Does Your Datacenter Run on Widgets?

Combinations of widgets organized in silos are vey common in datacenters of the past and, due to a few different factors, this phenomenon hasn’t changed much even in today’s consolidation focused datacenters.

As with past tech bubbles, tech innovation accelerates best in certain conditions. Those conditions typically include a combinations of strong financial investment, small teams of motivated—and well compensated—individuals and flexible, agile corporate cultures.  These conditions work together as a catalyst to enable small groups of talented people to develop some truly remarkable technologies very rapidly.

The downside to this type of incubated tech is that co-development with other types of tech can slow things down.  As such, the most successful tech innovation is developed in “bubbles” and hits the market as a widget focused on improving a single problem area of IT. 

The Cowboy Days of IT

In the early days—the Cowboy Days as I like to call it—of IT, businesses were so inefficient compared to todays internet-speed standards.  At that time, you could implement nearly any type of tech, as long as you gave it some mild consideration, and have it return a very strong ROI.  It was like buying a car when you were used to walking.  Any car is pretty much better than walking.

As IT organizations evolved, they combined groups of widgets together into silos to make them more easy to manage.  The number of silos increased with business needs as did complexity and cost.  But, as long as new tech ROI grew at the same rate as the silos, the Cowboy Days would never end!

The Last Cowboy

In recent years, tech ROI has significantly slowed.  We are no longer comparing walking to cars.  Things are more complicated.  Nearly every IT organization already has a car widget—as well as a bus, train, plane and submarine widget.  IT organizations now have to identify if they can replace a particular widget with a slightly better widget.  In addition, the economic strain has reduced both resources to acquire and replace widgets as well as resources to manage the widgets already in place.

Widget Swapping

Based on my experience in talking with customers, I would estimate that a typical, present-day IT organization at any given time is in the process of replacing or considering replacing 20-30% or their IT infrastructure.  This could be migrating from DB2 to Oracle, EMC to NetApp, Solaris to Linux, Oracle to SAP, Brocade to Cisco and dozens of other options including the vise-versa of any of the previous mentions.  Many times these migrations don’t complete leaving the organization with both the new and old silos. Why are we so indecisive and why do IT acquisitions seem to be so unpredictable?  Two Reasons.

Customers buy widgets.  IT organizations are highly reactive, especially in today’s economy.  As such, they are frequently blindsided by new business problems.  Without a proper strategy to meet business needs, they send out an RFP to identify potential solutions to the problem and buy the best priced widget that meets their needs.  The process repeats the next day as a new business need/problem is uncovered.

Vendors sell widgets.  Most, large tech vendors today are growth-by-acquisition companies.  While they do perform some innovation in house—mostly in interfaces to help widgets work better together—they seldom work to build new tech themselves.  It is far easier and less risky to acquire a widget company and then resell that particular widget through their sales channels for big gains.  These vendors also align their portfolios to IT organizations willingness to buy point-solutions (widgets).  These companies are experts in messaging around the complexities and demonstrate “enterprise-wide solutions” by re-branding their acquisitions and combining them in beautifully arranged PowerPoint presentations.

Widget Stagnation

Widgets don’t just cause problems for IT organizations, they impact the vendor who acquired them as well.  As I said in the introduction to this blog, there are certain conditions that accelerate tech innovation.  These conditions evaporate almost overnight in acquired companies.  I believe large corporate cultures and their compensation incentives are not appealing to most of the high-powered technical talent that creates successful widgets.  In addition widgets developed in a “bubble” now must interface with dozens of others.  In many cases, the individuals most responsible for the early success of the widget leave—taking intellectual property with them—and move on to a new startups.  This causes acquired tech to stagnate.  At the same time, new startups begin to compete with the acquired tech.  Eventually startups will surpass the capabilities of the acquired tech due to their innovation speed advantages.  As a result, the growth-by-acquisition vendor’s market share starts to erode once more.  They respond by acquiring the new startups and, to the detriment of their customers, refresh or augment the older, stagnated tech, with the new acquisition.

Customers still get the worst of this business model.  Even through they may have standardized on a large tech company for a “business partner”, they still have to regularly replace portions of their datacenter whenever the tech giant gets the urge to refresh its portfolio.

Rise of the Technology Platforms

So how can we keep from succumbing to the portfolio refreshes of the tech giants?  What can we do to be more proactive in our IT strategies and implement technology that lasts?

I believe the answer is in Technology Platforms.  Technology Platforms are not designed to fit a particular problem area or provide a point-solution as widgets do.  Rather, they are forward looking, technology enablers whose purpose is to make future innovation easier.   These platforms exist today as some of the most successful tech you will find.  The iPhone OS (iOS) is a great example.  It encompasses a wide array of technological capabilities (Touch Screen, Accelerometer, Bluetooth, WIFI, Camera, etc..), but does so in a unified way.  Various applications can easily be “plugged-in” to the iOS operating system to make use of it’s capabilities.  Apple has proven the platform is highly flexible and as new hardware and software capabilities have emerged, they have been seamlessly integrated into the platform.  VMware is another great example.

We should be looking for the same type of tech within our datacenters.  Platform tech, unlike widget tech, lasts for decades.  As business needs change, platforms provide the ability for technology to be rearranged and adapt whereas the rigidness of widgets sentence them to slow death.  As part of an IT strategy, it is not enough anymore to identify tech giant “business partners” that have all the tools we might need to solve problems in our datacenters.  The tools change too often and we are left constantly uninstalling and reinstalling new tools at unforeseen costs—the proceeds of which go into the pockets of those same tech giant “partners”.

If we can do our research to identify and invest in platforms that have both a proven track record of past innovation as well a promising framework that is both scalable and flexible enough to meet the business needs of the future, we will be in far better position than our widget-chasing competitors 5-10 years from now.

CommVault as a Technology Platform

As a CommVault employee, I’m excited to work for a company which has that Technology Platform vision.  Simpana was never designed to be a backup widget, it was designed to be a data management platform and today it fits that role very, very well.  It encompasses a variety of data management needs (data protection, replication, archiving, SRM and reporting, eDiscovery, legal hold and more) all within a single, adaptable framework and unified interface.  That list and the underlying capabilities will continue to grow and evolve along with IT business needs. 

For example, Simpana 9 features end-to-end deduplication for source, target and replication needs.  Simpana 7 and 8 customers can easily upgrade to version 9 to enable these capabilities (along with hundreds of others).  If you compare that to our tech giant competitors, they would recommend augmenting their stagnated data protection widget with an acquired source side dedup appliance and a different acquired target based dedup appliance (*appliance is just another term for widget).  If you consider the various archive widget refreshes that same vendor is also peddling, along with many other examples from it and other IT vendors you can really begin to see how the widget/appliance/silo approach to technology is sucking the lifeblood out of IT organizations everywhere.

You have the power to determine what fits well within your organization.  I would encourage you to look hard for platforms wherever you can.  If you select the right platforms, the benefits will be clear from savings both in terms of reacquisition avoidance, and reduced labor costs due to more simplified administration as well as an overall more flexible, agile IT infrastructure.

Merry Christmas!

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