Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Nagging questions from VMworld 2011: balancing bias versus cloud vision

For those of us who attend VMworld each year that don’t work for VMware, it’s always a bit of a spectator sport. What will they announce, what will they say-but-not-really-say, what ends up being the synthesis that the audience (and the pundits) take away at the end of the whole thing?

VMworld 2011 was no exception. Now that it has been a couple weeks and the news has sunken in a bit, there are still a few things that are nagging me, mainly from the keynotes that VMware CEO Paul Maritz and CTO Steve Herrod gave. The primary question? How does an IT shop carefully balance the various pieces of visionary cloud computing direction that VMware laid out with the inherent bias that comes with any vendor show of this nature.

Any tightrope walkers out there? I ask because there was certainly a lot of both from what I picked up.

Somebody Told Me VMware has cloud fever

There were a bunch of comments, especially from the keynotes, that I thought were spot on at VMworld. First and foremost, Maritz acknowledged that VMware isn’t immune to “cloud fever.” In fact, he admitted that they “tend to use this word a lot.” An understatement, for sure, for VMware and nearly everyone else for that matter. In Maritz’s estimation, cloud computing “will re-define IT over the coming decade.” Given the possibilities that cloud opens up, and many of the topics I’ve written about here before, I heartily agree.

However, for someone who grew up debugging the print controller for some of the first ATMs, Maritz has a pretty negative view of some technologies that actually make up the IT infrastructure for many of today’s big enterprises. And most of the biases I heard during his keynote ignored many of the issues IT has to deal with to the benefit of Maritz’s current employer (no surprise there).

Out with the old?

Maritz described a future in which the recommended path forward is to “ring-fence” (and eventually replace) the mainframe and mini-computer legacy environments. He then talked about the “client-server legacy” environment as one that was “too big to walk away from.” I’m betting folks from the biggest IT shops globally that heard that chuckled a bit. Many of their pre-client-server systems certainly qualify as “too big to walk away from,” too. (I know my former employer, CA Technologies, would certainly agree with that.)

Instead, Maritz’s guidance focused on ways to modernize client/server infrastructure and operations to help figure out how to bring those newer apps forward. And he suggested investing in cloud-based environments for those new and renewed apps.

I think this approach pretty obviously spins the focus onto the pieces of the IT environment that VMware can deal with most effectively at the moment. It calls those out as most important and actionable and gives short shrift to things VMware’s not good at. Unfortunately, this spin sacrifices the way a customer would realistically evaluate their heterogeneous IT environments. I believe there’s much more of a balance in value among the apps and infrastructures from different computing eras in large organizations than VMware leads you to believe. Sure, many shops would love to dump some of their old stuff and trade it in for something new and with fewer strings attached, but there are some golden rules of IT that really recommend you not do that. At least not all at once.

Cloud enables IT consumers into the driver’s seat

While I may argue with Maritz’s views in some areas, there are other areas where he is dead on. I think he is right to point out the impact of the IT consumers on everything that IT ops is doing. The cloud, he said, “represents the next major interaction between enterprise IT and consumer-driven change.”

One of the biggest stats Martiz dropped on us underscored the staggering impact of the mobility that IT consumers are demanding in particular. Three years ago, 95% of the devices connected to the Internet were PCs. Three years from now Maritz expected that number to drop to just 20%. That’s a big endorsement of the “post-PC world” that Steve Jobs has been evangelizing.

Herrod’s technology keynote was very focused on ways to enable IT to deal with increasing demands for mobility and a new set of devices, like my iPad and other tablets and smart phones. Herrod and Vittorio Viarengo did a great job of showing a few scenarios in a way that was direct, easy to understand, and got the audience laughing a bit (Herrod knows his somewhat-quirky audience very well). The fact that the demos showed some of VMware’s cooler end user computing initiatives like Horizon, Project Octopus, AppBlast and a few others, didn’t hurt.

But, this, too, was presented through the lens of VMware’s take on the world. Not everyone was convinced, of course. Kurt Marko called the mobile efforts “theoretically promising, but realistically perplexing” in his Information Week article. GigaOm's Derrick Harris wondered in a post why consumers wouldn't just, in the end, prefer the consumer brand versions of everything that they already know from their personal lives for things like DropBox instead of a VMware-flavored version.

Filling in the pieces

Finally, the other thing that VMware accomplished at VMworld this year was to make it clear that in order to help customers pursue application renewal efforts and support the trends toward mobility and IT consumerization, they are working hard to fill in all the gaps. Themselves. Or at least, that’s the impression they are giving.

I found it sort of fitting that they had the Killers playing their party this year. Many of the messages that they seemed to be giving off (consciously or unconsciously) were that they were working to be killers themselves – of much of their own ecosystem.

