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the unreal positioning of many flash array "startups"

re all those flash systems "startups" who regularly and proudly but mistakenly (still) compare the superiority of their products to EMC

by Zsolt Kerekes, editor - January 28, 2015

Unlike some others I have written - this SSD blog does have some simple conclusions. So if you just want to skip ahead - don't mind me.

why an SSD blog about EMC?

What got me thinking about the need to write this blog was thinking back to a bunch of conversations I had with readers in December - on the subject of those many small flash array vendors whose marketing communications energies seem to be inappropriately overinvested in theme songs and musicals which compare their star products with those of EMC.

When I say "small flash array vendor" you say "flash startup."

(OK maybe we'll dispense with tomatoes and potatoes.)

But I think it would be inaccurate for me to call these companies which I'm talking about "startups" - because some of them have been selling flash for 3 to 7 years - while others - though new to flash - have been around a while - but are still small - and would have faded away entirely by now if they hadn't caught hold of the flash market lifeline.

So I started trawling through my old emails to remind myself about how some of these "EMC comparison" themed conversations had got started.

But then I realized the distractional risk of overshooting.

Scrolling down too far through tens of thousands of saved interesting conversations - I'd wind up back into the days when it was EMC which was the new small storage company - which was trying to expand its business in the server market in the early 1990s. Is it a good thing I can still read these Netscape era emails? In some ways it's a curse from a distraction point of view - because my pre-email electronic conversations about storage scroll right back to the Flintstones era of small RAID companies - whose products were shipping before anyone had even heard of DG's Clariion. (Whatever happened to them - I wonder?).

When I retire (more likely get retired) I might go back down that trail and do some doodling around in among the old electronic dialogs. (Note - doodling - not Googling - because I might not want to share these reminiscences) - but from a columnistic urgency point of view mañana is definitely better for this kind of activity.

Let's start here.

It was May 2008

(I didn't have to worry about blizzards.)

It seems like a long time ago - but in those days had already been covering the enterprise SSD market for nearly a decade.

And I was heartily weary of SSD companies sending me news stories which began with comparing the IOPS of their newest products with ancient hard drive arrays.

So I wrote a warning article in which I complained about the unreality behind these claims. In effect I said...
  • I'm not going to inflict these stupid SSD vs HDD IOPS stories on my readers.
  • And... If you must compare your new SSD to something - compare it to another SSD. (Preferably a new one).

    Or better still... Just tell us what it does (and the price) and we'll figure out what's good about it.
As you may have observed - not many SSD vendors did what I suggested.

So I was left in the situation where - for the sake of your sanity and mine - I had to sift very carefully to find anything of any real significance in much of the nonsensical outpourings emanating from enterprise flash systems marketers - who still believed that you would be amazed to learn that a new SSD system can be faster than a 1990s vintage architecture hard drive array.

Look Mom - it's Superman flying there in the sky!

Yes Dear. Don't stare. Do you think he should be driving or walking? At his age!

the EMC comparisons

First let me say - I'm not an apologist for EMC or their flash systems.

When EMC launched its first flash SSD system - in January 2008 - I was frankly unimpressed by its poverty of ambition.

Most of you were too - which is why EMC never made it into the Top SSD Companies List in those days.

Nevertheless - despite that initial false start and despite having also rejected - at about the same time - the invitation to be an early participant in the PCIe SSD market by the (then) start up Fusion-io - it became clear in the years which followed that there were many good strategic reasons why EMC (and everyone else) had to keep trying to get better in flash as this market became more pervasive.

And EMC has done a lot...

Slowly and steadily picking up steam - at what I have often characterized as a reactive pace - for the ensuing 6 years or so after that launch.

Although to be fair - EMC wasn't alone in that respect. As they and their traditional (real) competitors were also racing (it must have seemed to them - although it seemed like a snail's pace to those of us watching ) to assemble a new 1,000 piece unified flash server storage jigsaw from several different assorted sets which had got somehow scrambled together - and all done in the public gaze without the benefit of a universally reference diagram to give a hint as to what the end picture should look like.

But the point about this blog is not EMC - but in the small SSD vendors who still misdirect most of their marketing communications energies into making false and misleading comparisons between themselves and EMC.

