Sep 072013

I recently went to the EMC Speed2Lead/SpeedToLead product launch in Milan.

After the launch, I saw that The Register had published a piece by Martin Glassborow, aka @Storagebod, called Snide hashtags, F1 cars death by PowerPoint: I’m sick of EMC hypegastms.

I’m a fan of Martin; I’ve followed him on twitter for some time and love his blog on account of his frank honesty from the customer-perspective.

But that’s not to say we both always agree on everything, and this is  one of those times when I disagree with him – mostly.

The standard disclaimers apply – EMC paid for my travel and accommodation. If you think that makes me an EMC stooge, then consider as well that the travel was around 33,000km in economy class and I contracted a serious infection during my trip as a result of all that economy class seating. (Indeed, as I write this, the clock is ticking down on a decision as to whether I need to be hospitalised. I’d like to think those two things balance each other out.)

So what were Martin’s beefs? I’ll quote from his article:

It’s [sic] ongoing teaser campaign started off badly when the storage giant’s marketing types put up a “sneak preview” video and decided to have a dig at their lead competitor – then the flacks started tweeted [sic] using the hashtag #NotAppy.

OK, there’s parts here I’m inclined to agree with. I think the vendor cat-fights in any industry get silly. As far as such heated discussions go though, this one did at least seem fairly restrained. But I’d have  preferred not to have seen a “NotAppy” hashtag throughout the campaign. (Regardless though, the storage industry have kept things fairly tame for the last couple of years – unlike say, the SmartPhone industry, which often resembles something closer to an all-out brawl.)

Next quote from Martin:

EMC is just very bad at this sort of thing; speeds, feeds, marketing mumbo-jumbo linked in with videos and stunts that trash competitors, bore the audience and add little value, in my honest opinion. But all with the highest production values.

I’ve been in EMC presentations that were full of speeds and feeds. I don’t honestly think this was one of these sorts of presentations. In fact, after the presentation, myself and the other Elect attendees got to speak to Dennis Vilfort who spoke passionately about how uninteresting pure speeds and feeds are to customers – and why EMC focused on a simple metric: how many virtual machines you can run on the new revamped VNX line. People who don’t actually sell storage often don’t care about IOPS, and so while EMC did mention IOPS it played second fiddle to their “every customer will understand this” message: VMs.

It’s true, there are other workloads people can put on a storage system, but by and large (using that classic 80/20) rule, EMC are finding that people aren’t buying silo/isolated storage any more – i.e., the majority of companies aren’t buying an array for Oracle, another array for File serving and yet another for virtual machine hosting.

What’s more, because so many organisations are pushing towards the goal of 100% virtualisation*, workloads on arrays are shifting considerably. In the “olden days”, with relatively few applications or systems leveraging an array, workloads were easier and more predictable – consider though an array being leveraged to provide say, storage for 1,000 virtual machines. As per the way virtualisation works, there’ll be a huge mix of applications and services provided by those virtual machines, and in the same way CPU and memory usage will be combined across all of them, so too will storage performance.

Sum of all workloads

(Excuse the fuzzy photo: the memory card on my camera failed part way through the launch and I had to resort to mobile phone photos.)

So, talking “system X with Y resources can run Z VMs” isn’t speeds-and-feeds, it’s bricks-and-mortar – it’s the building blocks of storage utilisation in a hell of a lot of organisations. Not in every organisation, of course, but I’d be willing to bet in 80% of them at least.

To me, there was a subtle (actually, at times not-so-subtle) message to the EMC launch: public cloud doesn’t have to be seen as the only end-game in the IT industry. Amazon et al certainly want you to believe that, but given what’s come about regarding the NSA and GCHQ, etc., over the last few months, big-server public cloud currently has the stench of 3-week unwashed underwear amongst anyone who gives a damn about data security.

Public cloud, after all, is built on trust, and trust has been fairly heavily eroded amongst those who care strongly about security.

