When IBM came to John Thompson’s college campus to recruit sales people in the early ’70s he didn’t exactly look the part. "At the time I was a wild-eyed, wide-eyed hippy, with a very large afro and very bushy moustache," he says. "I didn’t own a blue suit or a white shirt. As a matter of fact, I didn’t own a single pair of single-tone shoes – all my shoes were grey and black, or grey and tan. I was just a crazy hippy."
But IBM’s recruiters obviously saw something in Thompson and gave him a job that would see him rise over a 28-year career to one of the most senior leaders at Big Blue. Thompson, though, is modest about his achievement: "To my good fortune I had a lot of people over the years that supported me and helped develop me into a reasonably decent businessman."
"Reasonably decent" is something of an understatement – Thompson, now in his early 60s, is one of the most respected business leaders of his generation.
Thompson left IBM to join Symantec as chief operating officer in 1999, and was subsequently made CEO. At Symantec he grew sales more than 10-fold, then announced his retirement in April 2009.
And that, some thought, was that: a fitting end to a glittering career. Of course, his expertise was highly sought after and like many retired CEOs he made some investments of his own in start-ups, one of which was Virtual Instruments.
"My initial interest was I thought the team [at Virtual Instruments] was working on a very significant problem for most large enterprise users," Thompson says. "That prompted me to invest. As we worked our way through the year, year and a half or so, it was clear that I had an opportunity to apply the experience that I have gathered over almost 40 years in this industry. I thought it would be helpful to the team. So when investors asked me to do that, I jumped right in." Thompson had come out of retirement.
So what was compelling enough about Virtual Instruments – a relatively little-known start-up that was tiny in comparison with Symantec – to bring Thompson back into the CEO seat? What are the challenges it is trying to overcome?
"One of the most significant challenges our customers are facing is managing the explosive growth in stored digital content," Thompson says. "Regardless of whether it’s block format data or unstructured data, data volumes for the largest companies in the world grow at 40-, 50- or 60% per year. And so it poses a very significant challenge not just in the management of the data itself but in the operational performance of the infrastructure in which that data resides.
"Virtual Instruments brings a unique set of products and services to the marketplace to help customers do a better job of managing performance and availability, and optimising the overall virtual infrastructure," Thompson says.
So how hot a niche are we talking about here? Thompson says growth in 2009 and 2010 was 100%, while for the first six months of this fiscal year it exceeded 150%.
Virtual Instruments’ technology is claimed to offer instrumentation and measurement capabilities of the storage area network (SAN) and virtualised infrastructure that "improve application response time, accelerate problem identification and resolution, reduce the risk of business impacting outages, and increase server and SAN utilisation".
The firm argues that rival storage management technologies simply don’t go deep enough to give the necessary monitoring and management of SANlevel data, usually travelling around fibre channel links in ever-more-complex ways as companies roll out more and more virtualisation. Virtual Instruments says it gets a deeper look at this traffic thanks to Traffic Analysis Points (TAPs), which then feed into an aggregation engine, VirtualWisdom, where traffic can be analysed.
"VirtualWisdom is the only solution that can non-intrusively improve the performance of virtualised or cloud-based applications in real-time by analysing actual SAN I/O traffic data," the company claims.
There are plenty of analysts who support the firm’s claims. Bernd Harzog, analyst at The Virtualization Practice, says: "As more companies consider deploying mission-critical applications in a virtualised environment or look into deploying private clouds, it will be imperative for them to put complete real-time visibility into the response times of their virtual and physical IT infrastructure. Without the visibility enabled by solutions such as VirtualWisdom, they will be flying blind, exposing their businesses to needless risk and wasted IT resources."
Jeff Boles, senior analyst and director of validation services at the Taneja Group, adds: "Getting access into a fabric is incredibly difficult. Using mirror and SPAN ports just doesn’t cut it if you want to see what’s really going on, especially when performance issues are the focus and you need to see over-the-wire latency and make sure you’re not dropping frames on high-speed connections. With TAPs, administrators can figure out what they need to see, and then put a total solution in place to see it."
So far, so sensible. But doesn’t Thompson fear that many companies already have a systems or storage management vendor of choice, whether it be CA, BMC, IBM Tivoli or HP?
"I think the reality is we approach this challenge much differently than any of the four that you just mentioned," he says. "Each of them is a large, heavy, monolithic software player. We happen to approach the problem from the perspective of a combination of hardware and software. It is very focused on the specific issues of scan and virtual infrastructure optimisation. So we don’t bring all of the baggage, if you will, that the more established players do."
So is Virtual Instruments a management appliance vendor? Thompson says that there are purpose-built probes that sit in the storage array, and these could be considered appliances. However, he also says that the main aggregation point, VirtualWisdom, could also become an appliance instead of being software as it is today.
"We have product plans that say VirtualWisdom could also eventually become an appliance. So VirtualWisdom 2.0 as it is today, as it evolves to 3.2 or 3.5 product, will be a completely contained appliance form factor. That makes the installation process easier… much easier for us to manage and quite frankly it speeds deployment," he says.
So what about clients – are there any good, UK-based reference customers? Try little old Unilever. The firm deployed Virtual Instruments’ VirtualWisdom for real-time traffic analysis of its SAN environment.
"VirtualWisdom is not just about real-time monitoring, it’s also great for measuring trends," says Unilever’s Unix and integrated storage manager Paul Faid. "So we can see how our storage capacity changes over time, which allows us to manage future storage and other hardware requirements in a far more comprehensive manner. We’ve seen about a 75% reduction in our high-alert incident rate, and there has been a significant reduction in IT staff required to manage the SAN, allowing us to deploy them on other tasks."
A benchmarking exercise undertaken by Gartner found that the IT costs of Unilever’s SAN after rolling out VirtualWisdom was millions of pounds less than other consumer goods manufacturers.
Heading for a listing
You can see why Virtual Instruments managed to tempt Thompson out of retirement. But what’s next for the firm – is the plan to take it public? "While I’ve had a wonderful career, this is something that’s truly aspirational for me – not just to formulate the strategy but put a company in the position where it is attractive enough that public investors would like to put money into it," Thompson says.
Is that position far off? "The current markets would suggest if you are on about $100m run rate and two, three or four quarters of profitability, that’s the ideal company for consideration of going public. We think, current course and speed, we can get there in about 18 months."
Of course, given his vast experience, the rest of Virtual Instruments’ management team would be crazy not to listen to the boss’s views on this, or indeed any other subject. Thompson jokes about a contest to name the conference rooms at the firm’s new HQ: most people wanted to name them after golf courses but Thompson preferred naming them after movies with a virtual theme. So who won the argument? "Let’s just say our conference rooms are named Matrix, Tron…"
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