Buying a car is just like buying storage

Supermicro...the king of all storage disruptors
Would you like some underbody rust protection with your array sir?

So the family car (a tiny 2012 Mazda 3) lease is up in February which means it’s time to get a new Agnosto-ride for the Supe Module spouse, the Child Partition and -like dads everywhere know- all the heavy, awkwardly-shaped stuff that’s required to go everywhere the Child Partition goes.

It’s 2015, I’m nearing 40 and so I’m thinking Agnosto-ride 2.0 will be something bigger, safer, and because gas is so cheap and will never, ever, ever go up again, suitably powerful & commanding. Something established, something that says “Look upon and fear me,”  yet is soft, friendly and maneuverable enough that my wife and I can park it without effort.

Or hell, maybe it can park itself.

That’s right. Time to go car shopping, baby.

I love shopping for cars, almost as much as I love shopping for storage arrays. When you step back and think about it, the two industries (cars & storage arrays) are so similar I’m convinced a skilled salesman could make a great living selling cars in the morning and slinging shelves in the afternoon. ((Or perhaps NetApp could merge with Ford and the same guy who sells you a Taurus could sell you a filer out of the same dealership))

Think about it. Glen works for a dealer selling Camrys in the morning, and he’s really good at bumping his commission up by convincing his mark to buy something that really should be included: a spare tire. By late afternoon, he’s pitching the exact same thing (High Availability via Active/Passive controllers) in expensive recurring license form to some poor storage schlub who just needs a few more TBs so he can sleep at night without worrying about his backups.

What’s more, the customer victim can’t just go and purchase the car/array from the manufacturer himself,  he’s got to have some value added to that transaction by way of a VAR or a dealer, you see, else what reason is there for Glen?  The customer must have Glen’s guidance; he literally is incapable of picking the right car or array for himself, even if the mark produces his own storage podcast or subscribes to Auto Week & Consumer Reports. The mark’s hands are held until such time that he selects the right car/array, which is always either the car/array closest to Glen, or the car/array that offers Glen’s employer the most margin.

For this is the way of things, except during quarter or year end.

And in both industries, the true cost of the product is either really hard to find or it’s been hidden in plain site, or it only applies in certain use cases, all of which  makes determining a car/array’s value very hard to quantify. Yes, you can take all the variables, drop them in Excel, but pivot tables only go so far: the electric gets you an invaluable HOV sticker for 2x the cost of the range-anxiety free hybrid, while the all flash array that dedupes & compresses inline and goes like a bat out of hell costs twice as much as the compress-only hybrid array which has honest-to-God cheep ‘n deeps that you know and trust.

Lastly, no buyer of metal boxes with rotating round things ((usually)) is as biased & opinionated as car & storage buyers. “You’ll regret that POS Kia in a few years, it’ll let you down!” says the Honda snob to the dad trying to save a buck or two. “No one ever got fired for buying EMC!” shouts the storage traditionalist at his colleague who just wants a bunch of disks & software.

And in the end, all this …analysis if you can call it that…. is utterly worthless if your family doesn’t like the way the car handles or your DBA can’t quite grasp the concept of mounting a cloned snapshot of his prod LUN and insists on doing SQL backups the way he learned to do them in 19-diggity-7.

Don’t hate the player, hate the game, Jeff you’re thinking.

But I don’t! I love the player and the game. I just like winning and if that means Glen loses a point or two on his commission, so be it.

Which is why before I buy a car or a storage array, I arm myself as best I can. In the case of storage, it’s imperfect spreadsheets with complex formulas, some Greybeards on Storage, some SQLIO & IOMETER, and some caffeine. In the case of cars, it’s perfect spreadsheets + Clark Howard + credit report ((Incidentally, it won’t be this time around since Fair Isaac apparently refuses to encrypt their entire site like a real bank would

For Shame Fair Isaac
For Shame, Fair, Fair Isaac, if that is your real name

)) + bank check just to let Glen know that I’m the real deal, that I could bolt and buy that other car he’s trash-talking if he doesn’t toss in the spare tire gratis.

Game on. Time to go hunting!

System Center is Dead, Long Live System Center?

MSFTSystemCenterlogo1Change is afoot for System Center, Microsoft’s stack of enterprise technology management applications that guys like me install, use, manage, and build great careers on top of. And not just little change. Big, sweeping change, I’m convinced, thanks largely to Satya Nadella, but also thanks to a new & healthy culture of pragmatism inside Microsoft.

But that pragmatic culture began with a bit of fear & intimidation for the System Center team. I’m told by a source ((Not really)) that it went down like this: Nadella strolled over to the office building where System Center is built by  segregated development teams. I’m told that the ConfigMan & VMM teams, as creators of the most popular programs in the suite, get corner offices with views of the Cascades, while the Service Manager & DPM teams fight over cubes in the interior.

