It's All About Focus

What to consider when selecting a data center technology

June 7, 2007

6 Min Read
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I'll say it again: It's all about focus.

When selecting a data center technology, one of the variables to consider is if the winning supplier will continue to improve its products. While there are no guarantees, I advise my clients to look at the focus a supplier has on a particular segment of the storage market; the greater the focus, the more likely the supplier will be to continue to advance.

Let's look at three successful examples: Data Domain, CommVault, and Network Appliance.

Data Domain is the model of an emerging technology company with strong focus and execution. When Data Domain entered the market, virtual tape libraries (VTLs) were the buzz, and the data de-duplication concept seemed -- well, unbelievable. Data Domain's employees woke up every morning ready to convince customers of two things: First, they did NOT need a VTL; and second, Data Domain had a backup device that was going to store all of their data without really storing it.

In tackling this job, Data Domain not only changed the market, it created a new one. Through it all, Data Domain has been focused on the disk-to-disk backup market, and more specifically using data de-duplication to enable it.When I ask other backup software suppliers who they are most worried about, it is always CommVault. What I find interesting about CommVault is it designed expansion into its product from the beginning, and over time -- a long time -- it has delivered a well rounded and successful product.

Much the same can be said of Network Appliance. It started as a NAS company and slowly, over time, grew its technology to be able to offer a very complete storage strategy for the enterprise. Interestingly, Network Appliance has also made some very smart and well timed purchases along the way. And for the most part, it has been successful at integrating those into its technology portfolio.

What these companies have in common is focus. They nailed their technological and cultural foundations in their early years of growth, they stayed very focused on them, and as they have expanded their offerings, they've stuck to their goals.

Next Page: Making Progress

Most good companies start with focus. They develop a product for a market the more established companies are not servicing, and then they exploit it. The more consistent they are with their focus, the more likely they are to be successful.It may take an emerging company several attempts to select the right market segment. Once that focus is established and they have a foothold, though, these emerging companies are able to grow market share. Established companies that ignore the new market segment are slower to move forward, thus giving the startups time to establish themselves.

When the 800-pound gorillas (the established players) note success in a market segment, they'll try to enter it. With some possible exceptions, their first move is not successful; they simply do not understand the market or don't have the technology available to exploit it.

In contrast, the smaller, more focused emerging company continues to be successful. It is survival. This is the emerging company's only market. These companies know that if they are not successful they are out of business. Every employee in the organization wakes up knowing exactly what he or she has to do. Keeping food on the table has amazing motivational power! A giant's employees have all their other businesses, so success in a new market is not as urgent.

It's no surprise that a typical path of expansion for established companies is acquisition. The results are usually negative. Clearly, there are some companies that have made acquisitions or mergers where the results have been positive, but in general, the odds are against it.

What happens most often is, in addition to being unsuccessful in integrating the new company, the acquiring company tends to lose focus on its core offering. I have actually witnessed suppliers providing additional compensation to their salespeople to sell something outside the core product offerings. I can only surmise from that approach that they assume their position in the original market is assured. Sadly, the only thing that attitude assures you of is loss of market share.It is imperative for established companies to stay focused on their core competency as they expand their offerings -- whether through internal development, external acquisition, or an OEM relationship. This may mean having to enter a new segment more slowly, but it is better than having to go back and rebuild your base of client accounts.

A common stop-gap measure is when one of these giants signs an OEM relationship, ironically with an emerging technology supplier. The market leader signs up to be essentially a reseller of a start-up's technology as a means of getting quickly into the market.

The emergence of the iSCSI market serves as an excellent example of how emerging vendors control fresh market segments. Initially, we saw seven to 10 new companies hit the space hard, offering not only a unique way to access block storage (over IP), but also unique ways of delivering data.

The big SAN giants ignored the space at first, not wanting to give up the more expensive, more profitable Fibre Channel business. As iSCSI established itself, the SAN giants struggled with their execution in the market. It has taken them years to provide native back-end iSCSI support; this is an example of their lack of focus. It was easier to keep recommending solutions that were more "traditional."

In the five years since the advent of iSCSI availability, we still have companies like LeftHand Networks, EqualLogic, Intransa, and others competing well in the iSCSI space. Why? The employees at these companies have to wake up every morning not only selling customers on a new storage platform but on a whole new protocol. They have focus and they have conviction.Next Page: Lessons Learned

It's important to be focused in a useful way. Most of the successful technology companies feel they are changing the world, as if it is their moral responsibility to save customers from the peril of not using their product.

In contrast, price can be the wrong thing to focus on. I am all about saving customers money, but it is hard to get conviction about it. Also, competing on price alone makes it too easy for the giants to enter the market. It is easier for them to drop price on existing products than to develop new ones.

Lessons learned? Finding focused companies and working with those companies is important for all IT pros. When you have a storage-related project, or any project for that matter, look for companies that are focused on solving that particular problem. Avoid companies that have bought their way into a market. If they have bought their way into the market, examine them to see if they have done something with their acquisition to integrate it or enhance it.

A final thought about focused companies: They tend to attract a better quality of worker. They usually have a better management team, better engineering, and better salespeople.Bottom line? Focused companies always have great people and clear goals. Focused companies are accountable, because great people want to be held accountable. Focused companies think they can change the world -- people that think they can change the world often do. Focused people create better solutions, and better solutions are better for business, all around.

George Crump, Founder and President, Storage Switzerland

  • CommVault Systems Inc.

  • Data Domain Inc. (Nasdaq: DDUP)

  • EqualLogic Inc.

  • Intransa Inc.

  • LeftHand Networks Inc.

  • Network Appliance Inc.

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