The Trivialization Of Enterprise IT and more...

The Trivialization Of Enterprise IT

Trivial_PursuitScan any half-dozen vendor pitches, and you come away with the impression that doing enterprise IT isn’t all that difficult.  

After all, all you have to do is buy/use/implement a few simple things, and the rest is easy, right?

Just consider the marketing phrases we’re using: single pane of glass, pushbutton automation, cloud, one click to upgrade, etc.

It conjures up the naive picture that in some strange alternate reality, IT admins sit comfy chairs -- idly monitoring a bunch of green lights and occasionally clicking on an icon when needed.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

While it’s true that enterprise IT is inherently complex — and could certainly be simpler — no one is doing anyone any favors by creating a false impression of the challenges involved.

Doing enterprise IT right is hard work, and it means knowing the details.  A healthy dose of skepticism doesn't hurt, either ...

A Short Digression?

Home_theater_rack_beforeI went through an expensive period when I was seriously into home theatre.  Amps, pre-amps, multiple video and sound sources, multiple speaker routings, etc.  I could make it do exactly what I wanted to.  Geek nirvana.

But there was a tiny problem — I was the only one who knew how to operate the setup.  After all, I had built it.  My wife put it succinctly: “you’ve made it so I can’t watch a movie”.


So I invested in automation: a programmed uber-remote with big buttons like “WATCH MOVIE”.  Nice, but that created another problem: when it didn’t work as expected, someone had to know the underlying details of exactly was connected to what, and how to debug it.  And that happened a lot.

Here’s the point: getting to simple isn’t always easy.

Where Vendors Lose The Thread

I fully understand what it means to be working for an IT vendor, and the strong temptations that inevitably result.  Here, it's simple: most enterprise IT organizations are fighting a constant battle with complexity, and are always on the lookout for something that makes their lives somewhat simpler and easier.

Hey — all we as a vendor need to do is tell customers that our new product/service will make their lives simpler — and we win!

SurpriseHowever, it’s inevitable that the new, supposedly-simpler thing creates an entirely new class of problems and challenges — call them unexpected externalities.  

They inevitably result from any effort to simplify things.  They cannot be ignored, and should be fully considered.

I think IT professionals deserve full disclosure on the gives and gets associated with any technology proposition — after all, it should be about helping people make informed choices - especially in resource-limited enterprise IT environments.  

And no one likes surprises.

Some Examples?

One of my favorite examples of “unexpected externalities” involves public cloud services.  The marketed premise is simple: public clouds are simpler (and cheaper) than using internal IT resources.

No argument: simplistic workloads can potentially be simpler/cheaper on public clouds.  But enterprise IT isn’t comprised of simplistic workloads.  Thus, most of the public cloud discussions result in a trivialization of the harsh realities of enterprise IT.

Some_assemblyGetting your existing apps to run in a public cloud isn’t trivial.  Getting your operational processes to integrate isn’t trivial either.  

I have met a few larger IT shops who have made the decision to go “cloud first”, and I inevitably see one army of IT professionals being exchanged for another.

Not exactly clear to me where the win is — or when they’re going to get there.

Another example of an unexpected externality I’ve found in IT shops who have decided to go all-in on IT automation.  Don’t get me wrong — automation is a great thing, to be sure.

But so often these top-down automation projects run into the twin harsh realities of technologies that aren’t designed to be automated (e.g. software defined for lack of a better term) as well as organizations with traditional silos and workflows.  Getting the right technology underneath isn’t trivial; evolving an IT organization and its culture is certainly not for timid.

Cracked_foundationThe best automation products in the world can’t fix those things by themselves, just like the best coat of paint won’t fix your house’s cracked foundation.

A close cousin is the infamous “single pane of glass”.

In any IT operation with multiple roles, you’re inevitably talking about the need for multiple focused presentations, each tailored to the needs of the individual involved.  Not everyone is doing the same thing.

Forcing everyone to use the same pane of glass is a recipe for rebellion — and completely unrealistic.  Shared context for the team — great.  New converged interfaces for a new class of converged roles -- great.  But too often, “single pane of glass” is a meaningless trivialization of what’s really going on in enterprise IT.

Invisible_manThe most recent addition to this growing marketing lexicon comes from one of our competitors, who has decided to get behind the term “invisible infrastructure”.  This one strikes me as particularly dangerous.

Anyone with an enterprise IT background will tell you that infrastructure certainly isn’t invisible -- and if you pretend it is, bad things will inevitably result.  

Yet another frustrating example of the trivialization of enterprise IT.

Are Vendors Responsible?

