others do that, and label it software-defined storage. But only iXsytems boasts it’s a hardware company even if its value comes from open-source projects.

The company’s roots date to Berkeley Software Design, Inc. (BSDi), which started in 1991. iXsystems founders founders Mike Lauth and Matt Olander acquired the hardware business from BSDi in 2002. Lauth has been the CEO and Olander the CTO since then. From the start, iXsystems was heavily involved in the FreeBSD project and is the project leader for FreeNAS Storage and TrueOS Desktop open-source operating systems.

Davis said 70% of iXsystems appliances are custom configurations. The vendor uses Intel, AMD and ARM chips inside. The systems support VMware, Microsoft Hyper-V, Citrix, KVM and OpenStack virtualization software, Hadoop, Docker and MySQL data and container platforms, and FreeNAS, FreeBSD, CentOS, Red Hat Linux and  Ubuntu open  source software.

“We’ve been doing open source since way before it was cool,” Davis said. “We give away the number one software-defined storage (FreeNAS), but software and hardware are inseparable.”

iXsystems re-sold storage systems from Dot Hill, Infortrend and others in the late 2000s, but had to rely on those vendors for support. Now iXsystems provides end-to-end support for its storage. The company acquired the FreeNAS project in late 2009, and then spent two years re-writing the operating system before making it commercially available. iXsystems ported the OpenZFS open-source enterprise file system to FreeNAS and TrueNAS. That gave FreeNAS and TrueNAS file, block and object support, triple parity RAID, support for flash and unlimited instant snapshots.

FreeNAS and TrueNAS are both unified storage systems, and TrueNAS also supports Fibre Channel networking. TrueNAS competes with the likes of Dell EMC VNXe and Unity, NetApp FAS, Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s MSA 2040 and Nimble arrays, and Western Digital’s Tegile platform.

Davis said iXsystems is staying out of hyper-convergence, even though it has all the pieces – including FreeBSD’s open-source bhyve hypervisor.

“We can run virtual machines and containers in FreeNAS,” he said. “We have the capabilities to do it, and we have our own hypervisor. But it’s a competitive space, and we have other plans.”

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