As I was planning my 2014 calendar over the past two weeks, I noticed that two storage conferences that focused on heterogeneous computing environments and were popular during from 2000-2010 have either gone the way of the dodo bird or are only a shell of what they formerly were. Yet during that same period of time, I met with some storage engineers and architects in the Omaha area who were telling me their environments are more heterogeneous than possibly ever before. While these trends on the surface may seem contradictory, they underscore the growing frustration that management in companies have with IT in general and how they are desperately looking for IT solutions that just work.
In the decade ranging from about 2000-2010, the two “can’t miss” conferences in the data storage world were Storage Decisions and Storage Networking World. Data storage was undergoing a huge transformation from being direct-attached to network-attached and these two conferences were at the center of the vortex. Anyone who was anyone in the storage industry – analyst, vendor or end-user – was at these events as they showcased the best of what traditional players had to offer as well as many of the emerging technologies that were promising to re-shape the storage market.
Having attended many of these conferences, these are where I first saw many technologies such as backup appliances, deduplication, public storage clouds, scale-out storage, storage virtualization, storage resource management, thin provisioning and virtual server backup just to name a few. Each of these promised-and largely delivered-on solving key pain points that users were experiencing.
Yet these conferences fell short over time in an important aspect leading to their demise. They brought together competing vendors and put them in one place so users could view their wares, evaluate their products and bring them in-house to test and/or implement them. These conferences ultimately failed to transform themselves from solving specific customer pain paints to hosting vendors that offered holistic, macro-management solutions that could manage all of the product-specific solutions they had acquired over the years.
This was brought clearly into focus for me over lunch a couple of weeks ago that I had with a storage architect and a storage engineer. These two individuals are part of a global storage team that is responsible for managing all of the point solutions from various vendors brought in over the past decade. While it is a truly a heterogeneous environment, they find it very complex to manage, skill sets acquired in managing one technology do not easily transfer to managing other similar technologies, and vendor support for managing this heterogeneous environment is sketchy at best. Adding to their frustration, they have to support this environment while trying to support the latest management initiative that is going to fix all of these issues (aka – the cloud.)
This leads us to why organizations have largely shifted away from attending conferences sponsored by independent third parties such as TechTarget and IDC to vendor-sponsored events. Vendors like Dell, EMC, HP, IBM, Microsoft, Symantec and VMware now host their conferences that attract thousands if not tens of thousands of users in large part because they are feeding on this end-user belief that if they adopt their cloud solution, they can easily and effectively manage this heterogeneous cludge created by buying decisions from 2000-2010.
While the approach varies slightly by provider, the general theme is this. Buy all new stuff from us that now all magically works together. Pay us a bunch of money for services to migrate data off of your old IT gear onto this new gear. Stand back and get ready to enjoy all of the benefits of our cloud once all of your data is hosted on our gear. This may sound a bit simplistic but this seems to be the common theme in every pitch I hear. It is also why organizations, hoping against hope that what these vendors are saying is true, are attending these vendor-sponsored conferences in growing numbers.
My thoughts are these. First, the cloud solutions these providers are promising will fix all of your existing problems probably will not – at least not all of them. They certainly may solve a subset of the problems, but they will likely only contribute to making your existing heterogeneous environment even more heterogeneous – if that is possible – simply because there are always too many legacy products with their own proprietary protocols or requirements to be stand-alone that organizations will never be able to virtualize away by putting them into a cloud.
Second, this infatuation with vendor-sponsored conferences is likely just a near-term trend that has not fully run its course. At some point attendees are going to realize that no set of solutions from one provider is ever going to fully solve of their problems despite what vendors may promise. As this realization sinks in (and it may take a few years,) users will again start to seek out conferences that offer holistic solutions that have matured to the point they can manage products from multiple other vendors.
Third, such vendors still do exist and are even thriving despite the homogeneous, converged infrastructure mindset in which many organizations find themselves. Even as I write this, I am sitting in Colorado Springs, CO, attending a STORServer conference which recently inked a deal with CommVault so it could deliver a CommVault-powered backup appliance that is better suited to protecting today’s mobile, enterprise IT environments.
Organizations are understandably frustrated by the lack of interoperability and inability to manage the heterogeneous assortment of solutions they purchased over the years. However they need to be wary about falling into the trap of today’s vendor-sponsored conferences and the idea that homogeneous solutions are going to solve all of the problems. While they might, I would not bet the farm on it. Rather, I am more inclined to believe that heterogeneous IT environments are going to be alive and kicking for many years yet to come and that the sooner organizations recognize that and find (or even build) a solution to manage them, the sooner they will be happier with how their IT environment operates.