A Software Combatant Returns as a Hardware CEO
By Don Clark
During the 1990s, David Bradford was an important behind-the-scenes player in the inquisition of Microsoft. As general counsel at software maker Novell–where then-CEO Ray Noorda had a positive fixation on its aggressive competitor–Bradford tirelessly dug up examples of questionable Microsoft tactics and supplied it to government antitrust investigators. He would later work under Eric Schmidt, who had a less-than-stellar stint leading Novell before joining Google.
Now Bradford is reemerging on the tech scene in an entirely different capacity–as CEO of a promising hardware startup. Fusion-io, a closely held company in Salt Lake, Tuesday announced Bradford’s appointment along with a $47.5 million infusion from venture capitalists–a rather eye-popping sum given the pervasive gloom over the tech sector at the moment.
Why the interest? Fusion-io is one of many data-storage companies exploiting the plummeting price and rising capacity of chips known as NAND flash memory, long used in iPods, thumb drives and data storage cards for cameras and other portable devices. The latest push is to use flash technology to replace hard drives in places where high speed and low power consumption are paramount–notably in server systems that are stacked up by the hundreds in computer rooms.
The conventional approach has been to package the chips in modules that have the same dimensions and communications links as disk drives, making the components virtually interchangeable. But Fusion-io takes an entirely different path, selling flash-based cards that fit in the same slots used by graphics cards.
That design, Bradford says, offers much greater performance–particularly for applications like databases that can entirely fit a card or two–and uses a tiny fraction of the electrical power require of high-performance storage systems based on disk drives. He estimates Fusion-io has 360 big companies as customers, including “every one of the banks on Wall Street.” And it’s not just a software story; Fusion-io thinks its software expertise will also differentiate the company.
The business plan was intriguing enough that, when Bradford was talking to Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak last year at a conference, the latter agreed to join Fusion-io’s advisory board. Woz–who no longer has to worry about “Dancing With the Stars” duties–now serves as the start-up’s chief scientist, Bradford says.
Fusion-io, which now has about 125 employees, will use the latest funding round to gradually hire 50 or 75 more, Bradford says. That’s good news for Utah’s tech community, which suffered from Novell’s shrinkage but still has plenty of good engineers and programmers, he says.
With the passage of time since the Microsoft-Novell battles, Bradford says he has come to greatly respect how Bill Gates built his company. “I emulate a lot of Microsoft’s behavior in terms of hiring the smartest people,” he says, adding that he counts the software giant as an ally now in marketing Fusion-io’s technology. “We are working with them as a strategic partner,” he says.