Trust is everything. When done right, the brand is trust.
One Wikibon article last month “Does Hardware (still) Matter?” touched on my sentiments and hit close to the heart. As the world becomes more and more data driven and cloud-centric, the prominence of IT infrastructure has diminished from the purview of the boardroom. The importance of IT infrastructure cannot be discounted but in this new age, storage infrastructure has become invisible.
In the seas of both on-premises and hybrid storage technology solutions, everyone is trying to stand out, trying to eke the minutest ounces of differentiation and advantage to gain the customer’s micro-attention. With all the drum beatings, the loyalty of the customer can switch in an instance unless we build trust.
I ponder a few storage industry variables that help build trust.
Open source Communities and tribes
During the hey-days of proprietary software and OSes, protectionism was key to guarding the differentiations and the advantages. Licenses were common, and some were paired with the hardware hostid to create that “power combination”. And who can forget those serial dongles license keys? Urgh!!
Since the open source movement (Read The Cathedral and the Bazaar publication) began, the IT world has begun to trust software and OSes more and more. Open Source communities grew and technology tribes were formed in all types of niches, including storage software. Trust grew because the population of the communities kept the vendors honest. Gone are the days of the Evil Empire. Even Microsoft® became a ‘cool kid’.
One open source storage filesystem I worked extensively on is OpenZFS. From its beginnings after Open Solaris® (remember build 134), becoming part of the Illumos project and then later in FreeBSD® and Linux upstream. Trust in OpenZFS was developed over time because of the open source model. It has spawned many storage projects including FreeNAS™ which later became TrueNAS®.
Translating the mindsets
While open source projects are great, many members of the communities and tribes started working on these storage software as hobbyists. Assemblers and crafters I would describe them. Diving into the forums, Discord communities and others, majority of these still carry a consumer-based mindset and code.
To get through the front door of business organizations, and build trust, open source storage solutions as well as other non-open source storage solutions have to live by a different mindset and code. I often say that this is the enterprise technology mindset, and it must envelope the people and the processes enterprise mindset of the organization. The mind shift to cross this chasm is akin to the Pets vs Cattle argument that have surfaced often in the ever-getting-louder DevOps talks. Storage technologies have to stay relevant to earn trust. And that means storage being able to deliver what it is designed and intended to, not to the end users and individuals, but to organizations that run and place their trust on the storage platforms that serve the business and operations.
Vendors build trust in storage
The adage “Nobody gets fired for buying IBM®” is no longer true. But back in the 60s, 70s, 80s, the IBM® brand was synonymous with trust. Big Blue was able to create a belief system with their customers, and potential customers based on the trustworthiness of their technology offerings, their support services and much of that technology trust were on their mainframe and storage (remember IBM “Shark?). EMC® took a page of what IBM® did, and in the 80s and 90s, they made the trust in their storage technology and services offering legendary.
ISVs to storage appliances
Then in the 2000s, there was a shift in building trust with the storage vendors. What started as ISVs (independent software vendors) integration with the respective servers architectures became a more intimate relationship in storage appliances.
One notable one that I worked on for a period of 3-4 years what running Oracle® (including 9i RAC) on NFS. At that time, implementing an enterprise grade relational database like Oracle® on NFS v3 was insane. When Oracle® introduced the ASM (automated storage management) feature that combined both NFS for the .dbf and .log files and the ASM volume management, the industry began to accept trusted integrated solutions, and storage appliances were very much part of it. Other software began to adopt this integrated solution and validated architectures approach, (I worked on the Fujitsu® PrimeFlex™ SAP® on NetApp® briefly) build further trust with storage platforms.
Purposed builds, engineered systems and beyond
Things gotten even more intimate with purpose build storage solutions. One that caught a lot of attention (including mine) was Data Domain®. Who could forget the battle to acquire DD in the late-2000s, when the 2 storage goliaths, EMC® and NetApp®, battled to win DD’s hand in marriage. More significant was the coming of Oracle® ExaData engineered system.
Industry specific engineered storage solutions also came to the fore, and the one that sticks the most with me was Schlumberger® Project Delfi.
Trust grows with Technical Marketing
ISV integrations, validated architectures, integrated solutions, purpose builds, engineered systems and other storage solution models are all part of the initiatives to build trust. Applications and workloads are getting more and more complex, and with that organizations are looking for advocates to reduce operational and mission risks.
The rise of the Technical Marketing engineers and architectures cannot be ignored in these burgeoning complexities, requirements to build trust with the customers. Technical Marketing with the quintessential artisan mindsets bridging the fears of the customers, hand holding them through the risks, and solving problems unique to the customers. Trust is the natural outcome from these relationships. Of course, these TM folks should be domain and subject matter experts as expected of them.
Experiential customer support
Battles with severity 1 and production down issues are won with world-class customer support. The experience from each customer ordeal can strengthen the trust or destroy trust in an instance. Gone are the days where the support just ship the storage system to the customer, power it on and the customer is left on his or her own devices. Risks of a new storage deployment or a simple operational break fix are always ever present. These are the times where the customer may not be aware of the risks involved, or do not know clear understanding of what could happen every step of the way. This gives the support organization to step in to provide that delightful customer support experience.
Many a times, the customer may be silent through the support call or even through the storage warranty period. But I have seen all these black spots surface when it comes the time for support renewal and warranty extension. So, many acts of random generosity and kindness can earn super brownie points in trusting the respective storage vendors and the services offerings.
Perhaps the most human thing to do is Listen. Trust grows through empathy, compassion and just be there. Be that trusted friend. Be that trusted advisor.
I would like roll all together what I have pondered to discuss about establishing and strengthening the body of TRUST with storage technology customers.
- Open Source storage technology Models
- Shifting to the Enterprise mindset
- ISV, integrated storage solutions, validated storage architectures, purpose builds, engineered systems and industry engineered platforms
- Technical Marketing
- World class customer support
Given this new digital world, the efforts to earn trust has become a more difficult proposition to achieve. Even harder is storage technology and solutions are being moved to the corners of the unseen and the boring ones. Yet, data still need storage technology, both hardware and software. I wish to elevate storage branding to the land of the strongly trusted again.
I am going to use one of the sentences from a slide shared with me by my good friend. It says:
“A framework removes the guesswork from your customer”
This is my framework for building trust in storage brands.