Fun Fact, I wrote this in November of last year. Still holds up. Figured I publish it.
I’ve spent pretty much the last few years speaking to customers about the many disruptive forces that are invading the traditional Information Technology space. I normally start these talks off with the slide to the left. That’s Steve Jobs holding the first iPhone in 2007 and the text to the left is the conversation between the two CEO’s of RIM the makers of the Blackberry smart phone. “These guys are really good, this is different” – “It’s Ok, we’ll be fine” Fine you say? At the time RIM was the dominant smart phone platform along with Nokia, both companies were at the top of the smart phone game and had the dominant market shares. At one point RIM’s shares were trading at 135 dollars a share and their market cap was roughly 40B with Nokia sitting at 114B. Both companies would continue and accelerate in both market share and value, but only until a point. That point would come a short year later with the release of the iPhone 3G and with that, the app store ecosystem was starting to gain traction and how people used their phones started to change drastically.
Now, I was an avid Blackberry user from roughly 1999 (the 850) to 2011. I resisted the iPhone at first and only got one once I moved into a Sales Engineering role that required me to travel a bit more for work. One of the primary reasons I went to iPhone was the app ecosystem that had built up around it. For anyone that remembers the Blackberry app store, then you remember the abject failure that it was, how few apps actually existed for it, and how abysmal the experience was in trying to use it. So as much as I loved that physical keyboard, the user experience came to be so awful that I simply couldn’t stick with the platform. Seems like the market has spoken as well, since on September 28, 2016, Blackberry announced it will stop designing its own phones. Now was the Blackberry a bad phone? No, it was actually a really good phone and email device, but that was about it. The iPhone moved my phone from being something I simply communicated with, to something I utterly relied upon for my daily life. It became a computer in my hand, not a phone. That’s one thing RIM simply didn’t comprehend and failed to act upon, or at least, waited too long to address.
Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That
Now this seems like a long pre-amble to a post about storage, but bear with me. The storage industry holds a lot of parallels to the story above. Storage used to be a complex beast that needed to be tamed by specialist, by SAN engineers, by graybeards (sorry @DeepStorageNet). It was practically a science in the data center requiring certifications, deep understanding of the physics behind spinning disks and the complexities of RAID layout, snapshot reserves, controller overhead and limits, drive types, etc. Fact is, you had to spend a lot of time to provision and design storage when it came to legacy storage platforms. Even many of the more modern systems that are deployed today, still require some heavy lifting on the design front. Sure it doesn’t take 158 actions to provision a volume the way it did in 2005, but the underlying challenges are still there, even for systems that market themselves as simple. The simple fact remains, when we look at the advances in technology for the data center, Storage tends to be the one system that has failed to keep pace with innovation. It’s still fairly beholden to the standards of the head and sled design construct, it still doesn’t scale well, it still fails to deliver guaranteed performance even when using Flash SSD’s as the storage medium, and it still requires a specific skill set to leverage and provision properly.
RIP Storage Admin
That brings me to the death of the storage admin and why recognizing disruption is hard. Storage admins in many respects are the AS400 operators of today. Sure they sill exist, sure they still perform operations, but honestly, most technologist in any given organization kind of look at them as relics. When all you really want is to answer 3 questions: How Big, How Fast, and Who Accesses, why should that process be tasked to a “specialist”. Why isn’t it simply an API call that I pass, or an integration point with my hypervisor, or a near zero touch operation that is integrated into an orchestration workflow? Now the point isn’t to insult or be totally derisive to the storage teams within organizations. The reality for me at least, is that they tend to be entrenched in their lines of thinking, and part of that is also turf and job protection. I was the storage admin for a good portion of my career in IT, and I can totally see the other side of this argument. Yes I did all that heavy lifting and design work, and I took pride in it. It took a long time to build those skills, but at some point I realized that I had to move beyond that limited viewpoint, thus I got involved in virtualization, cloud, and other technologies pushing more for a full stack engineering skill-set.
So to tie all this rambling together into some coherent conclusion. Like we saw with the smart phone market, the move away from just providing phone and email to a device that allowed for a full computing experience was what killed RIM and Nokia. Their technology was sound and did what it was designed to do, but they as organizations failed to see the trends that were being adopted by the customer ecosystem. The same is being seen in how storage is being adopted, deployed, and consumed in many organizations. Storage is becoming a service to be consumed and utilized, a platform that accelerates the deployment of applications, tools, and resources. As I’ve claimed many a time, there is no book called the “Joy of Menial Tasks” At the end of the day, our customers (ie the people we provide resources for) are looking for the same simplicity that they get when they go to the Apple app store, download an app and start using it. We need to be able to deliver storage resources in the same fashion. Now obviously, I have my biases, but after nearly two years working at SolidFire, I still have not seen a solution that delivers the simplicity of design, operation, with the multiple disparate consumption models that SolidFire does.