Can NetApp Succeed Whatever the "Whether"? (Includes Video)

clearing_cloudsThis month saw another NetApp Insight event, and it was hot! By ‘hot’ I don’t mean the weather in Las Vegas, I’m talking about the whether we experienced there. Let me explain: NetApp formally convened its event the day after Dell’s intent to acquire EMC was announced….whether this turns out to be a cloud or a silver lining remains to be seen, but for once NetApp seemed determined to be a master of its destiny way more than the market-passenger (albeit it a highly successful one!) that it has all-too-often been.

Watch the video, where my colleagues Jason Buffington, Scott Sinclair, and I recap the event, and then read my further thoughts below. 

There was a renewed sense of purpose from the NetApp executive team, and clearly great enthusiasm from the assembled partners and customers (though to be fair the essence of this event was always working-together with NetApp’s partners and not some swish marketing production, so there’s a definite element of the choir being in the building!). Nonetheless, the whole Data Fabric story – the practical, and pragmatic, manifestation of NetApp’s strategic intent to shift from being a storage player to being a data management leader – has come together well over the 12 months since its unveiling.

Now of course the Data Fabric isn’t a simple SKU – but then neither is it simply PowerPoint-ware; it is one of the most compelling and comprehensive “data anywhere and everywhere, single management, cloud-inclusive” constructs you’ll find. That’s both good and bad; good, because it is what the contemporary IT world needs, yet bad because it is so little known and appreciated outside the “choir-zone.”

Certainly NetApp has changed and improved what it can do, and actually does….but more than ever it has to also change and improve how it goes about communicating that if it is to experience silver linings rather than clouds. For that reason alone (since being seen to be different is almost as important as being different) it was good to see the Kurian regime kick off an aggressive marketing campaign at Insight.

Now NetApp has to follow through on a lot of fronts – including for example its subtle cultural shift away from being a wallflower, its compelling Data Fabric strategy, and the knife-edge balance it must strike between being “in play” (which of course it is now more than ever) and being “in confident denial.”

The Dell/EMC news was steadfastly ignored (or at least not mentioned formally) for most of the main-stage events, save for a couple of askance comments…..but talk of being the largest independent storage vendor (assuming that EMC is sold to Dell) belies the fact that it will really be the only large pure-play storage vendor (even HDS has the cover of Hitachi and its broader Social Innovation initiatives)….and that its future growth and success likely depends on transitioning away – both in perception as well as reality – from being a storage play to being a universal data management play. And that transition is largely in its own control: NetApp’s intent/challenge/opportunity is to be an even greater success whether or not Dell ends up owning its EMC nemesis!

Video Transcript

Mark: This week's event is NetApp Insight in the lovely city of Las Vegas just for people who don't get to go to Vegas enough. Insight is an interesting word. It's actually with NetApp almost what's out of sight that's actually caused a lot of the interest this week.

First, we had the announcement over the weekend, you can't get away from this, of the impending Dell acquisition of EMC. Huge news for the storage and data management industry in general. Second, of course, although he was Insight, we have the change of leadership at NetApp. The impact of George Kurian and how he wants to lead the company, some ways the same, some ways very different from the prior generation of leadership. It's going to be very interesting to see the impact that has both from a product and a marketing and a positioning perspective.

Before we talk a little bit more about what that all is, let's hear from my colleagues Scott Sinclair and Jason Buffington about some of the more prosaic current best practices, offers, and marketing messages around the storage side of the business and the data protection side of the business.

Jason: The one thing I heard that I really liked was the NetApp executives all saying we're going to get louder on what we do. We know we do things well, but obviously we've been really modest about the path and that's held them back, and they're going to change that. That was interesting.

The two things that I saw that are really important, one, you can't go anywhere in this conference and not talk about the data fabric. The same way we talk about data protection being an umbrella term that talks about backup and snapshots and replication and availability, data protection's the uber term that goes around that.

If you think about it, data management is the uber term over that. It has the data protection copies, the non-data protection copies, and the primary instance [SP] data. Anywhere where there's, the management of all those permutations is part of that.

Well, data fabric is really just a vision that NetApp has for how they're going to manage that data across the infrastructure, whether it's on their metal or whether it's in somebody else's Cloud. That's really exciting.

The last thing I heard and I saw that I really, really liked was everywhere you went, people were talking about AltaVault. It was about a year ago that NetApp bought SteelStore from Riverbed, and I said that it was a smart purchase. Now you can see the fruit of that, because everywhere they want to talk about how are you going to get your data to the Cloud, AltaVault is part of the punchline for that. That's a smart move that people should be looking at.

Scott: IT providers are responding to the Cloud era in a number of different ways. Some storage providers are embracing the hybrid Cloud. Others are trying to ignore it. Some are actually going through massive acquisitions.

NetApp is all about embracing the hybrid Cloud. They believe they have a distinctly differentiated story and that's around choice. While a number of storage providers are all about locking you into a Cloud ecosystem, NetApp's data fabric is designed to allow IT organizations to choose the Cloud provider the environment that they need. A number of players in the industry think of NetApp as some traditional storage architecture, some traditional storage player. But honestly when you look at the data fabric concept the idea is in line with some of the more forward thinking startups that you would've thought of. Really, NetApp seems to have the right technology and the right strategy.

The question is as a company, can they get that message out there? NetApp seems to be following it up with some very aggressive marketing. They've positioned themselves directly against VNX this week. It'll be interesting to see how that story continues. The bottom line is NetApp looks to have a great strategy with data fabric and the hybrid Cloud. It's just in their court to execute.

Mark: My thanks to both Jason and Scott for summarizing some of the key product elements that need to be understood. Now, I said in the introduction to this piece there are also bigger forces at play, both things that NetApp can do and things that, if you like, are being done to it by the other market changes that are impending. That said, NetApp can really only take care of itself right now. We would've been saying the same even without the Dell and EMC news.

With many of the companies in this business, telling the story is difficult because some companies just don't have very many good plot elements, if you like. NetApp has always had great plot elements but hasn't had a great ability to really tell that story, and frankly not just tell that story in a compelling way, which is really coming together under the data fabric messaging that we're getting, but also turn from being just a nice company in the business. It's always been the great place to work and so on. I'm not saying any of that is bad, but George Kurian has made it very clear that just being the nice company to deal with is no longer enough. We saw signs of a new and good edginess in the aggressive sales campaign that was launched Monday at this event.


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