Interview: EMC chief strategy officer Barry Burke

EMC’s head of strategy Barry Burke talks about storage trends and how his company is embracing them

This week saw thousands descend on Las Vegas for the largest storage conference in the calendar, EMC World.

With a raft of news announcements and keynotes from all the leading executives, attendees were unlikely to be disappointed.

EMC’s chief strategy officer, Barry Burke, talked to Computer Weekly about how the storage giant is approaching current IT trends and incorporating them into its roadmap.

As with every technology conference, a strap line is introduced to communicate the theme of the show. But, what did EMC's “Transform IT+Business+Yourself” actually mean?

“We are in the state of a huge technology shift in IT and a shift in the way we approach IT,” Burke told Computer Weekly. “Cloud and big data are really changing the role of IT away from just really tracking bits and counting the dollars to a different critical role.”

“IT has done this several times. I think we are just now at another point so the ‘transform IT’ is recognising it is another inflection point.”

But, the job of IT is about more than technology; it is about business value.

“What IT has the responsibility to do is to help leverage these technologies to improve the business,” he added. “Companies know we have lots of data and know they can do something with it, but they are not yet figuring it out.”

“IT is changing, enabling a new way of business and businesses are really struggling to find a way how to leverage all this. This is transforming business.”

The final third is ensuring people within the company also change with the times.

“The things that we used to manage IT in the past, those roles are gradually are evolving or evaporating,” said Burke. “Nobody likes talking about somebody’s job going away but the practical reality of cloud is we are trying to make IT in a way where we don’t have people sat in front of monitors figuring out what to do.”

“That means those people are going to have to do something else. Transform yourself. If you want to stay valuable in this environment as a contributor, you need to grab onto this and help the company leverage all of this technology.”

Cloud computing is making life easier for a number of companies, but surely if it is taking jobs away, not everyone is going to find new roles? Burke believed it was more of a case of changing your own role rather than waiting for it to be taken from you.

“I don’t think it is like anyone comes in one day and says you are all fired, nor do they say all you guys are fired and we are going to take the money we pay you to hire some smart people to do something different,” he said. “Nothing changes like that, except the American government every four years, when they throw everything out and start again.”

“I have seen people come in the front door and start as the lowly computer employee and wind up as the CIO. That person didn’t come in as a CIO, he evolved and changed his contribution to the point where he got the role and I think that is what we are trying to say.”

Burke added: “You have to change yourself rather than allow yourself to be changed.”

Cloud computing is becoming a huge part of EMC’s business but as a company which makes huge revenues from storage boxes, isn’t the public cloud at odds with its enterprise storage strategy?

“The practical reality is the public cloud doesn’t provide what enterprise IT needs for their foundation,” said Burke. “Google has never been asked to keep hold of three replicas of data and restart instantly in the middle of a failure. Their contract says we don’t guarantee your application is going to run 24/7.”

“If you are in enterprise IT, are you going to move any of your mission critical stuff over to that? No. Are you going to move applications into this space? If they work on data that is mission critical to your business, you are never going to move it where availability isn’t guaranteed.”

“There is a part of every business where the data they manage is mission critical and people will pay more for that and they will leverage the lower cost thing when they don’t need that.”

But, with start-ups in the cloud beginning to offer business options, won’t these types of companies raise their games as technology improves and offer more stable solutions?

“Why?” asked Burke. “They are getting more money per gigabyte than we get from an enterprise customer. 

"Look at a customer than wants 5TB of data. That will cost you $25 a month. In four months you have paid for the disk drive but you are still paying them $25 a month. You want to store your music in the cloud; it is still $25 a month.”

“It is the most expensive storage, so when they can make everyone pay a penny, why are they worried about building something that is very expensive, very complicated and robust? We recognise there are different solutions for different parts of the market. High quality of service storage, that’s us.”

EMC is often viewed as a legacy company, especially when the big names in technology are born of these types of companies.

Burke said EMC was still current but couldn’t get a break from commentators.  

We are damned if we spend 11% of our revenue in our innovation and R&D and continue to drive 50 or 60% market share in markets we have been in for 10 or 15 years, why is that a bad thing?” he said.

“Then we turn around and go out and buy a start-up company and they say EMC doesn’t innovate from within, they go and buy innovation.”

Burke admitted EMC spent most of its R&D money on improving existing products, so it looked to acquisitions to bring in new technology.

“We fight to be agile, we fight to be innovative, and we fight to be relevant. We reinvent every business we have. I think we just have to not listen to all that.”

One way the company tries to stay ahead of the game is having much longer development cycles than its competitors.

“We drive with five- or seven-year plans,” said Burke. “As I get older I figured out three years wasn’t long enough and that things take a long time.”

“The VMAX we just announced was drawing board in 2005. Things take that long to get through the process. Other parts of our business are changing at a much more rapid pace but my not-so-good joke is the only reason the good lord was able to make the world in seven days, including his day of rest, is because he didn’t have an install base. 

"I have got an install base to bring along with our innovation.”

Another area being embraced even more by legacy companies and traditional business is open source. Whilst Burke said EMC didn’t have an official stance on open source, he sounded far from trusting of the growing market.

“The reality is, there are parts of the business who think open source is the most viable way for them to get something done or done faster,” he said. “They should do it but just because they did it doesn’t mean every other division has to.”

“We have some stuff built entirely on open source, especially in the consumer space and search provider orchestration layers, as it has to come out of open source, but we scrutinise any use of open source because you have to make sure you are not abusing an asset and make sure you are not getting somebody else’s technology.

"And then Oracle sues Google over the ownership of Java.”

Burke accepted that customers did want more open companies but it was about finding the right level of value, rather than opening every asset up.

“It is about what is the value of open,” he said. “Is there value in me giving everyone my source code? No. Is there value in me grabbing someone else’s source code and integrating it into my product? Well, we did that with Hadoop and built the whole infrastructure around it.”

“I look at open source for us as a tool, not as a weapon. There is code out there that can help us get things done faster and if it is truly open, like Hadoop, and we are contributing back, those are good examples and we should embrace them.”

The final topic we discussed was Flash technology – one of the biggest themes of EMC World 2012.

Burke said EMC had been developing Flash solutions since 2004, which he headed up. He refused to admit the company had been slow on bringing products to market, but did see others had beaten them to the punch.

“I think there have been pieces where other companies went out first, like Fusion IO, and I will argue today FusionIO is the finest solution for a small segment of a market,” he said. “Now they are trying to go out and figure out how to make it bigger.”

Burke believed EMC's technology was better at these larger deployments, but he enjoyed watching the start-ups trying to make fully Flash-based arrays the staple decision for enterprise.

“I still contend you will see Violin and the other guys put disk drives inside their arrays very soon because Flash is not cheaper than disk,” he predicted. “They will tell you they can dedupe, compress it, do all this stuff in a smaller footprint, but even if you can make it small, it is still cheaper to put it on disk. It doesn’t matter.”

But Flash is not the final step for EMC and the company is looking even further into the future to see what the next big trend will be.

“Our vision goes way beyond Flash for when it is not relevant anymore – in 2015 or 2016 when it can’t get any faster or can’t get any smaller.”

“We are just as avidly looking at how that technology changes the game. Tech is easy to predict – you can look at the roadmap and say you don’t know what happens but you know things are going to change. That is the fun part of strategy.”

“That is the easy part,” he concluded. “The hard part is predicting what customers want.”  

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