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One of a series of interviews by Willem ter Harmsel with tech leaders.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with John Thompson, newly appointed chairman of the board at Microsoft.

After a long career at IBM where he held various executive positions, Thompson became CEO at Symantec, which he helped build into a $6bn company over a period of 10 years.

In 2009 he became involved with Virtual Instruments (VI) as an investor and became CEO of VI in 2010. In February of this year he was appointed chairman of the board at Microsoft, replacing Bill Gates, and then became involved in replacing former CEO Steve Ballmer with the current CEO, Satya Nadella.

Microsoft chair John Thompson

Microsoft chair John Thompson

He holds advisory positions at PernixData, Liquid Robotics, Domo and Seagate.

Importance of IT infrastructure performance analytics

Thompson made a link between IT infrastructure performance analytics and the so-called software defined data centre.

He said the idea behind the software-defined data centre is to achieve centralised control over the hardware assets by moving all intelligence up the data centre stack into software.

Controlling all hardware assets from one software layer is interesting to enterprises, because it allows you to make more efficient and flexible use of your resources. This in turn makes your IT organisation potentially more agile and scalable.

To achieve control from one software layer however, additional layers of abstraction are needed. This increases complexity, making it harder to pinpoint and solve problems when they arise.

Measuring IT Infrastructure performance and strong analysis are key to optimising your existing data centre and allowing for higher degrees of control like in the Software Defined data centre.

He talked about Virtual Instruments' new Virtual Wisdom v4.0 product, which works with a combination of hardware and software to measure data in a data centre and analyse it to see whether the data centre is healthy and runs efficiently.

VI_v4_overview

Virtual Wisdom v4.0 product overview

WTH: How do you combine all the things you do?

JWT: I think we all have a capacity that we never realise how significant it might be until we get challenged to do more than we thought possible. Clearly after working in this industry for over 40 years I found a way to balance work and pleasure and family.

I am very fortunate to have a very supportive wife, who having spent 19 years herself at IBM and having a law degree, and a practice in law here, realises the challenges that come along with my work.

WTH: I just realised that indeed a stable basis must be crucial to what you do

JWT: No question about it. If you think about my schedule. I would not consider myself a 24/7 guy but I certainly work six days a week or more, depending on what’s going on. There were periods of time in the second half of 2013 when I was probably working 70-80 hours a week but that was what it took to get the task done that were ahead of me at that point in time. As we all know as professionals you don’t think about the time you think about the task and how you can get the task done in the most efficient manner.

WTH: A lot of your time must go into Virtual Instruments. What is it about VI that makes it appealing for you?

JWT: Let me give you a bit of background to my involvement with VI and how I got to where I am. As it turns out I became an investor in VI shortly after it was created in 2008. As you may recall I announced my plan to retire from Symantec in the fall of 2008 which was shortly after VI was founded. My plan at that point was that I would invest in early stage companies and get involved as an advisor or board member. So in early 2009 I joined the VI board.

As luck would have it, as probable with many early stage companies, in the spring of 2010 VI hit a little bump in the road. As a board member I stepped in to find out what had happened and how had it happened, how to avoid a reoccurrence.

Collectively as a board we thought a leadership change would be an important element of preventing a reoccurrence. So I stepped in, thinking I would be the CEO for 3 or 4 months and going back to being an early stage investor. Well that would be 4 years ago on the 23rd of April.

What had been a plan for a temporary role became a permanent role. Evolution of our strategy has driven me to do things that quite frankly I had never done before. We have evolved from a SAN troubleshooting tool to an infrastructure performance management platform. Along the way we have raised 50 million in venture capital to support our product portfolio expansion and our global market expansion.

We are driving toward the creation of a new category that we think is critically important as large enterprises around the globe make this inevitable transition from physical to virtual to cloud.

WTH: Are you going into Cloud automation as well?

JWT: Good question. If you think about the customer focus for us, it is typically the largest and most complex enterprises in the world: banks, insurance companies, hospitals, telecom, online e/retailers, government agencies. Most of those clients have aspirations to build their own private clouds. They want to do that because there are three attributes that are appealing to them.

  • One it has a self-service provision, people can automatically get done what they need to do
  • Second it has a capability for auto provisioning
  • Three it has an ability to monitor the performance and utilisation and the assets so you don’t get into service level issues.

We think our technology falls squarely into that latter category. We think as we add capability to support additional server environments and additional storage protocols, from a monitoring perspective we hope to become the de facto standard for monitoring not just private clouds, but hybrid and public cloud environments as well.

We have no aspirations at this point to become the automation tool on the backend. What we want to do is become the analytical insight on the front end and have customers use the plethora of tools that they already have on the backend to effect changes based on the insights we have provided.

