Postcards from Storageland: Two Years Flash By

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The start of March means I have been working at Violin Memory for exactly two years. This also corresponds to exactly two years of the flashdba blog, so I thought I’d take stock and look at what’s happened since I embarked on my journey into the world of storage. Quite a lot, as it happens…

Flash Is No Longer The Future

The single biggest difference between now and the world of storage I entered two years ago is that flash memory is no longer an unknown. In early 2012 I used to visit customers and talk about one thing: disk. I would tell them about the mechanical limitations of disk, about random versus sequential I/O, about how disk was holding them back. Sure I would discuss flash too – I’d attempt to illustrate the enormous benefits it brings in terms of performance, cost and environmental benefits (power, cooling, real estate etc)… but it was all described in relation to disk. Flash was a future technology and I was attempting to bring it into the present.

Today, we hardly ever talk disk. Everyone knows the limitations of mechanical storage and very few customers ever compare us against disk-based solutions. These days customers are buying flash systems and the only choice they want to make is over which vendor to use.

Violin Memory 2.0

The storage industry is awash with people who use “personal” blogs as a corporate marketing mouthpiece to trumpet their products and trash the competition. I always avoid that, because I think it’s insulting to the reader’s intelligence; the point of blogging is to share knowledge and personal opinion. I also try to avoid talking about corporate topics such as roadmap, financial performance, management changes etc. But if I wrote an article looking back at two years of Violin Memory and didn’t even mention the IPO, all credibility would be gone.

So let me be honest [please note the disclaimer, these are my personal opinions), the Violin Memory journey over the last couple of years has been pretty crazy. We have such a great product – and the flash market is such a great opportunity – that the wave of negative press last year came as a surprise to me. I guess that shows some naivety on my part for forgetting that product and opportunity are only two pieces of the puzzle, but all the same what I read in the news didn’t seem to correspond to what I saw in my day job as we successfully competed for business around Europe. I had customers who had not just improved but transformed their businesses by using Violin. That had to be a good sign, right?

Now here we are in 2014 and, despite some changes, Violin continues to develop as a company under the guidance of an experienced new CEO. I’m still doing what I love, which is travelling around Europe (in the last month alone I’ve been in the UK, France, Switzerland, Turkey and Germany) meeting exciting new customers and competing against the biggest names in storage (see below). In a world where things change all the time, I’m happy to say this is one thing that remains constant.

The Competition

Now for the juicy bit. Part of the reason I was invited to join Violin was to compete against my former employer’s Exadata product – something I have been doing ever since. However, in those heady days of 2011 it also appeared that Fusion IO would be the big competitor in the flash space. Meanwhile, at that time, none of the big boys had flash array products of note. EMC, IBM, NetApp, Cisco, Dell… nothing. The only one who did was HP, who were busy reselling a product called VMA – yes that’s right, the Violin Memory Array – despite having recently paid $2.4b for 3PAR.

Then everything seemed to happen at once. EMC paid an astonishing amount of money for the “pre-product” XtremIO, which took 18 months to achieve general availability. IBM bought the struggling Texas Memory Systems. HP decided to focus on 3PAR over Violin. Cisco surprised everyone by buying Whiptail (including themselves, apparently). And NetApp finally admitted that their strategy of ignoring flash arrays may not have been such a good idea.

That’s the market, but what have I seen? I regularly compete against other flash vendors in the EMEA region – and don’t forget, I only get involved if it’s an Oracle database solution under consideration. The Oracle deals tend to be the largest by size and occupy a space which you could clearly describe as “enterprise class” – I rarely get involved in midrange or small business-sized deals.

The truth is I see the same thing pretty much every time: I compete against EMC and IBM, or I compete against Oracle Exadata. I’ve never seen Fusion IO in a deal – which is not surprising because their cards and our arrays tend to be solutions for different problems. However, I’ve also never – ever – seen Pure Storage in a competitive situation on one of my accounts, nor Nimbus, Nimble, SolidFire, Kaminario or Skyera. I’ve seen Whiptail, HDS and Huawei maybe once each; HP probably a few more times. But when it comes down to the final bake off, it’s EMC, IBM or Exadata. I claim that my experience is representative of the market, but it is real.

Who is the biggest threat? That’s an easy one to answer: it’s always the incumbent storage supplier. No matter how great a solution you have, or how low a price, it’s always easier for a customer to do nothing than to make a change. Inertia is our biggest competitor. Yet at the same time the incumbent has the biggest problem: so much to lose.

And how am I doing in these competitions? Well, that would be telling. But look at it this way – two years on and I’m still trusted to do this.

I wonder what the next two years will bring?

Update (Spring 2014): I’ve finally had my first ever competitive POC against Pure Storage at a customer in Germany. It would be inappropriate for me to say who won. :-)

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3 Responses to Postcards from Storageland: Two Years Flash By

  1. SHEPPARD Nick says:

    Just a great, great post! When you’ve finished with IT sh*te land there’s a career in journalism / writing for you☺. I’ve read a few of the newswires on Violin of late. Looks to me like new CEO has a firm grasp on what to do, what not to do and where the money comes from. Thank God. I always felt Violin had the right tech and wrong GTM.

  2. Hi you are correct. Two years ago I had to tell people about FLASH but now they ask and discuss the features of the different AFAs.
    Two years and you do not look a day older.

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