Don Bulens, President & CEO, EqualLogic

"ISCSI is our transport, but we have to change the message - it isn't about the wire, it's that we sell a better SAN."

May 24, 2005

7 Min Read
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EqualLogic Inc. CEO Don Bulens isn't part of storage networking's old boys' club. In fact, this is his first storage gig.

When Jack Boyle decided to step down as CEO of the IP SAN startup, its board went outside the storage world for his replacement (see EqualLogic Names CEO). Turns out they went far outside: Before pursuing the EqualLogic job, Bulens admits, he didnt even know what iSCSI was. ”I heard the words but didn't understand what they meant,” he says.

Still, Bulens was no stranger to technology startups. After a decade in sales and marketing at AT&T Corp. (NYSE: T), he joined Lotus in 1987, where he worked with software luminary Ray Ozzie. Bulens helped build up the sales channel for Lotus Notes before IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) acquired the company.

Bulens left IBM in August 1996 to start Radnet, a competitor to Lotus. He left after 16 months and joined Trellix, but not before IBM sued Radnet, claiming Bulens violated an agreement not to hire any Lotus employees for a year after his departure. Bulens said he was not personally involved with the hiring of the salesperson in question, and the suit was settled on undisclosed terms. Radnet folded in 2001.

Next he worked with Dan Bricklin at Trellix, and rose to CEO before the company was bought by Web hosting company Interland Inc.How does all this relate to storage? For one thing, Bulens knows a bit about companies in transition. For another, he understands how to build a channel. That particular skill he views as a crucial part of EqualLogic’s success.

He also believes it is important to establish EqualLogic as more than an IP SAN company if it is to fight off Fibre Channel vendors honing in on the iSCSI market. From his perspective, EqualLogic isn't just competing with IP SAN startups such as Intransa Inc. and LeftHand Networks Inc.; it's also competing with IBM, EMC, and Network Appliance Inc. (Nasdaq: NTAP). (See EMC Mounts iSCSI Blitz, IBM Slips iSCSI Into SAN and NetApp Banks on iSCSI.)

“We are not just hitching our wagon to iSCSI alone anymore,” Bulens says. “iSCSI is our transport, but we have to change the message – it isn't about the wire, it’s that we sell a better SAN.”

Bulens says his new company is "triply disruptive" to the storage market because it is iSCSI, easy to manage, and lends itself to a new type of storage channel. He forecasts profitability later this year, and perhaps an IPO in the near future: "We think the opportunity is more than substantial for a new leading player."

We recently caught up to Bulens to talk about his experience and his plans for EqualLogic. Read on:

— Dave Raffo, Senior Editor, Byte and Switch

Byte and Switch: You’re new to storage. Tell us a bit about your background.

Bulens: For 10 years I sold voice and data networking gear for AT&T. The next 10 years I was at Lotus building the Lotus Notes business. After managing the North American sales team for three years, I started building the channel sales organization that grew into a network of 14,000 strategic partners with 20 million seats of Lotus Notes installed. I stayed a year-and-a-half past IBM buying the company.

In the past 10 years, I was CEO of two startups [collaborative applications software vendor Radent and Web publishing company Trellix], and a consultant on go-to-market strategy for a Boston VC firm.

We sold Trellix in January 2003 to Interland. I stayed a year-and-a-half transitioning the company. Then I spent six months looking for a great opportunity.Byte and Switch: And that was EqualLogic?

Bulens: I fell in love immediately with EqualLogic and spent months persuading the founders that a guy from open software could bring value for their company.

Byte and Switch:How did you persuade them?

Bulens: It helped that I got a recommendation from Ray Ozzie [creator of Lotus Notes and Groove Networks, and current Microsoft CTO]. I was meeting with the [EqualLogic] management team and I said I worked with Ray Ozzie at Notes. They called Ray, and he gave me a recommendation, even though it was the weekend they were closing the deal for Microsoft to buy Groove.

So I owe Ray a great big wet kiss.Next: Triple Disruption

Byte and Switch: What did you know about iSCSI when you first spoke to EqualLogic?

Bulens: I heard the words but didn't understand what they meant. A friend in the industry told me, "Poison all your competitors for the job. iSCSI is about to take off, and EqualLogic is the best of the bunch."

Byte and Switch: What convinced you he was right?

Bulens: I saw the company was triply disruptive. First, it's iSCSI versus Fibre Channel. iSCSI is disruptive to the industry because it lowers the cost and skills to deploy a SAN. Ethernet skills are more common than Fibre Channel skills.The second reason it’s disruptive is because it radically reduces the cost, headaches, and heartaches of storage management. That has nothing to do with iSCSI – it's how fast you can set up our systems. That's what customers love.

People don't love their arrays. But our customers have a rabid enthusiasm for our systems that is remarkable. We're growing rapidly, but our add-on orders are growing one-and-a-half times our overall growth.

The third disruption is the opportunity to create a new channel to scale the company. Everybody's running after the storage channel saying, "Sell my stuff." They're missing the point.

Byte and Switch: What type of channel do you envision?

Bulens: Storage has a heavy professional services burden, so I don't think that's the channel that will drive the IP SAN area. Our channel will be people who will build and deploy applications – Exchange, SQL Server, and data protection. Our new channel is made up of consultants, integrators, VARs, and people who package solutions. They distribute servers and network gear. The idea of introducing Fibre Channel into these customer accounts is a non-starter.Byte and Switch: Are you worried that Fibre Channel is too entrenched in SANs for broad acceptance of iSCSI?

Bulens: I worked for a company selling Token Ring. I learned never to bet against Ethernet.

Byte and Switch: Where does iSCSI fit in the storage market?

Bulens: There's a well-hidden secret, a series of misperceptions. They say, "iSCSI, it's 1-gig, slow performance." Wrong. They say, "SATA, that's a PC drive, reliability's terrible." Wrong.

Those two things have stopped storage professionals dead in their tracks from considering it.But when our customers have evaluated it head-to-head against Fibre Channel, they found our performance was comparable if not better, and it was easy to set up. Around 40 percent of our new customers come from [existing] customers' recommendations.Byte and Switch: Now iSCSI startups have to compete with EMC, Network Appliance, and other established storage vendors. Does this make your job harder?

Bulens: That increases the slice of the pie for everyone. It's a challenge for sure, but it's a beautiful thing for us because we're getting invited to the party.

Next: EqualLogic's Future

Byte and Switch: What changes will you make as CEO?

Bulens: We are not just hitching our wagon to iSCSI alone anymore. ISCSI is our transport, but we have to change the message – it isn't about the wire, it’s that we sell a better SAN.Second, we're focusing on channel expansion. We've done it modestly and will do it quite aggressively.

Byte and Switch: How many customers do you have?

Bulens: We have around 350 customers, around 35 percent repeat business. We had 100 new customers in the fourth quarter, and again in the first quarter. And we have barely begun, because now it's our crusade. I've been through this before where customers were passionate about our product – and our systems work better than Notes did.

Byte and Switch: What type of customer do you see as your sweet spot?

Bulens: We're a midrange product. Our average deal size approaches 10 Tbytes. The question is, how can we compete for a bigger footprint in the data center?Byte and Switch: Two of your previous companies, Lotus and Trellix, were sold. Is that where you see EqualLogic going?

Bulens: Not really. Our customers want us to be a successful significant independent player. We have to focus on turning the corner on profitability, which we will do later this year. We think the opportunity is more than substantial for a new leading player.

Byte and Switch: Do you see the next step as an IPO? Or will there be more funding first? [See EqualLogic Scores $20M

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