In Roseville, Big Data meets the cloud

  • Article by: STEVE ALEXANDER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 10, 2012 - 7:43 PM

Silicon Valley's Symantec deals with the worldwide explosion of computer information at its Roseville outpost.

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Greg Nuss, Bill Browning, Bill Coleman, Steve Vranyes, Phil Wandrei and Gaurav Khanna of Symantec at their Roseville office.

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

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Roseville seems like an unlikely outpost for one of Silicon Valley's premier technology companies -- the one that invented Norton Antivirus.

But, housed in a complex of buildings on the east side of Interstate 35W just north of County Road C, is the hub of Symantec Corporation's market-leading data backup business.

While the unit exists outside the limelight of Symantec's consumer software business, analysts estimate that it accounts for about a fifth of the company's $6.73 billion in annual revenue.

Bill Coleman, the engineering director in Roseville, is philosophical about being a lesser-known part of Symantec, which is based in Mountain View, Calif.

"Norton Antivirus is how a lot of people know about Symantec. My barber knows about Norton," Coleman said. "But data backup is one of the largest business units inside Symantec."

He's being modest. The Symantec operation based in Roseville is the world leader in the backup and protection of computer data, with about 29 percent of a $4.8 billion worldwide market, said Robert Amatruda, an analyst at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass. That's about twice as much market share as its nearest competitor, IBM.

In Roseville, 556 Symantec employees grapple with one of the world's most pressing technology problems: how to deal with Big Data, industry jargon for the flood of computer information that threatens to swamp the people trying to interpret it.

As the amount of data in the world increases nearly 50 percent annually, corporations turn to companies such as Symantec to both back up and protect the information and to sort those mountains of digits into useful nuggets -- such as precise retail trends, optimized freight routes and more accurate weather patterns.

That analysis, while vital, happens almost as a byproduct of backing up data.

"Computer backup is about indexing the data, scheduling it to be moved to another location and moving it," Amatruda said. "But, once you've got your hooks into the data, you can do other things with it. You can decide how important it is. You can tag the data so that it's easier to find for use in lawsuits. Data backup actually helps you analyze your data."

In a sense, companies such as Symantec are a corporate insurance policy, said Deni Connor, an analyst at Storage Strategies Now in Austin, Texas. "Companies that don't protect their data with backup end up going out of business."

Growing in Roseville

Symantec acquired the Roseville operation when it bought data backup firm Veritas Software Corp. of California in 2005, and has expanded the Twin Cities location since. Employment continues to grow, and the firm plans to hire at least 100 people this year, 90 percent of them engineers, said Gaurav Khanna, vice president of engineering for corporate software.

The Roseville operation also oversees data backup and protection facilities in California, China and India. Roseville's main products today are Backup Exec, a software product for consumers and small businesses, and NetBackup, which is software for large corporations.

In addition, Symantec two years ago moved into a new technology area called the "backup appliance." The appliance, which looks like a super-sized Digital Video Recorder for a TV, automates and simplifies data backup for smaller companies. The backup appliances are manufactured for Symantec by an outside firm.

While Symantec is not the leader in backup appliances, its share of that market is growing rapidly, Amatruda said.

Analysts say Symantec also is well-positioned to take advantage of another technological change -- cloud computing.

In cloud computing, some corporations connect to geographically remote data centers over the Internet in lieu of running their own computers. That benefits Symantec because its backup software can easily store data "in the cloud" instead of in the local data center, Amatruda said.

Robert Breza, who follows Symantec for RBC Capital Markets of New York, agreed.

"The cloud doesn't threaten Symantec, it benefits them," Breza said. "Ten or 15 years from now, companies will probably store data in the cloud using one of three or four major storage technology providers, and Symantec can be one of them."

But it hasn't been all smooth sailing. Sometimes Symantec gets ahead of what its customers want to buy.

For example, Symantec's sales strategy has been to marry its data backup business with its security software, on the theory that corporations will benefit if the two work together.

"There are a variety of threats facing corporations," said Steve Vranyes, a vice president and the chief architect of the Roseville facility's corporate backup software. "We protect against all of them."

Initially, customers weren' convinced.

"The company told customers that they couldn't define what Symantec did as data backup or as security because it was all about protection of data," Breza said. "While Symantec is getting more sales leverage with that approach now, it's taken a little bit longer than they thought."

Patents aplenty

One measure of Symantec's success is the number of patents granted to the Roseville operation. The facility has about 40 patents, and applies for 100 more each year, Khanna said.

"The growth in Big Data is what's driving up the number of patents, because we patent ways of reducing the amount of data that we actually have to back up," Khanna said.

For example, Symantec and most of its competitors have developed their own versions of a technology called "deduplication," which helps avoid storing the same piece of data twice. Even if the same standard paragraph is used in several documents, the paragraph is stored only once. When one of the documents is called up, the standard paragraph is reinserted on the fly.

Considering all the technological factors at play, Symantec, and particularly its Roseville operations, appear to be in the right place at the right time.

"The data backup market is booming right now," said Isaac Cheifetz, an information technology executive recruiter with Open Technologies Consulting in Minneapolis. "And that's because it's at the intersection of Big Data and cloud computing."

Steve Alexander • 612-673-4553

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