I could name names for each of these examples - but I'm not going to - because there are so many - and to simply pick on any single vendor would be invidious. No doubt you can attach a name of your own choosing to each one.

the anti-EMC powerpoints

We've all seen them. Powerpoints, videos and pdfs in which small rackmount SSD and hybrid appliance companies proudly compare their systems with the size, price and power consumption of some old relic from the EMC back catalog.

The clear message is:- ours is better than EMC's when you look at the bullet points.

The implied message is:- our product compares better than EMC so we have what it takes to be a big company too.

There are so many flaws in this kind of argument it's difficult to know where to begin.

The most frequent flaw being this.

EMC isn't the real competitor - because the EMC customer will generally find it easier to incrementally buy more EMC - or (if they are thinking about switching suppliers) from someone else who can migrate all their data and apps from the current environment over to the new one.

The product is not the same as the customer experience.

And offering a single new box in a powerpoint which purports to better than a collection of some other boxes - is not the same as a "solution" - unless the customer only needs one box.

Small flash systems vendor - might counter this by saying - but what if it's a new application?

My new box still looks better in the price comparison to the old EMC box(es) - so the argument is still valid.

To which I say - let's go back to the rebuttal I wrote about in 2008.

Your genuine competition for this new application (if indeed it is a genuine new application in which the customer is open to considering competitive options ) is the best of the other new "start up" systems - and not the old EMC product. Because the market is much bigger than EMC - and the probability is that the customer wouldn't even have EMC on their list for this application anyway.

In one notorious case of video and powerpoint fluffery I saw last year - the small vendor littered every slide of their presentation with different examples of "big name" storage competitors they thought they could beat in different markets and applications.

So I said this to one of the big investors...

"For every competitor named in their competitive comparisons... Do they have a customer success story and a set of customer win strategies (for that competitor brand) which they can give to sales people and to potential customers who have those systems? If not then they don't know the elementary aspects of business development and sales planning and they might as well put random data in their presentations for all the good it will do."

the scale of EMC type comparisons

In December 2014 - I was having a conversation with a marketer at a semiconductor company - which (like all the others) sells a lot of flash into the enterprise market.

The topic of EMC came up when I said I wasn't greatly impressed by another one of these "new SSD is better than old style rotating storage" case study stories which appeared as a presentation in the context of a soothsayer (market research) conference - in which the chip maker's technology had been featured.

He was really asking me - did I really understand the economics of the improvements shown in the paper? - and he also asked me (perhaps wondering why I said I wouldn't write about it)

He asked me - Is EMC that all-powerful?

Here's what I said to that... (Cut and paste from my email.)

The economics and transaction improvements are nothing new for me. I've been hearing similar stories since before EMC acquired the clariion product line.

The reasons that EMC grew in the 1990s had more to do with competitors in the past having worse products or not caring about the storage they sold with their servers.

Since the late 1990s the only SSD company which consistently competed in the enterprise space was a single company which had a very limited product which is now part of IBM.

Most of the flash array vendors in the market today who should be taking more business from traditional storage vendors are failing to do better because their marketing and channel strategies are naive and disjointed.

I was talking to an end user this week whose organization has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on EMC storage.

They'd love to decouple themselves and benefit from modern lower cost flash. But the flash marketers in startups aren't doing those kinds of conversations.

For many of them a single customer like that is bigger than their whole business plan.


Once upon a time it was useful for so called "startup" enterprise SSD companies to make detailed product feature comparisons with pre-existing EMC systems which those who mattered knew.

What do we learn when such comparisons are made today?

Good technology can suffer from bad marketing.

To my mind it's insulting to many enterprise users - who can recognize a bad justification when they see it - even if they may not be able to pinpoint why such sloppily constructed pseudo comparisons don't feel genuine.

For investors in such startups - consider this.

When your flash enterprise vendor spends so much energy talking about competitive comparisons in a market segment - which is so restricted (EMC base) and about theoretical opportunities which aren't real and which can never scale upwards (because the big customers have spent more on EMC than your pet AFA company received in its last funding round) - then they're wasting their share of voice in the market. And that means they're talking less to the people who matter.

There's plenty of future business out there for enterprise flash companies and users whose needs aren't being met by anyone.
"Clearly we're doing something right...

XtremIO will be the fastest product we've ever done that hits a billion dollars a year."
Chad Sakac, President, Global Systems Engineering at EMC - in his blog - XtremIO 4.0… don't trust people who go negative (January 28, 2015)
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