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Strength of FreeNAS Project Sets iXsystems Apart; Interview with iXsystems CTO Jordan Hubbard, Part I

A veteran of the operating systems industry, Jordan Hubbard has spent time working on a far-ranging array of products, from open source, grassroots efforts to one of the world’s largest consumer electronics companies. In this first blog entry of my interview series with iXsystems’ CTO Jordan Hubbard, we take a look at some ways in which iX’s value propositions set it apart from competitors.
Ben: Today I’m interviewing Jordan Hubbard of iXsystems, a company who is behind much of the open source FreeNAS project. Jordan is one of the co-founders of FreeBSD, and more recently comes from working on OS X and iOS at Apple. Jordan, thanks for chatting with me today. Tell me a little bit about yourself, as well as your new role of CTO at iXsystems.

Jordan Hubbard iXsystems

Jordan: Thanks, Ben. I’ve done a lot of open source projects over the years, from code development libraries to the Ardent Windows Manager for the X Window System. The FreeBSD project really grew out of a prior open source Unix project in the early 1990s, and I had been involved with the Unix operating system for quite some time before that and liked the technology.  I was also doing a fair amount of GUI work based on various Unix platforms while I was in Ireland, when we started the FreeBSD project, so yes – a continuous thread throughout my career has been UNIX, and then later the BSD variant in UNIX, and of course, the FreeBSD version.
Having done quite a bit of work in the desktop and embedded UNIX space for awhile, when the opportunity to come and be CTO for iX popped up, I was definitely looking for a change and a different technology space to get involved in. I like to rotate my tires periodically, so to speak, and look at different aspects of the operating solution space.
The enterprise space was one I’d been involved in more than 10 years ago, and coming to iX gave me the opportunity to reacquaint myself with it and also be involved with FreeBSD at a more grassroots level again. It also let me be more involved with an open source project on a day to day basis, that of course being FreeNAS, and for which I’m now the release engineer and project manager, as well as being CTO for iXsystems.
Ben: What are some strengths that iX offers over other storage offerings?
Jordan: The answer is evolving.  The storage space is huge, and even though it’s crowded, the fact that it’s evolving means there are lots of different aspects to it — cloud computing, distributed storage,  both the home user and the enterprise user becoming more prominent customers. It would be fair to say that 20 years ago there were no real home NAS users, but now there are, plus a lot of hobbyists building NASes. That is not to say that’s going to be iX’s primary focus going forward, but it is a gateway that a lot of its customers do come through.
In terms of competitive strengths, iX obviously has the FreeNAS project itself. They are the corporate sponsors of it, so they have a genuinely open source software angle into the market that a lot of other players in the space do not have. They’ve got a pretty robust community. FreeNAS is the leading open source software solution in the NAS market, just by sheer numbers and by market penetration, so that is certainly a competitive advantage.
It also gives iX an opportunity to try new ideas, to do science experiments and speculative plays into other corners of the market. We’re looking, as I said, at cloud computing and overall integration with it now. When we have something to show, we’ll be able to test drive it in front of a large number of people and get some community involvement in helping to define the right fit.
We are able to test drive a lot of home computing solutions, like live media streaming and backup storage for a range of home devices, while also still addressing the enterprise solutions with FreeNAS. That is probably its primary competitive advantage, but there are some other advantages as well.
There are obviously a lot of people in this space that are essentially just resellers. They’re taking someone else’s NAS solution, bundling it with hardware, and pushing it out the door – they don’t necessarily have a cadre of kernel programmers and operating systems specialists, people who can really tune the hardware and software together to its best effect. That’s a bigger advantage than most people realize, because making such solutions perform competitively is a process which is incredibly sensitive to a wide variety of configuration parameters in specific deployment scenarios.  Hard-tuning it for one particular scenario wouldn’t work nearly as well in a different scenario.
A backup server is different from a back-end mail server, which is different from a VMware server, for example. They are very different storage challenges and have very different performance characteristics. So, having control of both the hardware and the software, and a team to write the software and modify it and tune it for each deployment scenario, that’s a pretty big advantage.

In Part II of this interview series, we discuss iXsystems’ ability to consult with their clients and how that practice helps them create more customizable storage appliance and server configurations.
In Part III of this interview series, we discuss how iXsystems is introducing and managing flash drives in its storage systems, and why Jordan believes that a hybrid storage approach is currently the best solution.
In Part IV of this interview series, Hubbard shares how companies in general and iXsystems specifically benefits short and long term for its developers doing work at home and in the FreeBSD kernel community.
In Part V of this interview series, we discuss Jordan’s views of proprietary versus open source code, and how he views the responsibility of iXsystems to the open source community.
In Part VI of this interview series, we discuss Jordan’s ideas on if the open source community is a meritocracy, and what type of person has the chance to rise above the rest in the field.

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