By Dave Simpson
—Judging from recent business activity, wide area file services (WAFS) is one of the hottest trends in the storage industry. Most recently, Cisco acquired WAFS player FineGround Systems (for $70 million)—only about a month after FineGround launched its first WAFS product, the Velocity-FS appliance. And Cisco acquired WAFS vendor Actona Technologies last year (for about $82 million).
About the same time as the Cisco-FineGround announcement, Brocade entered into an OEM/reseller deal with WAFS vendor Tacit Networks, and Hewlett-Packard inked a deal to resell WAFS technology from Riverbed. (Riverbed's technology is sometimes referred to as "WAN optimization" rather than "WAFS.")
Enter Availl Inc., which has been selling for a few years software that enables high-speed file sharing. Only recently, however, has the company begun referring to it as WAFS. And even then, Availl uses the phrase "wide area file system."
"Loosely speaking, Availl's software qualifies as WAFS, but they do it very differently than, say, Tacit or Cisco," says Arun Taneja, consulting analyst and founder of the Taneja Group (which coined the term WAFS). Taneja points out that unlike some other WAFS approaches, Availl's is software-only and doesn't require hardware appliances. In addition, Availl does not consolidate data from remote sites into a central site, as do other WAFS approaches.
Instead, Availl's technology may be more accurately referred to as real-time remote replication with file locking and coherency, according to Taneja.
Taneja notes that the advantage of this approach is that it provides disk-speed file access (because the data is always local). The downside, however, is that you have to have copies of all data to be shared on disk at each site. In other words, if you have, say, 5TB of data that has to be shared you need 5TB of disk capacity at each site, which increases disk storage costs.
On the other hand, Availl's software (which has to be loaded on each participating server), is priced at only $1,495 per server.
Availl officials, such as Craig Randall, vice president of operations, argue that the software costs are relatively low and, because disk has become so inexpensive the need for additional capacity is not a major drawback.
Agreeing with Taneja, Randall says that Availl's key differentiator is that, instead of consolidating remote-site data onto centralized servers in the data center, his company's approach relies on real-time replication/mirroring of data to each location in a "hub-and-spoke" configuration.
The "secret sauce" is the file locking and coherence. File coherence means that a user accessing a file is guaranteed that it is the most recent copy of the file (because all file changes are mirrored to local drives in real time), while file locking prevents file-access conflicts.
Like other WAFS vendors, Availl provides protocol acceleration and eliminates the "chattiness" that is inherent in WAN links.
In the Availl approach, software resides on a central server, and agents are installed on all participating servers at remote sites. The central server software acts as a traffic cop, managing file locking and coherence, while agent software handles functions such as compression, replication, and security. The software is Windows-compatible.
Availl's Randall says that the key feature in the recent Availl 3.0 software release (introduced this month) is the ability to scale globally, while maintaining low latency, via enhanced protocol efficiency.
Wardrop Engineering has been using Availl's file sharing software for several years, and recently upgraded to the 3.0 version. According to Bill Ip, CIO at Wardrop, the company chose Availl's software because of its real-time file locking.
"Many vendors do replication, but at the time [of evaluation] none of those other vendors could do real-time replication with file locking," says Ip.
Wardrop uses the software to share files, including complex design engineering files, across eight locations. The file-sharing environment encompasses some 450,000 files, or approximately 300GB. The furthest distance that files are replicated is from Toronto to Vancouver.
Availl was founded in 2002 and is headquartered in Andover, MA. The company claims more than 1,000 installations to date, including 12 of the Fortune 100 companies.