Big Data? Private Cloud? WTF Chuck?

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Big Data? Private Cloud? WTF Chuck?
Chuck Hollis, EMC.

How EMC's Chuck Hollis predicts, and creates, the future.

Ever wondered how concepts like 'private cloud' and 'big data' surface, and within a few short months are printed in the glossy brochures of every vendor sales pitch?

Usually it’s the work of folks like EMC’s chief marketer and technology evangelist, Chuck Hollis.

Hollis, through charisma, force of will and a monstrous marketing budget is paid to dream up big ideas, express them using memorable catch phrases, promote them as industry parlance and steer conversations inevitably towards interest in EMC’s product line.

Today we spoke to Hollis as he prepared to fly to Sydney to keynote EMC’s Inform conference about two of his favourite themes:  'Private Cloud’ and ‘Big Data’.

Private Cloud

“I was at ground zero for that,” Hollis says.

In practice, the term describes little more than secured access to a dedicated hardware and software stack. Some see it as the antithesis of what ‘cloud’ is supposed to be all about (shared access to infrastructure services over the public internet).

But Hollis sees it as a major shift in the IT workplace.

“About 18 months ago I noticed that people had virtualised a lot of servers, but changing the technology alone wasn’t getting people to where they wanted to be,” Hollis said.

“The role of IT organisations needed to evolve as well. The enterprise world had come from silos of technology – the server guys, the storage guys and network guys, but we were evolving into a service provider world with a software service guy or an infrastructure service guy.

“The dialogue with enterprise had to change,” he said. “We realised that IT was no longer there for ‘steady as you goes’ – it was there for transforming how you do business.”

For technology vendors like EMC, the conversation created an opportunity to talk “less about our technology and more about what the IT leaders were thinking about: a very new role for the IT leader.”

Hollis knew instinctively that this conversation would appeal to those at the frontlines of enterprise technology adoption.

Nobody in these roles wanted to think of themselves as maintenance men any longer. EMC was pinning them on the wall as “transformation leaders’, certifying them as ‘cloud business consultants’ and ‘cloud architects’.

It was aspirational marketing, par excellence.

Advocates of public cloud computing were outraged.

“Yep, the Amazon guys got pretty tweaked there for a while,” Hollis says.

But the strategy worked. The likes of EMC won a war of ideas and that has translated into sales.

EMC's and NetApp's separate collaborations with VMware and Cisco in particular has driven huge growth in unit sales – reflected in recent IDC numbers – at the expense of the large server vendors.

“Server technology was vitally important in 80s and 90s,” Hollis notes. “But now that it’s moving toward x86, and highly virtualised, it’s less of a differentiator today. The value proposition is shifting away from compute to the information itself.

“In any such shift, the specialists do better. Just like Cisco thrived in the 90s when the network became more important than what was attached to it, today the data is more important than the server attached to it.”

Big Data

This leads us to EMC’s latest love affair, ‘Big Data’.

Loosely defined, ‘Big Data’ refers to the growth of petabyte-class file systems. It’s a challenge for big business and government, Hollis says, but also a great many smaller organisations with business models that involve huge data sets.

“It’s often research and academia,” he said. “I know of boutique companies with only 300 employees but three petabytes of data.”

The beauty of the “Big Data” buzzword is that it doesn’t so much describe a technology trend, but identifies a clear market category from whom EMC intends to profit.

As the name suggests, the data sets involved in medical research, the energy and mining sectors, video and satellite imagery, archive services and service providers are huge – and a frighteningly large percentage of their IT budgets goes toward storage.

Hollis prefers to discuss ‘Big Data’ in terms of applications.

“What people are doing with these huge data sets is mind blowing,” he said. “They are looking to address things like cancer and global warming, rather than three points in their quarterly results.”

Hollis pointed to the vast array of data that will be created by the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project, or the storage requirements of health research aimed at creating drugs mapped to an individual’s DNA sequence.

“Think of alternative energy,” he said. “We need to build repositories of historical data on wind and rainfall to build wind farms and dams in the right places – that’s the equivalent of oil exploration decades ago.”

These applications change the mindset around data storage, he said.

“Too much data was once considered bad, in a conversation focused only on spending less.

“But today’s data scientists are trying to harness as much information as possible – the more they have, the more value they can provide.”

EMC has adjusted its product line-up to meet the ‘challenge’ – acquiring Greenplum for a data analytics platform, commercialising open source research software Hadoop, and harnessing some data-intensive collaboration smarts from its Documentum acquisition.

Where rival IBM is looking to offer analytics as an outsourced service, EMC is “creating a hardware and software stack for the new data scientist” that end user organisations can build themselves.

“It’s a philosophical difference,” Hollis said. “IBM’s model is we’ll do it all for you – we say you shouldn’t outsource your competitive advantage.”

And the beauty of the ‘Big Data’ message is that it again appeals to the aspirations of those on the frontlines of the storage industry.

Who would want to be a storage admin when you can be a “data scientist”?

Analytics represents” a new source of wealth and value“, rather than a cost centre, Hollis says.  

 “This is the new school,” he said. “This is not your father’s IT.”

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