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Nexenta Leverages OpenSolaris and ZFS for Enterprise Storage

While Sun Microsystems may have struggled with making money from its OpenSolaris operating system prior to Sun's acquisition by Oracle (NASDAQ: ORCL), that doesn't mean that others haven't had better success. Storage startup Nexenta Systems is now celebrating its second year in business and its CEO is claiming a positive revenue trend for its system built using OpenSolaris and the Zettabyte File System (ZFS) file system.

Nexenta Systems is a commercial, venture-backed company that has its roots in the open source Nexenta operating system, a hybrid OpenSolaris operating system that includes components from the Debian GNU/Linux distribution. Rather than simply commercializing the operating system, Nexenta System has instead focused its efforts on the needs of enterprise data storage networks.

"Thanks to the input of some early users of Nexenta, we realized that what was really needed was actually a true storage solution that included a user interface and something more than what is available in OpenSolaris," Nexenta CEO Evan Powell told InternetNews.com. "We've been developing that -- something more -- and at this point we've been selling for two years."

Powell said that Nexenta Systems has already begun making money on the strength of its core product, the NexentaStor storage system. The offering now has over 1,000 commercial deployments and growing, according to Powell, with Nexenta's new customer wins increasing 31 percent during first quarter compared to a year earlier.

At the heart of Nexenta Systems business model is an "open core" approach that leverages open source technology and then layers commercial software on top. As a result, Nexenta also offers a freely available community edition of NexentaStor, which is limited to handling 12 terabytes of storage.

"Nexenta.org is fully open source and is a powerful server operating system, but it's not the full NexentaStor solution," Powell said. "NexentaStor has open source components, which we make available, but the whole thing comes as a commercial license."

Meanwhile, the most recent release of the commercial product is the NexentaStor 3.0 update, which included new support for virtualization.

"One area where we think we're best-of-breed with NexentaStor is storage for virtual environments," Powell said. "If you're a storage administrator and it's your job to provide storage for VMware, Xen and Hyper-V, it is kind of tough to do because you can't typically even see those environments from your storage. With NexentaStor, you get that visibility."

Powell added NexentaStor also enables common tasks such as provisioning iSCSI, NFS and Fibre Channel storage from a point-and-click interface. NexentaStor itself is a software distribution that can be deployed on bare metal hardware or as a virtual machine.

"The install experience is part of what we bring," Powell said. "Underneath the hood, it's an OpenSolaris kernel that we then have done some work with and have included a wrapper of Debian Linux."

One of the key technologies Nexenta uses is the ZFS open source file system, which Sun first debuted with Solaris 10. ZFS is a 128-bit file system with enhanced error detection and correction capabilities and is licensed under the CDDL (Common Development and Distribution License) open source license.

Nexenta tracks what is going on in the OpenSolaris community and, according to Powell, picks up new bits relatively quickly.

"The community, meaning Nexenta.org, picks up the new bits from OpenSolaris within a week or two and then those bits go into NexentaStor Community Edition for testing," Powell said. "We test it ruthlessly and have written quite a bit of software for automated testing."

Powell added that community users add another layer of quality assurance testing.

"We do track code commits very closely and the end result for our customers is a very stable solution with what we think is the right combination of kernel components and ZFS-specific components," Powell said.

Nexenta isn't just taking the code from the open source community, it's also contributing back as well. Powell noted that as a result of Nexenta's testing, it sends code patches back to the upstream OpenSolaris open source community.

"Any time we make changes to CDDL code, within 24 hours of us completing the change, we make the patch available," Powell said.

The Future Under Oracle

With the acquisition of Sun, OpenSolaris is now under the direction of Oracle, which has pledged to keep the operating system open source.

"We haven't seen a difference in OpenSolaris since Oracle took over. The sheer quality of the code commits from Oracle paid engineers remains extremely high," Powell said. "We think [Oracle CEO] Larry Ellison is a brilliant leader and we tend to rely on his public statements about the importance of ZFS and Solaris to their strategy."

Still, Nexenta has also added Bill Moore, one of the Sun engineers that helped to design ZFS, to the its advisory board.

"We do feel very confident of our ability to keep moving forward, irrespective of what Oracle decides to do," Powell said. "It's not just about our company; it's about the critical mass in the community, which includes some very large users that leverage ZFS and OpenSolaris for storage."

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

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