In 2014 the world looked different. It was the height of the big data era and the cloud was still hotly debated. Not many people bet that the cloud would come to dominate computing workloads, let alone become the actual data store.
However, the founders of MinIO weren’t most people – so they took that gamble. With a background in distributed file systems, storage and open source, Anand Babu Periasamy, Garima Kapoor and Harshavardhana invested in creating open source cloud storage software to meet the demands of unstructured data growth in the cloud.
Today, MinIO Inc., makers of the MinIO multi-cloud object storage suite, announced it has raised $103 million in Series B funding at a $1 billion valuation. The investment was led by Intel Capital with participation from new investor SoftBank Vision Fund 2 and existing investors Dell Capital, General Catalyst and Nexus Venture Partners.
We spoke with Periasamy to discuss MinIO’s journey.
The persistent layer of the data stack
Periasamy previously founded a startup called Gluster, which built an open source distributed file system and was acquired by Red Hat. He’s been in open source for as long as he can remember, and around 2014 it became clear to him and his MinIO co-founders that there was a need for data:
“Everything you do around data is there to stay. We chose the persistent layer of the data stack that stores and manages all the data. And the opportunity for us was the public cloud.”
The founders of MinIO believed that storage for the cloud will be storage for everyone, and storage is object storage. Of course, each cloud has its own object storage. So MinIO had to move on, although that was an easier choice to make.
What they did was they developed their software to be 100% compatible with the leading cloud object storage – Amazon’s S3. But MinIO doesn’t just run on Amazon’s cloud. It runs on Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, Azure, VMWare Tanzu, OpenShift, SUSE Rancher, bare metal, the edge, hybrid cloud, multi-cloud — virtually anywhere.
MinIO’s bet was that AWS will be very successful in convincing the industry of the right way to build infrastructure, but it is highly unlikely that AWS will be the only infrastructure. And in that scenario, having too many standards or APIs wouldn’t work. It took discipline to stick to that decision, not add support for this or that API or legacy filesystems, and just stick with S3:
“A Grand Unified Theory of Storage sounds nice on paper, but these are completely independent issues. The whole idea about object storage was to let go of legacy stuff. If I bring the legacy stuff back then it’s not a plus, it’s a I was just disciplined to say a lot of “no.” And that’s what allowed us to get here,” said Periasamy.
Of course, building a product around someone else’s API can be challenging. MinIO CMO Jonathan Symonds said Amazon is grateful for the S3 API because they have changed the developer mindset in terms of how storage is done. He also emphasized the power of MinIO’s open source model.
That has enabled MinIO to bolster their implementation of the S3 API “in a way that no proprietary software vendor could ever do,” Symonds said. Periasamy also noted that there is 100% feature parity between the community and the enterprise edition of MinIO. MinIO has a dual licensing model, with the Community edition licensed with GNU AGPL v3, while the Standard and Enterprise editions use a commercial license.
According to Periasamy, this is the clearest possible model. AGPL is not commercially licensable, but that actually helps MinIO monetize by commercially licensing the Standard and Enterprise editions. At the same time, MinIO does not have to go back from a permissive license like MIT or Apache to an open core model. This seems to work for MinIO, to the point of convincing investors: we don’t often see AGPL-based unicorns.
Amazon S3 as the only object storage interface to rule them all
Yet there is the elephant in the room. Doesn’t MinIO worry about having to build on Amazon’s S3 API spec? What if Amazon decided to take Oracle on them and tried to ban them from using the S3 API? There seems to be a precedent for that now, but Periasamy made no reference to it when answering the question.
That would be just as much, if not an even bigger problem for Amazon, Periasamy said. S3 is an API, not a standard, and Periasamy noted that the API definitions are more like a religious text: there are many ways to interpret them, and Amazon’s own SDKs interpret them differently between different languages, or even within different versions of AWS’ Java SDK.
But this isn’t just about legal usage rights, he added. Amazon could just keep changing S3 even if they never sued anyone using the AWS S3 API. If they did, they could upset the industry, but also hurt their own customers. Periasamy believes that the S3 API is virtually converged and will not change.
Additions, however, are fair game. If Amazon keeps adding, MinIO will keep adding, Periasamy said. However, he strongly believes that S3 already has the right functionality. Periasamy added that Amazon has been kind to MinIO and everyone else. He believes the reason is that they have a similar mindset.
If S3 API becomes popular, it means more applications are ready for Amazon. And Amazon’s belief, according to Periasamy, is that they can build the best product compared to anyone else. If that’s the case, and S3 API does indeed become a standard, the industry will be drawn to AWS and win anyway.
MinIO also shares the same core belief. The difference is that, Periasamy explained, Amazon believes they will become the data center of the world. MinIO thinks they will build better software and turn all infrastructure into an object storage service.
But if there were ever problems with Amazon, MinIO would and could continue to publish their own standard, with the weight of its huge community behind it, Periasamy said. But it is actually in the interest of all parties to work together.
Periasamy also claimed that the industry is moving away from legacy formats to object storage en masse. Example — HDFS, Hadoop’s file system. He confirmed that MinIO is widely displacing HDFS and Hadoop. He noted that Hadoop’s architecture is not aligned with cloud requirements; however, he credited Hadoop for kickstarting the big data era.
What is in line with the cloud requirements is Kubernetes and MinIO plays along. Kubernetes wasn’t around when MinIO started. MinIO itself is standalone and can run from Raspberry Pi to all kinds of high-end servers. But as Kubernetes grew, it became clear to MinIO that “they had the right ideas” and they took a serious gamble on Kubernetes.
With or without Kubernetes, however, MinIO has some impressive stats to show: annual recurring revenue grew more than 201% in 2021, while customer base grew more than 208%. MinIO also has 31,000 GitHub stars and 16,000+ MinIO Slack community members.
As for plans for the future, Periasamy outlined MinIO’s focus as aimed at educating the market on an even broader level. He believes object storage has the potential to grow even more, and promises MinIO will make it their business to see this happen.