WTH: Aside from providing insights in the compute and storage layer Do you guys provide insights into the network as well?

JWT: We don’t, certainly not the WAN. Virtual Instruments is focused primarily on the Fibre Channel network inside the data centre. However we are quickly approaching a new product launch where we will add network-attached storage capability. So we will have IP support very shortly.

WTH: Different question, how do you view the path towards the automated data centre?

JWT: I think there is an enormous amount of chatter in the industry these days about the software-defined data centre. That is a data centre where more and more of the processes are in fact automated and the assets that sit on the floor of the data centre are stressed because we are driving towards higher utilisation levels.

Essentially it is applying the concept of server virtualisation, that VMware made so popular in the x86 world, to every component in the data centre.

One of the interesting by-products or consequences of that will be the difficulty in isolating where a problem or issue might be as you create more and more abstraction layers above the physical infrastructure itself.

That is why we believe that the software-defined data centre makes the need for monitoring and deep visibility into the infrastructure even more important.

What we fundamentally believe is that the more awareness you can drive between the performance of the application and the performance of the infrastructure, the more you can ensure the service levels that people have come to expect.

Think of Virtual Instruments as the firm whose sole mission and purpose in life is to ensure that applications and infrastructure perform well together, perform excellently together...

You certainly need a different set of tools to monitor it than those that may have been architected 20 to 30 years ago.

WTH: How does a customer deploy your product Virtual Wisdom?

JWT: Virtual Wisdom has three categorical components: it is a software product that represents the data base engine, the Analytics engine for metrics that we feed in from our capture devices. We have a set of software probes that interrogate vCenter or the switch fabric and provides metrics of what it sees there. Then the magic in our solution is a hardware component, a probe that literally sits on the wire and looks at every request for data as it traverses the wire to and from the storage layer.

By aggregating all that data into virtual wisdom and running our own unique analysis against it, we can produce insights about an operating environment that customers have never seen before.

The collection devices essentially produce about 300-350 metrics that are new and unique, the analytics that we apply is what creates the great insights that customers can use to take action to improve performance, the utilisation of assets and the overall health of the environment.

WTH: How does Virtual Instruments adapt to different storage architectures, for instance architectures where caching layers such as PernixData are present?

JWT: First of we are a tool that operates at the protocol level, therefore the protocols are constant, regardless of who the provider is. In many instances all of the SSD devices use the Fibre Channel protocol.

As long as it is Fibre Channel, or as time goes on NFS and CIFS, as long as we can support the protocol, we are agnostic to the specific storage provider.

WTH: I spoke with a very interesting company recently, ThousandEyes, have you heard of them?

JWT: No I haven’t, what do they do exactly?

WTH: They offer a network performance monitoring service that covers both on-and-off premise infrastructure. ThousandEyes provides an all-over view of your on-premise environment, public internet and your SAAS provider to indicate where potential problems in performance lie. As I can estimate, they take a broader view than VI does, based on the view that applications are increasingly cloud based, like Salesforce or Office 365, making them dependent on more than what happens on-premise.

JWT: This product might fall under the category of Application Performance Manager where you look at it from the perspective of the end-user – the key stroke perspective. We expect to add deeper insight into the application layer, but we don’t look at the network.

One of the shortcomings of the APM products, frankly, is that they can not be specific as to where the problem is emanating. They can tell you there is a problem, but they cannot be specific enough to get you to the point where problem resolution is faster. We think there is a natural partnership opportunity frankly, between us and some of the APM providers where our insight into what’s going on at the server, switch fabric ant the storage layer, can provide insight into where the problem is, not just the fact that there is a problem.

WTH: That makes sense. Have you looked at the opportunity to team up with an APM?

JWT: We have spoken with a number of APM providers over the last 12 to 18 months. However we have been so focused on our new platform, VI 4, that we have not decided to distract our developers until we have established our new product in the marketplace.

WTH: What changes are made to the new VI 4 product?

JWT: The new platform has a number of important changes that we think our customers have been anxious for us to evolve. The first of which is it delivers significantly better performance with a new data base capability a new data ingest capability and a much, much stronger analytics capability. Next, and perhaps most importantly, it delivers a new user interface which makes it more intuitive and easy to use and learn and understand. It would significantly increase the time to value to the customer.

Third, it delivers new network attached storage protocol support. We will venture out of the Fibre Channel world and in the NAS world. As you know, it is the fastest expanding storage space and it expands our addressable market with almost $2bn.

WTH: That sounds great. I like the time-to-value metric by the way, and how that is linked to easy-to-use GUIs.

JWT: Having been in the industry for 43 years now, I know that there is a lot of software out there that is shelfware. We want to add real value and at the same time make it easy to use, so that customers really use our product. ®

For more CEO interviews, check out my CEO series here.

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