Yes, I believe so.  Maybe they aren’t entirely responsible for the state of affairs in enterprise IT today, but they are certainly responsible for communicating with their customers and prospects in a transparent and clear-eyed manner.  We owe it to people.

Here are the plusses.  And here are a few other things you should consider before investing.

That second bit gets left out a lot.

When I see an IT vendor crossing the line, I cringe a bit.  Yes, our industry is full of steely-eyed pros who’ve seen it all before and have an appropriately jaundiced view of vendor claims.  That’s the good news.

But that’s not the whole picture, and that’s where I despair.

HopefulThere are many people involved in enterprise IT who might not have the benefit of twenty years of servitude in the school of hard knocks.  Other people will exhibit a strong need to believe in the potential of a better world, and not ask the hard questions.  And, of course, a few people who end up falling for vendor hype — plain and simple.

I do what I can.  In any product team I'm working with, I’m the one who’s pushing back on the eager marketeers towards a more balanced (and realistic) perspective.  I don't make many friends when I do this.  

I’m not always successful, but I feel it’s my duty.  In addition, I occasionally will call out competitors who have lost sight of their customers (and their integrity).  

This doesn’t make the most popular person in the world, though :)

You Can Help

When you see something, say something.  That’s what all this social media stuff is for.  All you have to do is toughen up a bit, and have at it.  The right kind of vendor will attempt to engage you in a fact-based discussion.  The wrong kind of vendor will round up their social media gang and attempt to bully you into silence.

No, it's not pleasant when that happens.  But if anything, you owe it to your colleagues.

Because enterprise IT certainly isn’t trivial, and shouldn’t be marketed that way.


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On Competing

PillowfightMany of you who follow the going-ons in our little corner of the IT industry may have noticed a continuing dust-up between myself and many Nutanix employees.

Competition is generally a good thing for our industry, when done right.  Maybe I'm naive, but I think that IT professionals deserve ready access to critical information that could impact their decision.  

As every IT pro knows, a lot is at stake when you sign that PO for that new thing :)

It's funny -- not many folks want to go toe-to-toe against another company in a public forum.  For some reason, that isn't a problem for me.  I consider it a healthy industry behavior.

Since this isn't my first competitive rodeo in the industry, I thought I'd share how I go about being a strong industry competitor when the situation arises.  Usually, the trigger is a competitor who is seriously and consistently misrepresenting reality, as I believe the case is here.  And getting to the truth can be hard for many IT pros -- so I do want to help.

Who knows?  For those of you who work at IT vendors, you too might be called to do what I do!

#1 -- It's About The Customer

CustomerA lot of dirt gets thrown around once things get going, but -- at the end of the day -- I try to keep it focused on things that customers tend to care about:

  • suitability for the task at hand -- the first question on everyone's mind
  • performance and cost -- always popular!
  • manageability, support, availability, stability -- important considerations
  • sharp edges, interactions with other commonly used products
  • and so on ...

If your competitive claim doesn't directly apply in clear ways to things that actual users would tend to care about, it really isn't that interesting.  So move on.

#2 -- Believe In The Mission

I would never fight for a product that I didn't believe in.  

MissionYou are always welcome to question my judgment, but I have to be personally assured that the product and the company I represent offers a better alternative (in most situations) than my competitor does.

This really isn't up for question.  If I don't believe, I can't go to battle.

Currently, I am hip-deep in the VMware Virtual SAN (VSAN) product.  I work with the engineers, the support folks, the sales team, etc. etc.  Nothing -- and I mean nothing -- is hidden from me.

And, as a result, I truly believe in the product.  That's important to me.

#3 -- Get Real Data

Getting good comparison data on things like performance, cost, feature sets, etc. takes time and money.  It ain't easy.  I don't simply recycle other people's opinions -- I want to see data that I can trust before taking on a public position against a competitor.

Unfortunately, some companies have blanket restrictions in their EULAs against publishing any form of performance or feature comparison, which is unfortunate.  Some go to great lengths to hide things like pricing, or specific feature sets.  Sigh.

When it comes to performance testing, VMware is far more progressive than most in that all they ask is a chance to review the test methodology ahead of publication.

The harsh reality is that many people try to do head-to-head product testing.  Not many are all that good at it.  So we have a vested interest in making sure that published tests use reasonable methodologies, even if we don't look the best all the time.

Even if I'm restricted from publishing the reams of comparison data I've got, having it all at my fingertips makes me very confident in making my assertions.

#4 -- Be Professional At All Times

Keep-calm-and-be-professional-1When you get into the heat of a lively competitive discussion, emotions can run hot.  They shouldn't.