That being said, the concept behind cloud is starting to gain momentum, and over the past eighteen months to two years, I’ve come a long way on my opinion of cloud – particularly when it comes to management and provisioning. This is, after all, the start of the commoditisation of the industry – self service point and click allocation of storage, compute and other services. So, it’s clear EMC are aiming all this talk of VMs at businesses who are switching to a private cloud model internally, and those businesses that are hosting private cloud environments.

Cloud is good, they’re saying, as long as you can trust it. But I digress…

OK, there were definitely plenty of PowerPoint slides in the launch, and by comparison there’s absolutely no PowerPoint slides in an Apple launch … unless of course you count all those Keynote slides. Being brutally honest, you do need to accept that a product launch is going to have slides. And slides. And a few more slides. But as long as you don’t fall into any of the Life After Death by PowerPoint traps, you’re heading in the right direction. Also, having watched some of the EMC speakers prepare for the launch in Milan the day before, one thing was abundantly clear: they were focused not only on the flow of the presentation, but simplifying content.

Was every slide perfect? No. Was every slide full of speeds and feeds? No.

And here’s the point where I fully disagree with Martin’s thoughts:

So what did the event feel like? It felt like an internal knees-up, a shindig for EMC bods to high-five themselves while their customers wait patiently. This felt more like an EMC party of aeons ago along with a smattering of cheerleaders from social networks.

You know what it felt like to me? A honest to goodness real product launch.

When I saw Martin’s article being tweeted around by The Register this was my first response:

Q: What’s the problem with storage vendors doing big launches? Why are some tech areas *verboten* for a bit of show & spectacle?

OK, I’m not the oldest person in IT, and I don’t have the greatest longevity in it either, but I have been working in the back-end of the IT industry my entire career.

Systems administration. Backup and recovery. Storage.

These aren’t glamorous positions. Even consulting isn’t glamorous per se if the actual topic is considered unglamorous. There’s a world “system administration appreciation day” which I’m fairly certain was started by system administrators and is unknown of by most of the world’s workers. There’s a backup day which again was self declared and mostly unknown about. I’m not aware of any storage day.

Even people in the industry talk about it being a fairly thankless one. In many companies no-one really thinks much of the system, storage or backup administrators until something goes wrong. And even then, Helpdesk is still the face of IT.

So because our part of the IT industry is often considered to be “un”glamorous, do we have to stick to that notion? Does it have to be simple lit-room launches with a whiteboard and a product assembly demonstration?

Because in a world with increasing commoditisation of IT, where startups promising the world (and mostly just hoping someone will buy them for a few billion bucks) hire people like it’s a talent show, and IT/being a geek is considered to be more desirable, the best way to hire good fresh talent is to make your segment of the industry look as boring as possible.

And because the best way to thank your employees for doing a fantastic job and putting in a lot of hard work is to say “We’ll make up a tech specs sheet for customers in a while. Have a great weekend!”

The code for VNX was substantially rewritten and the resulting machine is a significant boost on the previous generation. Don’t the people involved in that deserve to feel like their employer is proud of them? Don’t they deserve to see a bit of spectacle so they can say “I was part of that!”?

Yes, I was at the launch and yes, EMC paid for my trip. But I sat there during the presentation looking around at the spectacle and effort EMC had put into it thinking “after all these years in the industry, it’s nice to see genuine, palpable enthusiasm about storage”.

Storage is boring. Backup is boring.

Only if we keep letting it be like that. Kudos to EMC for putting on a show that demonstrates the level of pride they take in their products, and the level of appreciation they have for their staff. Kudos to EMC for rejecting the notion that storage has to be boring.

* Regarding 100% virtualisation: As an end-goal, I still don’t think it’s an inevitable one. Some companies will be able to achieve it, and others will have reasons not to. The technical reasons behind it are evaporating for at least a fair percentage of businesses, however.

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