A couple of years ago I left the warmth and comfort of the database world and joined the storage industry – a harsh unrelenting world full of cut-throat competition and vendor rivalries, where marketing is treated less as a way of communicating with customers and more as a form of mortal combat. Ok so I’m massively exaggerating (I used to work for Oracle after all) but it does surprise me just how much FUD is thrown in storageland.
I guess it should come as no surprise. For decades, storage has been about little more than disks and tapes, yet now we find ourselves in the brave new world of non-volatile memory, where silicon-based technologies such as NAND flash are changing not just the way we store data but the way we do business. Whereas previously the world of storage had been dominated by a few big players, the arrival of flash saw a host of smaller and more agile contenders enter the market until it was saturated with more products than could possibly survive. The result? A bloodbath, with companies being acquired, frantically playing catchup, floating, going out of business, suing each other, or sometimes just putting their heads in the sand. With so much at stake – not just money but reputations and egos – it was only ever going to descend into an all out war.
Top Trumps with Data Sheets
One thing that remains consistent across multiple industries is the old-school tactic of comparing yourself favourably to your competition. This is essentially a massive game of Top Trumps played with data sheets, whereby you pick some numbers that are better for your product than your competitor’s and then ignore the others, thus showing that your product is unquestionably superior. Of course, “facts” are famously tricky things in that they are based on truth and reality. But not to worry, there are workarounds you can use when your facts aren’t giving you the answer you want:
- Selectively pick the facts that suit you, ignoring those that work against your argument (example)
- Use old data from older products if it makes a better case, ensuring that you never update your comparisons unless they suit you (example – look for the “as of May 2013” smallprint)
- If all else fails, interpret the “facts” as you see fit and then make some claims in the small print about how you had to make some assumptions based on a lack of data (example – look at the persistent misuse of the term “minimum latency”)
The latter option is particularly interesting, so let’s consider that further.
Blogging: The New Front Line
I’ve recently become aware of a new type of blog: the competitive blog. Who knows, maybe it was always like this but I’ve only noticed since I joined the industry and have been forced to look. We’ve always had personal blogs, written by company employees on their own time sharing their knowledge and experiences, with disclaimers that the opinions do not represent those of the employer. It’s also fairly commonplace to see corporate blogs, hosted on the company website, giving you more of a feel for the company’s views; after all, everyone expects the guy from Nimbus to write long articles attacking the opposition – it’s his company and nobody can stop him. But what about if you are using your “personal” blog to bash the opposition? I don’t mean criticise their behaviour, as I am doing now, I mean telling your readers that your product is better than “Brand Y” and backing it up with minimal facts and half-truths. As long as I put a disclaimer advising everyone that I’m not an expert on competitive products and I’m happy to update any information which is incorrect, is it acceptable to then make stuff up based on what I do not know but have merely guessed? Or what I want to believe because it suits my requirements? Can I do this, for example:
Ok so it’s tongue in cheek, but I can’t really see why that’s any different to this article. After all, I’m just trying to have a substantive conversation about the flavours, fragrances and textures of flash.
The way I see it, customers interested in competitive products are going to research their benefits and drawbacks – and that means talking to all vendors. It’s obvious that each vendor will talk up their product’s strengths. It’s also inevitable that each vendor will say something along the lines of, “Ask the other guy if his system’s performance degrades when its capacity fills up”, or “Find out what happens to the data if the UPS fails”. I’m realistic enough to know this will never change. I’m also relatively ambivalent towards the practice of competitive kill sheets or battle cards: you need your sales force to be educated on what your rivals can and cannot do (although it’s embarrassing when they get leaked to the public).
What I’m really tired of is product comparisons, many of which are factually inaccurate, wildly claiming that one vendor can do ALMOST EVERYTHING while every other vendor cannot. If this were really true, surely there would only be one product left standing by now? Let’s just give it up, nobody believes it anyway.
Since writing this article my attention has been drawn to a new type of competitive blogging, as demonstrated by this article from an ex-colleague of mine. What I particularly admire about this example is that comments are not allowed on the post, so factual inaccuracies and poor research cannot be pointed out. Either the author is very (mistakenly) confident in his statements or he doesn’t want to hear and print the truth.