For example, I don't attack people personally -- and I think it's very unprofessional when I am the personal target of someone's rant.  

This is about customers, products and technologies.  Feel free to attack the argument, but try to avoid attacking the person making that argument.  

#5 -- Be Prepared To Engage

EngageI wrote an unfavorable piece on Nutanix here on this blog a while back, and I think I heard from each and every Nutanix employee over the next week.  I posted all but the most unprofessional comments -- many of them quite unfavorable -- and patiently responded to each and every one of them.  

I couldn't publish all of them, as  -- well -- some of them weren't really suitable for public consumption.  There are some very foul mouths out there.  My house, my rules.

But it did make for very colorful reading :)

If you're going to publicly point out flaws in a given product or technology, be prepared for a response.  

Don't simply delete comments that you don't personally agree with -- and I'm looking at you @LukasLundell !!

#6 -- Make Your Points Clear

If you're going to compete aggressively, make sure your points are focused and clear.

With regards to my current tete-a-tete with Nutanix, I've boiled down my arguments to three simple statements:

  • Nutanix offers substandard performance running data center workloads when compared to both external storage arrays and especially an equivalently configured VSAN cluster.
  • Nutanix uses considerably more server resources than VSAN, which results in both poorer consolidation ratios and poorer TCO.
  • Nutanix appears to charge at least twice as much (after discounting) for equivalently configured vSphere / VSAN configurations, while delivering both poorer performance and poorer consolidation ratios.

I could make a very long list if I choose, but that's not going to be effective -- you need to hone your arguments.

You may agree or not with those particular statements above, but at least my position is very simple and very clear.  Provable, too.  And, I would argue, many customers would care about those things.  Some might not, though -- it's a big, diverse world out there.

Target#7 -- Relax, And Enjoy The Ride

I've been working in IT for close to 30 years.  I don't take myself seriously, and neither should you.  

Lighten up, have some fun, and don't make everything a personal grudge match.

#8 -- And, Don't Forget, It's All About The Customer

Did I mention that already?  I guess I did.  Goes to show how important I think it is.

Unless you can show competitive differentiation that will matter in the eyes of most customers, do everyone a favor and move on to something else.



On Being Happy

HappyWhat makes us truly happy?   One of life's most important questions, no?

A group of researchers at Mayo Clinic think they may have the answer: train the mind to focus on positive experiences vs. negative ones.

The rationale is simple: we are conditioned by evolution to focus on — and thus avoid — the negatives in our lives vs. celebrating the positives.

Although few of us will have the opportunity to partake in their 10 week, four-step program — it made me reflect on how I’ve been challenged over the years to crack that code for myself.  It wasn’t easy.

And I meet so many good people who are trying to be happier.

I don't know what will work for them, but I do know what worked for me.

The Early Career Years

Kid_carWhen I got out of school, for me it was all about proving yourself: getting a good job, a good salary, having cool friends, driving a cool car, the latest toys, etc.

It seemed to me that everyone had a head start on this life thing, and I was the one playing catch-up.

When I eventually got what I thought I wanted, I wasn’t really happy.  Life hadn't changed much.  

I told myself I was doing well, therefore I should be happy — but it wasn’t the truth.

Something was clearly missing.

Getting Married And Having Young Kids

I believe I am genetically wired to be in a stable, long-term relationship.  Not everyone is, but I am.  After I met and married my wife — and we started having kids — I was certainly much happier than before.

If I think about it, I now had things in my life that mattered to me more than my own personal needs: my wife, my kids, my community, etc.  Now less important: job, status, etc.

Family-StickerBut it wasn’t long before I fell into a very typical trap: hey, if I get a better job and make more money, I can provide better for my wife and kids.  And that should make me happy.  

I should have known better.

As I found out, burning the candle at both ends made me miserable.  The harder I worked, the more miserable I became.  I was becoming a stranger to my family, and when I was with them I wasn’t a happy puppy.  Worse, I become increasingly irritable and frustrated at work.  I was killing myself — where was the promised land?

I eventually realized the problem was me — and my unrealistic expectations.

The Kids Get Older

At some point, you wake up on a Saturday morning, and realize that your kids have plans that don’t require you to be directly involved: their new job, meeting with friends, a school activity, hanging out online, etc.

Time_freeAs a result, you get the incredibly precious gift of free time.  You can pick up a hobby, watch endless sports on TV, or basically anything you like.  What would make me happier?

For me, it was getting back into music.  

I was a decent keyboard player through college, but all of that went on the shelf for about 20 years, due to career and kids.  So I sat down at the piano, and started playing.  

