Symform, Founded by Ex-Microsoft Pair, Offers Cheap, Efficient Data Storage in the Cloud

2/19/09Follow @gthuang

It could be the most exciting cloud-computing startup you’ve never heard of. It’s two guys in a room overlooking Lake Union, in a hard-to-spot building next to the Fremont Bridge. And it uses Amazon Web Services and other people’s computers to do data storage, backup, and retrieval in the Internet cloud.

It’s called Symform—a stealthy Seattle outfit founded by a pair of ex-Microsoft employees, Praerit Garg and Bassam Tabbara. Their cloud-storage technology seems pretty cool, and the problem they’re solving is a real one. But what’s most interesting is how they’re applying what they learned at Microsoft to their business model and sales strategy. Symform has already released a closed alpha to its partners, and plans to roll out its public beta software in the next couple of months; it’s just starting to generate some buzz.

First, some more background. Garg came to Microsoft in 1994, having done undergraduate studies in India and a Master’s degree in computer science at Purdue University. He worked for several years on software security and Microsoft Windows before switching to a smaller team in 2003 that delivered technologies to products like Visual Studio and Windows Server. That’s where he met Tabbara, a software architect who’d previously spent time in Microsoft Research. Garg, who became a senior director in the Server and Tools division, left Microsoft in late 2007 to start something new, and Tabbara joined him.

Here’s the problem they’ve been tackling for the past 15 months. If you’re a small business, you’re probably not doing much to back up your data off-site. In case of a disaster—hardware failure, human error, theft, fire—you’re probably screwed. Garg says more than half of small businesses do nothing, while 16 percent back up their data on tapes or disks, which is prone to errors, management overhead, and media failure. About 10 percent do some form of online storage, which has become a fast-rising commodity.

But it’s expensive. Online backup services provided by companies like Mozy (which is owned by EMC and is now part of Seattle-based Decho) and Symantec cost at least $100 a month, says Garg. That’s because data center costs are high, when you factor in things like cooling, electricity, and mechanical maintenance. Using data centers makes sense for big companies, global advertising firms, and the like, but smaller businesses need other options.

Enter Symform, which stands for “symbiotic storage platform.” The idea is a give-and-take: if you want a gigabyte of data storage over the Internet, you offer up a gigabyte of storage on your own machine. “You get something from the system because you contribute to the system—that’s the symbiotic part,” Garg explains. He adds that the idea initially struck him as, “What if we had disks in people’s houses and we aggregated it like micro data centers?”

The trick is that you don’t just trade files, like in a conventional peer-to-peer network. Instead, each file is broken into pieces and sent out in parallel across the network, subject to military-grade encryption and an encoding scheme that builds redundancy into the system. So your data is backed up across many different “nodes” in the network—other machines that are signed up to be part of the storage cloud. Symform’s software coordinates all the nodes, handling the accounting through a centralized server running in Amazon Web Services (EC2). That’s a key technical point, in that the company combines … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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