Steve Wozniak in Canada: An Apple icon’s next steps

WATERLOO, Ont. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is following up his turn on “Dancing With The Stars” by making some fancy moves into the enterprise data storage space.

“The Woz,” as he’s known, managed to draw more than 600 guests to a breakfast event hosted by local industry association Communitech, where he discussed his decision earlier this year to join Salt Lake City, Utah-based Fusion i-o as its chief scientist. Neither Fusion i-o nor Wozniak explained specifically why he was in the area, although there have been rumours Fusion i-o is targeting Research In Motion as a potential customer of its storage technology, such as ioDrive and ioMemory. Wozniak will also appear at an event hosted by OCRI in Ottawa this Wednesday.

Fusion i-o is making a name for itself by taking the flash memory that’s normally used in digital cameras or iPods and packing the chips into a module that can fit directly into a server. The company is specifically using the consumer-grade flash memory, multi-level cell (MLC) chips rather than the more enterprise-ready single cell chips (SLC) but tweaks them to improve the performance. Its products, which includes what is essentially a PCI Express card, promise to let servers access storage more directly instead of relying on back-end systems such as those supplied by EMC.

“This is the future,” Wozniak told the Communitech audience, remarking that he was too impressed by the work being done at Fusion i-o not to join the company. “Fusion i-o drives are built with brains, rather than brute force.”

In an interview following the event, Wozniak admitted that his day-to-day role at Fusion i-o largely consists of educating the market about the company’s technology and assisting with some of the business insights that startups often need. Those insights are based on many of the things Apple did right in its early years, he said – as well as many of the things it did wrong.

“I think of it as both about the engineering side, which is what I did, and the marketing, where Apple is like the king, and being able to translate it down the user level, but more than anything else, it’s got to be worth the money you pay. You’ve got to get that back,” he said. “(Fusion i-o) is such a huge win. You could buy our cards, which seem kind of expensive, and get paid back – have saved that amount of money – within three months.”

Fusion i-o CTO David Flynn, who also followed Wozniak’s reflections on Apple and the IT industry, said customers could think of its modules as miniaturizing a storage area network. The goal is not to create a new kind of drive but a new memory tier, he said, one that would do a better job than what solid-state drives do today.

“It makes the IT department think, ‘I don’t need another EMC. There might be a more creative way to address those storage needs,’” he said, estimating that in some cases Fusion i-o products could see hundreds of drives removed from the data centre. “Just like you wouldn’t buy a microprocessor today that doesn’t have L1 cache, you won’t buy a server that doesn’t have flash-based cache on it.”

Wozniak likened the shift towards on-sever flash memory as the same combination of hardware and software that made Apple successful in the first place. “In this case you’re not having to deal with the disk operating systems,” he said.

Flynn noted that much in the same way IT departments resisted the idea of decentralized computers in the enterprise, there may be some resistance to Fusion i-o’s approach to storage, but Wozniak wasn’t so sure.

“Having this one centralized operation, it works, it’s pretty hard to give it up, to go with the new, but eventually you have to,” he said. “If you don’t get in the line, everyone’s going to be racing ahead of you in terms of money, performance, speed, using satisfaction and all that. It’s all the same thing. It’s just a different approach.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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