When I felt I was good enough, I sought out a local garage band with similar folks.  From there, better bands and better gigs as I improved.  I have to say, I am quite pleased with how proficient I have become as a result.  It makes me happy.

Everyone’s brain is wired differently, but mine lights up like a pinball machine when I’m deeply engrossed in music.  I enter a very happy world for a brief moment.

Two important things resulted from this investment in time.

First, I now had a very satisfying activity and identity that had nothing to do with my job or my industry.  I had a personal life outside of work and family.

Playing in a band is an essentially cooperative act (or should be).  When you play with other musicians, all they care about is how good you are at what you do.  Not much else matters much: what car you drive, what kind of house you live in, etc.  You’re expected to bring game — that’s about it.

Second, I started to meet an extended circle of truly happy people who had taken a very different path than I had chosen: truck drivers, carpenters, insurance salesmen, etc.  They were very satisfied with who they were and how their life was working.

Key-lifebalanceI was very intrigued, and more than a little jealous.

What I learned from them is that these people had achieved an almost Zen-like balance between work, family and life.  They weren’t measuring themselves against others, they were measuring themselves against themselves.  

If it made them happy, they did it.  It didn't matter to them what other people thought.

This shouldn’t have been a major revelation to me, but it was.  I realized that I was subconsciously comparing myself to others in multiple dimensions, and it was making me miserable.

I was doing it to myself.   So I decided to fix that.

Without the benefit of a Mayo Clinic ten week, four-step program, I eventually taught myself to focus on the positives in my life, and encouraged the people around me to focus on the positives in their lives.  What other people were doing might be working for them, here's what's working for me.

I became infinitely happier as a result.  Almost annoyingly so.  The more I did it, the better I got at it.

The Kids Move Out

For many of us, that day comes when the kids go off to college or whatever is next for them.  All of the sudden, it’s me, my wife of thirty years — and our four dogs.

NestMy priorities change as a result.  I still want to work — and work hard — but it has to be very satisfying on multiple levels — no stressful, grinding gig for me, please.  Life is now too short.

My current VMware role fits my desires to a tee: great product, great company, great people, etc.

I also want more time to invest in my life outside of work: meet new people, and do new things. Retirement (or more likely semi-retirement) is somewhere on the horizon — how do we go about setting up our lives for the next thing?

I very much want to do something to give back — yes financially, but more importantly to invest more time in helping people that might be going through a rough patch.  I haven’t figured out exactly what I want to do, but I’m researching it.

And, when I have the time, I think that’s going to make me even happier.

What I’ve Learned Along The Way

1. Learn to measure yourself against yourself, not others.

2. Respect the tripod: work, family and personal life — all three pillars should be strong.

3. Give back any way you can, any time you can.

4. Reprogram yourself to focus on the positives, and not obsess on the negatives.

5. Celebrate the progress you’ve made. Maybe we can never live in a state of pure joy, but we can get better each and every day.

And, you know you’re winning when you can honestly say, “yes, I’m happy”.


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Catching Up

BusyI naively want to think that things should slow up a bit as we get into the summer months, but no such luck it seems.  Between work and life, the pace has been unusually hectic.

I've been neglectful in posting recently, as I've been focusing my increasingly scarce writing time on a new VMware company blog ("Virtual Blocks").  

Going forward, I'm going to try and keep my day-job product technology stuff over there, and write about broader topics here.   We'll see how well I do keeping up on TWO blogs -- yikes!!

In case you missed it, a few posts you may find interesting?

The Collapse Of Storage

VSAN vs. Nutanix Head-to-Head Performance Comparison -- Part 1

VSAN vs. Nutanix Head-to-Head Performance Comparison -- Part 2

VSAN vs. Nutanix Head-to-Head Performance Comparison -- Part 3

VSAN vs. Nutanix Head-to-Head Pricing Comparison -- Why Pay More?

Have a great weekend, everyone!






What Doesn’t Work With Hyperconverged

ShinyIn an industry powered by new, shiny things — we’ve got a new one that’s gaining traction: hyperconverged.

The basic idea is simple: collapse external storage (and, eventually networking) into a single, software-powered environment that runs on commodity servers.

The potential benefit is two-fold: reduced capex through use of commodity server platforms, and reduced opex through less reliance on storage (and network) specialists.

The market pundits forecast that this category will continue to grow.  VMware plays in multiple ways, but so do a bevy of startups.

The realist in me knows that everything has its pros and cons.  Enterprise IT is a diverse, complex beast — where does hyperconverged fit, and — most importantly — where does it not?

Aggregation Vs. Disaggregation

Conv2The power of hyperconverged is aggregating previously disparate functions into a single software platform and associated server-based consumption model.

