Vblock: Smart People Understand the Difference

Note: I've gotten a couple comments (thank you Greg Mulholland and Scott Lowe) and wanted to make one clarification.  To my knowledge, no one at NetApp has ever directly stated that a FlexPod is equivalent to a VCE Vblock.  There has been some misconception in the media, and there's certainly always an opportunity to educate the partner and channel communities better, but my conversations, as related below, were with partners, not with NetApp directly.  I apologize for any confusion and I'll try and be more clear in the future. 🙂

With the Vblock sitting front and center in the VCE booth at VMware Partner Exchange, the conversations we've been having are simply fascinating.  With so many high quality channel partners in attendance, it's been incredible to get difference perspectives on how they see the market, and how theyview the challenges in front of them.  With the announcement of the expansion of the VMware Partner Competencies into the VDI space, there have been lots of discussions around how vendors can identify, educate and empower their customers in the channel.

Most of the discussions when it comes to VCE are around the Vblock, of course, and there have been some great ones.  I've talked with partners and the curious alike about road map, listened to their suggestions for changes, taken feedback on what they want to see in the future.  For those conversations that happen in the booth, there's almost no discussion about comparing the Vblock to other multi-vendor integrated stacks; that conversation (thankfully) seems to be behind us at this point.

The most interesting part, however, were the conversations that didn't (or couldn't) happen in the booth.  In an amusing display of "get along, boys", VMware has put NetApp directly next to the VCE booth, and across from the EMC booth.  There were a number (5-7 so far) of NetApp partners who contacted me through the blog or Twitter and asked if we could talk off the show floor, because they didn't want to have to deal with the fallout of being seen in our booth.  I'm not sure I even want to try and make an opinion comment here, but it was definitely something I heard more than once.  I respect how well NetApp manages and treats their channel partners, and I know how reliant they are on them, but that seems a little over the top to me personally…

One or two of these conversations were of the basic fact-finding and FUD clearing type: NetApp says you have horns, that you are expensive and inflexible, that Cisco likes them more, that the FlexPod is the same as the Vblock, etc…  I'm happy to have those conversations with partners or competitors because FUD isn't good for the customers.  I hate that some people can't compete on their own merits and strengths, and I applaud those partners that take the initiative to seek out more information for themselves.

The rest of the conversations were more interesting, however.  The general takeaways for me were these:

  • There are accounts where the EMC vs. NetApp is a religious discussion, and in those accounts the FlexPod is the best discussion to have.  The action item here is on the EMC vSpecialists to identify and educate those accounts.
  • Once partners get past a certain size, their desire to milk the customer for the "rack-and-stack" portion of the flexPod implementation diminishes.  It's hard to justify the time and cost of that service to the customer, and more often than not they end up having to give it away or blend it into the larger PS deal, requiring them to either have high-level resources doing menial labor or having lower-end resources on payroll.  They are trying hard to move UP the stack, and having the infrastructure pre-build and validated would be huge.  I told the story of a Vblock implementation that had VMs running 4 hours after it hit the floor more than once…
  • The partners were very interested in the process of how VCE organized and aligns all of the internal resources from Cisco, VMware and EMC, giving the partner a one-stop go-to person for everything they will need in the deal: pre-sales resources, solutions experts, sizing and performance help.  That those resources are then rolled up under, and delivered to the customers through the partner seemed to be interesting to them.
  • The size and depth of the engineering teams that surround VCE, along with the resources of the EMC vSpecialist teams was commented on more than once.  Smart people (channel partners) like having resources to call on, and we certainly have those in spades.
  • They liked the fact that the Vblock has an actual certification process.  One comment that was made was that any VMware+UCS environment running on NetApp can be "post-certified" as a FlexPod regardless of when or how it was ordered, and that the only requirement for that certification was that there be a valid support contract on all three components.  Seriously?  I asked, what do you then get as part of that certification?  The answer "You get to call it a FlexPod, and NetApp can use you in marketing conversations."  To be clear, the Vblock is a product that has very clear boundaries.  The level of integrated support, regression testing and validation that we do on the stack isn't possible unless there's a reasonably solid framework in place.  That doesn't mean the customer can't add storage, compute or network as they need to; it's well-defined, not inflexible.
  • The fact that VCE has a full solutions team that are charged with building out horizontal- and vertical-based solutions was huge.  We talked about the existing VDI, SAP and Exchange solutions that are publicly available now, and we talked a lot about the road map and what's in the pipeline.  As part of that desire to move "up the stack" they want to engage not just with the infrastructure owners, but with the application and LOB owners as well.  Having the ability to jump-start those conversations with full-fledged solutions that can be delivered into an existing Vblock or integrated onto a new one seemed to be exciting.
  • I've been asked 7 times if VCE is hiring.  The answer is yes, and more yes.  So are the vSpecialists.  Bring your A game and giddy up.

Over all, they were great discussions.  Two of the partners openly admitted that they are planning to get their EMC and VCE competencies in Q1/Q2 of this year, and we've made plans to have the VCE team visit their teams and give the "Why VCE?" and "Why EMC for VMware" presentations.  Others didn't commit to being agnostic just yet, but the marketplace winds will decide which way the channel moves and I'm confident that we'll be talking again before too long.  On this front, it's not just NetApp partners who are watching the winds; I got a call from a long, long, LONG-time HP storage reseller this week who was also looking to get their EMC/VCE practices kick-started.  As things progress, I expect this to happen more.

PEX has been great, and I have a lot more to share, but I wanted to get this up while the conversations were fresh in my mind (and before I lose any more brain cells to my friends Grey and Goose…).  Taking care of partners and grooming the channel to be able to deliver Vblocks to customers is a huge priority for VCE, and I take my part in that seriously.  If anyone else would like to discuss the technology, strategy or business side of the VCE model, please reach out and let me know!