Teen CEO launches storage startup; catches Facebook's eye

Just a few years ago, Andrew Mayhall had to decide whether to continue his unique education or drop out of school to start his own server company. Now, he's mulling another major decision - whether to continue discussions about potentially selling that company and working for Facebook, or to follow the entrepreneurial path Facebook's founder laid out when he was around Mayhall's age.

Mayhall, the 19-year-old founder and CEO of data storage provider Evtron, has spent more than half of his young life steeped in technology. Armed with his first computer and a library card, an 8-year-old Mayhall quickly taught himself how to program in several languages. In seventh grade he began taking computer programming and engineering courses at Lewis and Clark Community College in eastern Illinois. From there, he began scheduling tours of local data centers, asking questions out of a general interest in how everything worked. Shortly thereafter, he began toying with server hardware himself.

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By the time his peers were juniors in high school, Mayhall had amassed enough credit for an associate's degree at Lewis and Clark. So, naturally, he left school altogether and started up his own company with Brady O'Brien, his co-founder and fellow 19-year-old. Though Mayhall says O'Brien likes to describe the decision as a "leave of absence" from school, Mayhall has no qualms about saying he dropped out.

"I really have no intentions of going back and continuing my educational path," he says.

The decision is understandable. Mayhall's work has already attracted attention from Facebook, a company familiar with the potential of a young CEO. Evtron's first storage platform, the Evtron Cell, is what caught the social networking giant's attention. Mayhall says that the Cell's capacity for 4.6 petabytes per server rack, which also reduces overall space required in a typical data center by 66%, broke the world record for data density. More practically, Mayhall says the Evtron Cell uses a lot of the same components that Facebook uses for its current storage infrastructure, but, because of "a little design change," the Cell is four times as dense.

The potential benefits are no doubt attractive to a social networking site that now boasts more than 1 billion active users and, following a rough IPO, has to appease public demand for profits. Mayhall says the talks with Facebook are still ongoing, and that the potential of a company acquisition coupled with a job for Mayhall has been discussed.

Mayhall, however, seems more interested in a licensing agreement than anything else. However exciting a buyout may be - Mayhall contends that a discussion with Facebook is an opportunity he couldn't pass up - the young CEO remains an idealist and a believer in the company that he formed as an adolescent. He frequently talks about building Evtron into a major corporation, and aspires to do so through the efforts of his team alone.

"Overall, I believe our goal is we want to grow this thing to be an EMC or NetApp. We don't really want to do that by being acquired," Mayhall says. "Maybe potentially licensing some of the technology to a Facebook or a Google or someone to continue bringing in funds so we can continue innovating and building the company as a whole. But I don't believe that it's in our sights right now to be acquired just quite yet."

The attachment comes natural to Mayhall given how Evtron was created. Launching a startup was never the initial objective, he says; Mayhall was simply exploring the possibilities of a low-power platform out of his passion for hardware.

"We didn't really think that we could turn this thing into a company until one day we realized that the numbers we were generating off the efficiency increases and performance increases were substantial enough to justify that 'hey, maybe we should go and get this thing patented and maybe we should go and turn this thing into a company,'" Mayhall says.

As Mayhall continued to see progress, development of what would eventually become the Cell platform became a personal challenge. One of the first prototypes fit 55 hard drives into four units. Not satisfied with those figures, Mayhall redesigned it so he could fit 66 hard drives in four units, and shortly thereafter extended it to 88 hard drives. This continued until Mayhall fit 128 hard drives in four units, which Evtron would have to cut down to 120 so its product could meet industry standards.

"The goal was to make an efficient server, and I wanted to see how far we could take it," Mayhall says. "It just so happens that we did it better than anyone else could have."

Currently, Evtron is trying to establish an identity in a market that Mayhall says is projected to reach $300 billion in the next five years. To keep costs low, the company has established production agreements within close proximity to its St. Louis headquarters. Combined with other agreements with distributors and overseas manufacturers, Mayhall says Evtron is able to produce low volumes of its server chassis at the same price as the market's heavy hitters - EMC, NetApp and HP - are producing in large quantities. Mayhall says the company's plan right now is to carve out a niche where it can "end up with a system where we can produce underneath any provider out there and still sell underneath any provider out there and make decent margins off of it."

"So, now, really the problems have been figuring out how to scale this to the point where we don't get squashed by these larger guys when our patents actually become public," Mayhall says.

The company is well poised for growth. Last month, Evtron presented at the DEMO Fall 2012 conference, getting its name out to potential customers, partners, press, and, most importantly, venture capitalists. Just last week, Evtron secured $150,000 in a round of funding, which Mayhall says the company will use to bring in some experienced talent. Meanwhile, the company continues to talk with venture capitalists they met through DEMO. Though he couldn't release the names of the venture capitalists he's working with, Mayhall says, confidently, "it is looking good."

Combined with the ongoing discussions with Facebook, Evtron faces plenty of opportunities. Mayhall knows that, before long, the EMCs and NetApps that he admires could be lining up to knock Evtron out of the market. If that's how it works out, he'll be more than satisfied.

"I really think that the overall goal, at least for me, is not really to go and be acquired by a larger company to take on these guys," Mayhall says. "I think Evtron has the capabilities and the team to really tackle this problem head on and actually go up and fight these larger guys."

Colin Neagle covers emerging technologies, privacy and enterprise mobility for Network World. Follow him on Twitter https://twitter.com/#!/ntwrkwrldneagle and keep up with the Microsoft, Cisco and Open Source community blogs. Colin's email address is cneagle@nww.com.

Read more about data center in Network World's Data Center section.

Tags network storageConfiguration / maintenanceData storageMicrosofthardware systemsEvtronnetappData CenterFacebookemc

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