One somewhat valid criticism is there’s less ability to independently scale compute, memory and storage.  While there is decent ability to vary configurations, the server combined form-factor can be more limiting than the disaggregated alternative.

Does this matter?  Yes and no.

Certain applications can demand a lot more of one or the other.  Imagine an archival content app — lots of efficient storage, little compute.   Or a real-time decisioning application — lots of compute, little storage.  

Enterprise IT app portfolios can be wonderfully diverse zoos.

ZooThe counter-argument is standardization.  The fewer diverse architectures that have to be operationally procured and managed, the better.  So the architect is left with the question: is functional specialization worth it?

The other consideration is significant scale.  For lack of a better term, large-scale (or web-scale?) environments that are running largely 3rd platform applications can theoretically benefit from discrete yet globally shared pools of compute, memory and storage — extracting maximum resource efficiency -- although that isolated goal can introduce all sorts of negating operationally complexities.

One implication for me is to pick core technologies (e.g. hypervisors) and associated control planes that can play identically in either hyperconverged (aggregated) or disaggregated environments as needed.

The Dreaded Lock-In

LockPrudent long-term IT planning mandates an exit strategy if your first choice doesn’t work out.  With hyperconverged, you’re inevitably putting more eggs in the same basket.

What if you like the mgmt GUI, but hate the storage subsystem?

The idealized hyperconverged environment would be constructed of decomposable pieces that would present the option to swap in, or out, if the need presents itself down the road.

Storage, networking, management, hypervisor — it should all be potentially on the table.

To be clear, I am *not* arguing that most customers should attempt to assemble their own hyperconverged environment out of piece parts — a lot of the “ease of” value proposition would inevitably disappear in the process.

But, should the situation present itself, the option should be considered.

Extreme Optimization

KnobsWe often joke about “nerd knobs” — the hundreds of controls, parameters and settings that are exposed in compute, networking and storage.

Part of the hyperconverged value proposition is a valid attempt to minimize the need for such detailed control of the infrastructure.

But there’s a difference between not needing detailed controls — and not having them in any form.

Non-hyperconverged infrastructure usually has a rich set of controls: the hypervisor, the network and storage.  Yes, it’s hard to make it all disappear, but it’s clearly there when needed.

But hyperconverged solutions vary greatly in the amount of control and optimization they grant the sophiticated administrator.  Putting on my vendor hat, the vSphere/VSAN combination has a very rich set of controls.  I think our major challenge is convincing customers to stick with the UI and policy settings — and not be tempted to twist the wrong underlying knob :)

Organizational Concerns

SilosTraditionally, the virtualization/server team sits in one group, the network team sits in another group, and the storage group in yet another.

Thus, delivering any infrastructure service requires complex -- often negotiated -- interactions between all three.

The benefit of hyperconverged is simple: most roles collapse into a single admin role — and that’s appealing.

But politics can be a real and tangible force in IT organizations. Better approaches shouldn’t be adopted if it results in a riot. And it has to be acknowledged — hyperconverged seriously redraws organizational lines — and that might be a non-starter in some situations.

Stranded Assets and Technical Debt

DebtIt’s a bit sad when I run into an IT group that seems to be managed by purchasing or finance.

Lots of different stuff on the floor, all locked into very long depreciation schedules or long-term leases. And a harried IT team trying to keep the lights on with their accidental architecture.

Ouch — I feel your pain.

Occasionally, one of these groups gets lucky: new leadership, a bit of new money — and they’re looking to catch up on their technical debt in a big hurry.  So they go out and splurge on a bunch of hyperconverged gear.

While it’s great to get the new stuff in, the problems usually run far deeper and start at the top: an under-appreciation of the value that IT brings to the organization — which results in an under-investment pattern in people, process and technology.

Put differently, hyperconverged isn’t going to make an ugly IT organizational situation any prettier. No, I won’t make analogies around lipstick and swine. It may buy you some time, though.

There is no magic IT pill, unfortunately.

The Bigger Picture?

Tool_rightYes, I believe the advantages of hyperconverged are real and tangible for many.  

Yes, there are many places where traditional, specialized IT still makes sense — but there are also plenty that are strong candidates for a standardized, simplified — and hyperconverged — approach.   The advantages can be significant.

But stepping back from the bright, shiny thing, the realities of enterprise IT intrude into the warm glow.  

Hyperconverged has to work with the rest of the landscape.  Hyperconverged has to work with the IT organization. The same concerns we’ve always had with enterprise IT solutions are still in evidence.

Smart folks will realize — like everything else the IT industry comes up with — it’s just another tool in the tool belt.   And a good one at that.


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