How? They announced (or had previously announced) that they were:

• Going directly at the management and operations space
• Going after databases
• Aiming at the storage space (a logical fit, given their EMC ownership), building a sort of Dropbox for the enterprise.
• Providing a platform (Cloud Foundry) for developers to easily get started
• Going after the virtual desktop
• Going after mobility and a common experience that is not device-based
• Continuing to work on security, e-mail, collaboration, social media efforts

And even if this isn’t an exhaustive (or sufficiently precise) list, you get my drift. The other thing that struck me: they mentioned very few of their partners in their main keynotes.

A new Day and Age?

In the end, in addition to realizing their view of what’s possible for customers with virtualization and cloud, VMware has a very specific goal. VMware is hoping for a world in which IT doesn't need to go anywhere else. Or at least not many other places. Of course, what big vendor doesn't, especially as the cloud threatens to be disruptive to the business they currently have going?

But not many IT orgs want to give VMware permission to take a Joy Ride through their procurement department, saying “trust me, Everything Will Be Alright.”

Mr. Brightside...or Losing Touch?

So, this brought up a few nagging questions for me. Are they trying to do too much themselves, threatening to push their customers to be much more adversarial? And, in taking on all of these things themselves at the expense of some of their partners, are they creating a Hot Fuss and turning friends into enemies unnecessarily? There's a lot of data and market reality that make it very hard to fault how they are acting. A Sand Hill Research report I saw on Cloud Commons cites VMware as the most likely “go to” vendor for private cloud projects. By a long shot.

So why not? There’s no reason VMware shouldn't head down the path they are on (in fact, there a lot of strategic reasons why the definitely should). But customers need to be careful. They need to make sure they understand the preconceptions that VMware buries in their vision for IT’s future. It doesn’t always match the way a big customer views IT. Sometimes that’s because they are looking into a future that the customers can’t see yet. And sometimes that’s because they are coloring the future in a shade that best suits them.

One place we tried to have a reality-based discussion at VMworld was in the “Cloud Computing Realities” panel that Brian Gracely of Cisco, Mathew Lodge of VMware, and I (then with CA Technologies) did with Stu Miniman of Wikibon. Here are 3 other good VMworld write-ups that I can recommend if you want a dose of the real world: Andi Mann’s, Bruce Milne's (both from CA), and Chris Wolf’s (from Gartner). And for a dose of humor, check out Microsoft's humorous poke at VMware for being "stuck in the IT past."

And get ready…this happens all over again in mid-October in Copenhagen. Though, I’ll be watching VMworld Europe 2011 from the comfort of my new desk and the usually-reliable-and-often-amusing #vmworld Twitter feed.

Extra credit goes to those who found all the Killers song and album titles buried in this post (though I made it pretty easy). It's getting to be a little tradition around here. Check out my VMworld 2009 and 2010 wrap-ups -- you'll see I'm no Foreigner to these sort of (in)Excess puns.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

File under 'inspiration': a collection of Steve Jobs stories

Sure, I spent some time mulling over my own resignation letter over the past few weeks, but someone else had one around the same time that was much more impactful and far-reaching (and, honestly, was much better written). Timing is about the only thing that connects my workplace good-bye with the one that had the most impact on high tech in 2011: the resignation of Steve Jobs.

In the days following Steve Jobs’ departure as CEO of Apple, many folks in the industry who had felt his influence – as a manager, a visionary, or news maker – took pen to paper. Actually, many took fingers to backlit keyboard or glass touchscreen, thanks to Steve. And they wrote some interesting stories.

As these stories flew by on Twitter, I found that they were speaking not only about Steve Jobs, but about a whole lot more. I started grabbing links and stashing them to digest later. (Hey, I was busy.) I really didn’t have time and breathing room to process what they meant until now, a few weeks later.

Today’s Chronicle story about the new proposed Apple HQ in Cupertino (the big, donut-like “iCon” that the urban design critic called “refreshing” and “a sci-fi fantasy best viewed from a helicopter”) reminded me about all the stories I’d been collecting. I decided I should post a bunch that had relevance (and were even a bit poignant) here.

I figure that they are good for reference and useful for a little reflection on what kind of impact Steve Jobs had on cynical and/or fanboy journalists, employees, competitors, and the industry in general. They talk about an amazing figure in our industry in particular, but also get to important points about how to be a leader, how to build a company, how to be an entrepreneur, and the impact all those can have on individuals and even on Silicon Valley as a whole. I’m filing them under “inspiration.” Perfect timing for me, actually.

