Monday, November 14, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Isilon eager to make its mark

Seattle Times technology reporter

Super-powered conference

Who's going? About 9,000 attendees are expected, including a large number from academic and university research facilities.

Can the public attend? The conference is co-sponsored by the Association for Computing Machinery and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Members of those groups receive a discounted registration; nonmembers could pay $80 for one day of exhibits or $700 to attend the full conference.

What's on display? The exhibitor list includes some of the computer industry's biggest names, including AMD, Apple Computer and Cisco Systems. Scientific institutions and universities have also signed up to show off their research.

No kid stuff Presentation topics include things like "High performance linear algebra operations on reconfigurable systems."

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Source: SC|05

Isilon Systems Chief Executive Steve Goldman has high hopes for his company, to put it mildly.

"I think we could be the next big company in Seattle," he said.

That's some serious optimism, especially for a company that isn't profitable. But sales this year tripled from 2004, and next year Goldman expects them to triple again. Profit, he said, will follow.

Isilon is trying to make a splash this week with the supercomputing industry, which lies far outside the core customer base it has courted in the past. The industry is converging in Seattle this week for SC|05, an annual supercomputing conference and trade show that began Saturday and extends through Friday.

About 9,000 attendees are expected for the 18-year-old conference, which grows by about 1,000 attendees every year.

Supercomputing, a historically volatile business, is seeing new interest as software applications advance and the need for more powerful data crunching grows. The field involves the development of computers with massive processing power, which are used in areas such as land exploration and drug development.

One leading supercomputer maker, Cray, is based in Seattle.

SC|05 is sometimes considered to be the next Comdex, the now-defunct trade show that once was a must-attend for computer companies worldwide. Organizers aren't angling to fill that void, though.

"We're not as commercial as Comdex," said Kathryn Kelley, who oversees communications for the conference. "It still fills a very particular niche."

Microsoft also will be trying to make an impression with attendees, many who are hardcore loyalists to open-source software. Chairman Bill Gates is keynoting the conference for the first time.

Industry pillar Sun Microsystems is expected to announce the largest supercomputing deal in its history.

Isilon will work the crowd on a much smaller scale, introducing a new product and trying to convince attendees that high-powered computing also needs high-powered storage.

Media focus first

Isilon started in 2001 as a storage provider for the media and entertainment industries — partly because its founders had previously worked at digital-media company RealNetworks and it needed to carve out a niche to get started.

The storage business is dominated by large incumbents, including Sun and IBM.

Sports Illustrated and NBC took Isilon's storage system to Athens to store the video and digital images captured at the 2004 Summer Olympics. Sony Pictures Imageworks, a visual-effects and animation company, uses the system to store motion-picture files.

Now, Isilon is broadening its user base to other industries that need to store, and quickly access, large data files. Some of its newest customers are oil and gas companies that are developing complicated three-dimensional models with data from seismic surveys.

Such companies are continually exploring for undiscovered oil and natural-gas deposits. The search is made more urgent as the need for energy sources becomes more pressing, making the field a good niche for Isilon to pursue.

Isilon, which launched its first product in 2003, has doubled its customer base in the past six months to more than 100. Growth came as Isilon turned its focus to sales, recruiting more than 50 reseller partners in the last year.

As a private company, Isilon doesn't disclose its finances. It says it will reach profitability on the strength of the $20 million funding raised in May.

Isilon has raised $59.9 million to date. Primary investors have included Lehman Brothers Venture Partners, Focus Ventures and Sequoia Capital.

New product

Today, in conjunction with the show, the company is introducing a new product called the Isilon IQ Accelerator, designed to increase the performance of its data-storage products by ramping up the speed at which data can be stored and accessed.

It is also partnering with Microsoft to show how its clustered storage works with Microsoft's server systems.

Clustered storage offers connected "nodes" of storage, with the idea that smaller segments acting in concert would be more efficient than one large depository.

Storage hardware is a $13 billion market, with sales growing about 10 percent a year, said Stephanie Balaouras, an analyst who covers the storage industry for Forrester Research. When storage networking and software is added to the mix, the market rises to at least $20 billion, she said.

Isilon's biggest obstacle right now is convincing new customers it's a trusted company that won't fold in a few years, Balaouras said.

"It is a risk to go with an emerging company versus an incumbent," she said. "If that company's not around in two years, who's going to provide the storage support for the system you've invested in?"

Isilon executives acknowledge the challenge.

"The biggest barrier to growth is getting our name out," Goldman said.

He added that the company is best known in media and entertainment, a relatively small industry. With the help of new resellers, Goldman is hoping that will change.

"We're well past being a startup," he said. "A year from now, we'll be trying to go as fast as we can to keep up."

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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