Anyway, Nadella walked in one day, called them all around a handsome, gigantic, rectangular redwood work table in the center of their space. He looked at each of them quietly, then -with a roar that’s becoming legendary throughout the greater Seattle metroplex- he bent over and with enormous strength, flipped the table on its side, spilling coffee, laptops, management packs, DPM replicas, System Center Visio shapes and the pride/pain of so many onto the cold, grey marble floor.

“Some of this is going to stay. And some of it’s going to go,” he said to them, motioning to the mess on the floor.

And then, he vanished, like a ninja.

But seriously, look at all the change happening at Microsoft. Surely the System Center we love/hate/want to name our kid after is not goign to escape 2015 without some serious, deep, and heartbreaking/joy-inducing change, depending on your perspective. It’s already happening. To wit:

  • Parts of System Center are dead as of Windows Server Technical Preview: App Controller, the self-service Silverlight & http front-end to VMM has been dropped out of System Center Technical Preview.  Farewell oddly-named App Controller, can’t say I’ll miss you. In its place? Azure Pack baby.
  • In the last 45 days, the whole System Center team has been busy begging and pleading with us to give them some feedback. VMM put up a Survey Monkey , and the DPM, Orchestrator, and Service Manager blogs all have been asking readers to give them more feedback. VMM even has a Customer Panels  whose purpose is to take the pulse of working virtualization stiffs like me. That’s awesome -and reflects the broader changes in the company- but it’s also a bit scary because I love my VMM & Configman and I’m not used to being asked what I think of it, I’m used to just taking it, warts and all. ((Since they asked, I’m running SCVMM Technical Preview in the lab at home and though its changes mostly amount to removal of features in the production version, I view it as a great advancement for one reason: I can now automate the re-naming of vNICs through VMM itself, rather than some obscure netsh command/batch file thingy. Awesome))
  • There are many Configuration Management products out there, but ConfigMan is mine, and it has remained suspiciously absent from System Center Technical Preview. Now I’m not suggesting that MS is going to kill off the crown jewel of its System Center suite, but crazier things have happened. Jeffrey Snover, father of Powershell, isn’t giving up on his Desired State Configuration cmdlets, the DSC sect within the Microsoft professional community is gaining influence & strutting about the datacenter floor with some swagger, and DSC is a tool that with some maturity could largely make ConfigMan unnecessary in many environments. It probably scales to Azure better, though it doesn’t have anything in MDM as far as I know.
  • Though much improved, SCOM still strikes me as too hard  to build-out compared to Monitoring as a Service offerings like New Relic. Granted, SCOM’s cloud story was pretty strong; just two months I ago I got a taste of #MonitoringGlory when I piped an endless train of SCOM alerts/events directly into Azure Operational Insights and got, well, some insight into my stack. But guess what SCOM-fans? You no longer need SCOM for that.  Ok then.  Why would I use it?
  • There are no sacred cows at Microsoft anymore: My precious Lync? Gone. Renamed Skype for Business. The Start Screen, which I was strangely beginning to like? I’m suffering Stockholm Syndrome as I play with the latest Windows 10 build; it’s been axed! Sharepoint online public-facing websites? Starting March 9, new customers won’t have to go through the crucible some of us have gone through to stand-up a dynamic corporate website back-ended by Sharepoint in Office 365. They get to go through someone else’s crucible, like Drupal or something.
  • Nadella has a talent for picking the obvious, and he’s clear: Apparently it was Nadella who told the Microsoft Holo Lens team that what they were building was more akin to the Enterprise’s Holodeck than a new way to play shooters in XBox Online. It’s been Nadella repeating the call that there should be One Windows across all products, not an RT here, and a Windows Phone there. Like him or not, the man has some clarity on where he wants Microsoft to be; and I think that’s exactly what MS needed.

So, I have no evidence that System Center is going to get all shook up in 2015 -and I mean seriously shaken up- but it seems pretty obvious to me that with Nadella came a healthy & powerful introspection that’s really bearing some fruit in parts of Microsoft’s business.

Now it’s System Center’s turn. And it’s good. We should look at that suite holistically, in the context of our time & and the marketplace. Parts of it are undoubtedly great & market-leading; other parts of it are, in my opinion, beyond fixing. The former will be strengthened, the latter will be cut off and discarded. System Center, whether it lives on or gets swallowed up by the Azure Pack, will get better, and I’m pumped about that!

Live from #VFD4

It’s a little after 5am here in the capital of the great state of Texas and finally, after a furious #VFD4 day one, I’ve a chance to catch up and blog about my second Tech Field Day experience.