What folks learned spending time with Steve Jobs

Many stories were essentially quirky anecdotes from many of the people that had worked with or crossed paths with Jobs. And what they learned. For example: “CEOs should care about details. Even shades of yellow. On a Sunday.” Read Google’s Vic Gundotra’s story about his phone call from Steve for details. Steve’s interest in design and attention to detail resonated in Glenn Rossman’s story about his day pitching the media about NeXT and IBM with Steve Jobs as well.

Robert Scoble gives a good account of the impact of Steve and Apple had through nearly his entire life, ending with his decision to watch Steve’s iPad 2 announcement up close (and without his camera). “It’s one of the few times when I was forced to just soak in a performance, and not try to capture the event I was viewing,” Scoble writes. And in the age of Twitter and Facebook, that’s a rarity. “Jobs didn’t disappoint.”

What was Jobs like? I’ve never met him, though was in a presentation he gave with Larry Ellison to some of us then-Oracle employees way-back-when showing off the NeXT machine. I know some folks from the NeXT era who all have great stories.

Om Malik likens him to Howard Hughes. Saul Hansell at Tech Crunch called him the patron saint of perfectionists: “Steve Jobs was an impresario, in the tradition, more than anything, of a classic Hollywood studio boss (which he also was in his spare time).”

This impresario approach, of course, didn’t (and still doesn’t) make Apple a “pleasant company to deal with or work at,” noted Hansell. “Everyone at Apple worked with the anxiety that they must meet the impossible demands of Jobs or endure his anger.” Hansell compared Apple to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory: “no one went in and no one ever came out.”

The bigger picture: what Steve Jobs meant to innovation and Silicon Valley

Those negatives quickly melt away when talking about all Steve has accomplished, however.

Om Malik wrote a wistful piece that outlined some of the best things to be learned from watching Steve Jobs in action. “If you want to change something, you have to be patient and take the long view. …When you are right and the world doesn’t see it that way, you just have to be patient and wait for the world to change its mind.” Plus, Om highlighted one incredibly difficult piece of advice, especially for big companies: cannibalize yourself.

Chris O’Brien from the Merc noted 3 things that Steve Jobs meant to Silicon Valley as a whole: inspiration, innovation, and revolution. “It wasn’t just the way he bootstrapped an idea from nothing, but the anti-establishment flair with which he pursued his singular vision,” said O’Brien. He believes Jobs showed that even though it is the “harder, riskier road,” innovation can be the key for a company to reinvent itself.

O’Brien also noted that Jobs “saved his best for last” – the iPhone. It and the iPad are helping to end the era of the PC, a comment Paul Maritz underscored onstage in his keynote at VMworld last week.

Intersection of technology & liberal arts

Mark Sigal (@netgarden) talked about Jobs finding a way to be the point where technology and liberal arts intersect. “The realization that one man sits at the junction of cataclysmic disruptions in personal computing, music, mobile computing, movies and post-PC computing is breathtaking in its majesty. A legacy with no equal.”

Sigal notes that Jobs has been about “bringing humanity back to the center of the ring,” not speeds and feeds. He was willing to “think different” and make it look “ridiculously, deceptively simple.”

As someone who was late to the party on iPads (though my family and I have had our fair share of iPods and iPhones), I have to agree. My iPad is easy, elegant, and really useful. My expectations were exceeded so completely, it’s almost embarrassing. Our challenge now is to fit that simplicity into the way the rest of the world (and IT) works.

What do people see for the future of Steve and Apple?

So what does the future hold? As David Pogue’s New York Times article mentioned, most of the reactions to Job’s resignation “read like obituaries – for Steve Jobs, if not for Apple.” It’s one of the reasons I was always leery about investing in Apple stock (though I thankfully gave in). Once Steve left, for whatever reason, would there be any possible way to keep things going, while living up to the standards he had set?

“There’s one heck of a huge elephant in the room,” writes Pogue, “one unavoidable reason why it’s hard to imagine Apple without Mr. Jobs steering the ship: personality.” Pogue thinks Apple will do well for now, but will have a hard time knowing “where the puck will come to rest” once the Jobs-influenced “pipeline is no longer full, and when his difficult, brilliant, charismatic, future-shaping personality is no longer the face of Apple.”

However, Harvard Business School fellows James Allworth, Max Wessel, and Rob Wheeler point out that the “Steve-infused culture” that he is leaving behind is, in fact, the point. When Jobs returned to Apple for his 2nd stint, “he wasn’t just interested in building great products himself. He was interested in making sure everyone else within Apple was able to build great products, too – to be able to think like he did.”

These guys are so confident, they created a Twitter hashtag to follow the mantra they believe Apple will continue to leverage to success for a long time to come: #wwsd. As in: “What would Steve do?”

