SoftIron readies Sydney manufacturing facility

Software-defined storage supplier SoftIron is making hardware appliances in Australia to improve supply chain resilience and address security concerns of government customers

Software-defined storage specialist SoftIron is about to start making products in Sydney as part of its edge manufacturing strategy.

The company made the decision to manufacture its own products at an early stage of its existence because “design and manufacturing are inextricably linked”, said its chief operating officer, Jason Van der Schyff.

Datacentre appliances are made in numbers that are sufficiently large to justify manufacturing in house, yet not so large that contract manufacturers are needed to cope with the volume.

Manufacturing internally means SoftIron has greater control over product quality and gives a clear chain of custody. The latter point is important for customers such as the Australian Department of Defence that have security concerns, and is one of the reasons why the company received a A$1.5m grant from the Sovereign Industrial Capability programme towards setting up the Sydney facility.

SoftIron has staff with extensive manufacturing experience, and the shift from making everything in California to edge manufacturing – where products are made closer to their buyers – mirrors established practices in the car industry.

Sydney will be the company’s second manufacturing site after California when it opens this June or July 2022, and the company plans to make the same products in exactly the same way in eight countries.

While some surface-mounted devices (SMD) assembly is carried out in Australia by various companies, nobody is making circuit boards comparable to SoftIron’s, according to Van der Schyff, so the opening of the Sydney facility is creating types of jobs that didn’t previously exist in the country.

The company is looking to export Australian-made products to other parts of the region. The Asia-Pacific IT sector is growing fast, and SoftIron customers in Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia, among others, will be supplied from Sydney.

Local manufacturing shortens the supply chain, thus reducing lead times, and improves resilience, Van der Schyff said. Indeed, in-house manufacturing has enabled SoftIron to maintain its usual shipping times during the Covid-19 pandemic, in part because all of its inventory is stored in its own premises.

“This allows us to be masters of our own destiny,” Van der Schyff said. “We really think this is an industry movement.”

SoftIron’s basic approach is to design and build exactly the right hardware to run open-source software for datacentre functions such as storage, networking and video transcoding.

For example, using as many storage devices as the selected chipset can support means there is no need for separate host bus adaptors. And by designing each system for a specific purpose, there’s no need for a power supply that can handle PCIe cards that are only used in certain configurations.

“There’s everything you need to do the job that you’re trying to do,” said Van der Schyff, who noted that this approach is very cost-competitive with systems based on generic hardware.

And because the hardware is rightsized for the software, its cooling subsystem can also be optimised. Less hardware means lower power consumption and less cooling.

According to a recent report from Earth Capital, the efficiency of SoftIron’s appliances compared with otherwise similar products on the market means that for every 10PB of storage, an estimated 292 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions is saved by the reduced energy consumption. This is said to be the equivalent of taking nearly 1,500 cars off the road for a year.

While 10PB may sound a lot to some, Van der Schyff pointed out that the National Computational Infrastructure in Canberra is taking 17PB of SoftIron storage, which he said is a “reasonable installation”.

In countries with high energy costs such as Australia, SoftIron’s low electricity consumption means the cost of switching to its appliances can be recovered in one year, Van der Schyff said.

The use of open-source software is another key part of SoftIron’s pitch, as it allows continuity combined with vendor agnosticism. If a customer is concerned that it might want to move away from SoftIron hardware at some later date, that can be done without disruption. And when a SoftIron appliance eventually reaches its end of life, the data can be moved to a replacement with similar ease, he said.

This approach brings concepts used by hyperscale providers to enterprise users, he added.

Other local customers include Vocus New Zealand and some managed service providers (MSPs), which are using SoftIron appliances as targets for their clients’ Veeam backups. One cluster can serve many clients, with lower energy bills and no licence fees for the software running on the appliances.

Furthermore, SoftIron systems are highly scalable, so an MSP can start small and then grow their estate with no downtime as its client list expands. Van der Schyff stressed that SoftIron customers will also get the same level of support as that provided by big-name suppliers.

That approach suits many kinds of organisation, he said. People are curious about storage, so they like to start small and then ramp up once they are satisfied that they have chosen the right product, he added.

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