One of the most amazing products I’ve ever covered was EMC’s old VCE platform. This platform resulted from a partnership between VMware, Cisco, EMC, and Intel (as a silent partner).
What made the platform amazing was that it was so good no one, other than those that deployed it, believed how good it was. It was an IT shop in a box built more like an Apple computer as an integrated whole, and it provided a level of reliability, performance, energy efficiency, and agility that was unmatched in the market.
While this effort was effectively killed just before the Dell acquisition, it remains one of the strongest examples of what is possible in the hyper-converged space, and IBM appears to now be emulating the effort with their very similar VersaStack offering.
What made VCE stand out wasn’t the technology, which was impressive; it was the advocacy stories from those that had deployed it. I had a chance to meet with many of the early VCE customers several years back, and the stories were very similar. They generally spoke of a difficult approval process where the internal engineers said it wouldn’t work, the external engineers said it wouldn’t work. And then the CIO overruled all of them to find that not only did it work, the result was the most reliable and agile product they had ever seen in the class.
The resulting loyalty from the CIO was almost religious in-depth, costs were down, and the CIO was a hero for fighting through the process and delivering a solution that the business loved. It is interesting to note that after the successful deployment, these CIOs often shared that the engineers who had argued it wouldn’t work had moved on, often to other companies.
One of the most interesting discussions was from a hosting site that shared they were able to throw vastly diverse jobs at the solution, and it outperformed their other offerings in every single case regardless of the nature or type of job run on it.
Now, this generally worked best in either greenfield opportunities where the company was building out a new site, or full replacements where the firm was pulling out their entire data center and could replace it as a unit.
Even when I first saw the VCE solution, it struck me that it was very similar to how mainframes used to be sold and deployed as more of a complete solution as opposed to the more typical mix of often mismatched components.
To make it work, you needed a specially trained sales force, upgrades, modifications, and updates needed to be approached very differently, or the result could degrade this highly integrated data center approach returning it to something more similar to what most companies currently have today.
What I think is interesting is that, in hindsight, VCE wasn’t a good fit for EMC because EMC was a storage vendor, and selling a hyper-converged data center solution wasn’t an ideal fit given what they did. Now once Dell Technologies emerged, that would have changed, but they effectively shot VCE before the merger, so we never got to see how VCE could have performed under Dell. Dell Technologies and IBM are now far more similar to each other, and IBM has far more experience selling an integrated, infrastructure-heavy solution than Dell does given that is how IBM once dominated the market.
This conclusion suggests that, with the right level of sales focus, service, support, pricing, and execution IBM with VersaStack and – on top of IBM’s recent cloud success – this could form the backbone for a wider selection of mainframe and mainframe-like integrated data center offerings.
I believe, had Dell Technologies been able to pick up the billion-dollar + business that VCE represented before it was discontinued, they would have turned it into something much larger and, I expect, assuming IBM executes, that IBM will prove this assessment right.
Sometimes it is all about timing and luck, as the timing didn’t work for Dell, it may have created just the right opportunity for IBM.