How would you like to remember Steve’s departure?

Before any of this had come to a head, Fritz Nelson of Information Week had been creating his own script for what a Steve Jobs departure would – or in his view, should – look like. It has a geeky element of fantasy to it, but is an interesting read about how Steve Jobs could have ended his tenure. Cool ideas, though the white turtle neck is a bit over the top.

The one thing I liked best, I think, is the Stanford commencement speech that Jobs did in 2005 (thanks to John Millea of CA Technologies and Jean Bozman of IDC for pointing it my direction again recently). As a Bay Area local, I remember being tempted to go. I wish I had, but the magic of YouTube at least ensures that I didn’t miss what he said. The graduates aren’t quite in sync with Jobs at the start, laughing at weird times, assuming that his speech is about, well, them. They eventually figure out that it’s not about them. At least, not only about them.

The speech has some great insights about how doing what you have a passion for is the most important thing. He talked about serendipity: how a calligraphy class he took (because he loved it) saved the world from ugly PC fonts. He talked about getting fired. He talked about being diagnosed with cancer.

If you can find a way to wrap all those things into one life and build great things from them, you’re liable to make a huge difference for yourself. And for a whole lot of other people, too.

So, I’ll hereby submit my comments to the mix of everything that’s already been said and end with something pretty simple.

Thanks, Steve.

Monday, September 5, 2011

For me, it's that time again: start-up life -- and chair building -- beckon

After over 2 years at CA Technologies and almost 6 years with a vendor focused on what is (or would become) the cloud computing space, it’s “that time” for me again.

It’s time for me to jump back into a start-up.

CA has been a welcome change of pace and a rich set of experiences for me. I came into CA from the Cassatt acquisition back in the summer of 2009 -- shifting from Cassatt’s 50-person approach to problems to one in which we could bring the resources of a $4-billion and 12,000-person company to bear.

I like to think that I've helped move things forward at CA and for customers thinking about cloud computing. I joined the team that laid the groundwork for and built CA’s cloud business from the ground up. Following some very impactful strategy discussions, we pulled in a bunch of key acquisitions, including Oblicore, 3Tera, and Nimsoft, and have been building businesses on it since. (See here for what some of luminaries in the cloud market working with CA are doing and here for the company’s most recent cloud-related moves.)

The importance of building…chairs

But, deep down in my DNA, I like doing start-ups. I'm about to join my fourth. Sometimes they work out great, sometimes not, but the connection between the work you do and the results is fresh, visceral, and immediate. They give you a feeling of belonging that is hard to replicate.

I remember Alfred Chuang, one of the founders of BEA, telling over and over again how he had actually put together the chairs for the company’s first conference room in our rental space in East Palo Alto back in ’95 (I was with BEA from those early days until I joined Cassatt in ’05). I remember looking forward to when Ed Scott (my boss at the time) would be on the road with Bill Coleman or his sales team, since I was sharing an unassuming corner of Ed’s office. The office frankly seemed a lot bigger when only one of us was trying to use it at a time.

The New Thing

So what’s the New Thing that I’m going to?

I’m joining a small, stealthy cloud computing /mobility start-up in the Bay Area as VP of marketing. I will share details, the name, and world domination plans as soon as I can.

I start this coming Friday (and I’ll be on a plane with my new CEO twice that day, amusingly enough for those that follow my too-frequent Twitter flight exploits). I’ve worked with several of these folks before – a *really* important prerequisite in my book – and the others come highly recommended.

In one of my meetings with the CEO, I helped folks lug a few boxes out of the conference room so we could meet. While we were talking, a few team members were just outside the door putting together what was in those boxes. Yep, you guessed it: office chairs.

Now, many of the market signs that I’m seeing are pointing in the right direction for my new company and its space. But, when they started putting chairs together, I think that sealed the deal for me.

Getting started

So, this week I’ve been taking a little R&R, playing House Dad a bit, catching up on some blog posts, and buying a few gadgets to get me started.

Going forward, I’ll continue to write here at Data Center Dialog on most of the topics I’ve already been covering, plus expanding into a few more at the cross-section of cloud, mobility, and IT consumerization. I also intend to continue to contribute to Cloud Commons (and will re-subscribe to This Week in Cloud as a non-CA person).

And, when we’re ready, I’m also expecting to have the relevant posts show up on my new company’s site as well.

Thanks to everyone for reading the blog so far. I'm excited about what's next and see it as a great extension of what you've been reading here. I hope to continue to make this a worthwhile dialog for all of us.

At the very least, I should be an expert if you ever need your office chair adjusted.