I’ll get around to posting about the vendors & the products I’m learning about, but first I’d like to impress upon the reader briefly how crazy this Tech Field Day thing is. It’s something of a unique beast, difficult to explain to outsiders and families, two parts professional conference, one part trade show, all parts fun.

Gestalt IT & Organizers

VFD-Logo-400x398Stephen Foskett is a storage guy who for many years penned an influential storage column in one of those old snail mail periodicals we called magazines. Foskett dresses well (seriously, I half expect him to show up with an ascot most days), works out of Ohio but hails from Connecticut, likes fine watches, and is sort of the head chef in charge of defining how this crazy, multi-layered, complicated enchilada called Tech Field Day is going to taste. The man has his detractors I understand, but all men and women with vision & drive do. He’s been doing this Tech Field Day thing for about 5 years, is confident it’ll be around for another five, and is a good man to know in an industry (IT) that’s changing & shifting.

Tom Hollingsworth is a bonafide Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE, not sure how many digits or if he tattooed them anywhere), calls Oklahoma home, and like all good networking guys, routes, switches and load-balances snark in addition to frames & packets. He’s genuine, quick-thinking, funny and brutally honest with vendors & delegates alike. He tells good stories and is deeply engaged on the state of the art (cf IPv6 debate at #VFD3).

Claire Chaplais isn’t with us at #VFD4, but her talent for bringing order to chaos is in evidence everywhere. I don’t know that much about her or her background, but I know that in addition to being the organizational brains of the operation, Claire brings balance to the troika.

That’s it. That’s the Gestalt IT organization: a former storage columnist who presents well, an OK CCIE, and Claire. Two technical guys and one sharp organizational doer working across geographies and delivering a product, Tech Field Day, that brings me to Austin today.

The Vendors & the Delegates

This then is kernel of Tech Field Day, it’s raison d’etre, its pitch or value prop if you will forgive my use of that abused term. Gestalt connects technology vendors -established, startups, mid-life etc- to influential IT practitioners who blog about technology. The vendors fund this thing and pay for our accommodations, travel, and all food, schwag, spirits & the venue. They bring their show to us, or we go to them in their workplace over the space of 72 hours.

10-Office-Space-quotesDelegates, to invoke the great Tom Symkowski of Office space, interface with the goddamned Vendors so that you can have an informed perspective on their product, its position among competing products, and its value. Sometimes these presentations are amazing & informative, full of #WhiteboardingGlory, and sometimes they suck….it’s a coin flip.

Delegates receive no compensation for this trip, and some of us, including me this time around, are losing income to serve as Delegates. We’re encouraged to write our views, but not forced, and no one approves or reviews content before I hit the big blue publish button in WordPress.

All this is choreographed, packaged, and produced into a frenetic 72 hour span, and Gestalt makes it work. Nearly 20 flights converged on AUS from all points of the globe in the space of just a few hours Tuesday, yesterday we heard from startups like Platform9, saw #VFD3 friend & alum Eric Wright who now works for VMTurbo, will hear from Solarwinds, Commvault and StorMagic today before closing tings up tomorrow with Scale and  Dell, as establishment a player there is.

Knowing your place

I relish Tech Field Day. It’s fun for me as I know my skillset and the environments I excel in. I practice IT in small to medium enterprises, organizations with 500-2000 employees, wide geographic footprints, usually private but sometimes public, places where a Converged IT Guy can touch a lot of things and have an outsized impact. I love fast-paced IT Shops, am not a fan of ITIL, and I’m DevOps-curious. My solutions are probably not a good fit for a 10,000 seat enterprise, and may be too complicated for really small IT shops.

There are Delegates here who are like me, but many are not. Some are rockstars who author respected technical books, and the string of certs behind their names is truly impressive. I’m more of a Generalist whose passions were lit up by virtualization, cloud, and rationalizing the stack in my space.

In the context of Virtualization Field Day, I’m again the only Hyper-V & System Center guy in a sea of sharp VMware experts. When the VMware Delegates say SRM, I think Failover Clustering & Azure Site Recovery. They vMotion, I Live Migrate, they moan about vSphere web client and I bitch about SCOM.

And we all complain about storage.

The Vendors build their products for VMware first and foremost and that is a reflection of the marketplace reality.  Yet as a Hyper-V & System Center guy, I still get a lot out of these presentations, understanding how the products are positioned and how colleagues solve some of the same problems I face.

And I’m just arrogant & confident enough that I don’t mind nagging and pushing vendors to support Hyper-V/System Center even as they’re excited to tell me about VMware solutions.

Maybe it’s hubris but I like to think I’m representing a bunch of IT guys and gals in the real world who are building and supporting durable infrastructure systems in smaller environments like the ones I come from and usually on Microsoft technologies. Hopefully they get something out of the blogs I’ll be posting over the next few days.