I’ve been following the progress of Hitachi Data Systems (HDS) for well over a decade. When I participated in high-end enterprise storage system shootouts as an end-user, HDS routinely placed second against EMC, HP and NetApp in the, and the decision was always a close one. But the storage market has changed, with nimble startups innovating around established competitors and industry giants flexing their marketing muscles.
Where Does HDS Fit?
Concerned with the question of where HDS fits in this new market, I was pleased to be invited to join the company at their Sefton Park, UK briefing center to get some answers. After two days of intense briefing and discussion, I remain unsure of HDS’ future: The company impressed me as always with their technology, but it takes more than a few good people and products to compete effectively.
I always respected HDS and its products, but they remain stubbornly fixated on the high end of the market. The HDS USP/VSP may be the only really credible competitor to the EMC Symmetrix in the stratosphere of enterprise storage, but these products are analogous to the Airbus A380 and Boeing 747. No one expects them to go away any time soon, and they represent a nexus of innovation and profitability, but the market as a whole has moved on.
Ask an application developer about the infrastructure of their dreams and they’ll start talking scale-out platforms that sound awfully cloudy. The Symmetrix and USP/VSP are the mainframes of storage, and will be desired and required for certain use cases for decades to come. But CIOs are much more interested in the next wave of applications that their businesses will grow on in the future, and these applications need something totally different: A storage platform.
HCP: Positioned for the Next Generation
The best move HDS ever made was acquiring Archivas, developer of what is now known as the Hitachi Content Platform (HCP). A crossover between content-addressable storage (CAS) and the new generation of cloud storage systems, HCP is an excellent product for next-generation enterprise applications, with an HTTP/REST interface, object-level metadata-driven storage, and solid credentials for reliability.
The more I learn about HCP, the more I feel that EMC made a mistake by developing an entirely-new cloud storage platform (Atmos) rather than further developing their CAS system (Centera). HDS remained committed to HCP, and the result better matches the needs of enterprise applications than either of EMC’s products. I remain skeptical of HCP as a public cloud platform, but would not hesitate to recommend it for internal use cases.
HDS’ Data Ingestor (HDI) shows how the HCP platform can benefit an enterprise environment. As a NAS gateway, HDI pulls data from “the edge” (remote offices, file servers, and other applications) and stores it in a core HCP repository. This allows enterprise data to be better managed, protected, and manipulated than traditional distributed storage solutions. HDS is pitching HDI as an alternative for remote office backup, but it is really an example of the next-generation storage platforms enterprise CIOs wish they had today.
The Hitachi Clinical Repository vividly demonstrates what this future storage platform looks like. HDS surrounded the HCP with integration points for electronic health records applications and systems, allowing hospitals and other healthcare organizations to handle this rapidly-expanding data set. Departments as diverse as payroll and radiology can share the same platform, tracking and organizing data across applications and locations. The Clinical Repository at once demonstrates the strength of the HCP technology, the strategic value of integrated storage platforms, and the fact that HDS will not be left behind in this new world. Bravo!
Serious Challenges for HDS
But HDS’ future is not a slam dunk. The company faces serious obstacles in all directions, and it is not clear that they are ready to overcome them.
Let’s start with baggage. HDS is the exact opposite of a startup. This is an industry stalwart with a history of technology stronger than its sales execution; a private organization that must open up and change course without sinking; a company at once supported by and saddled with its link to “the mothership”, Hitachi Limited; and a group of talented people whose pride does not always serve their objectives.
The recent sale of Hitachi Global Storage Technologies (HGST), a key hard disk drive manufacturer, to Western Digital set some tongues wagging that HDS would be next. But HDS is nothing like HGST: Hitachi is first and foremost a developer and manufacturer of technological products, from televisions to nuclear reactors, and HDS is an integrator and distributor of their storage products. Hitachi could, in theory, decide to exit the storage space, and this would be the end of HDS. But this is highly unlikely. Hitachi is in the IT space for the long haul, with a slate of products that also includes servers and networking gear, and HDS is key to internationalizing this business.
But Hitachi is also an anchor, restricting the flexibility and creativity of HDS, and the curious case of Hitachi’s blade servers is a case in point. As noted, Hitachi is a major server vendor in Japan, and the company has named HDS the international custodian of these products. But HDS lacks the resources to sell into the highly-competitive server market. HDS has little choice but to put on a brave face and try to use these blade servers for their content platform, NAS, and unified “datacenter block” offerings, but there is no way they would have sought this product if not for Hitachi’s influence.
More pressing, however, is the challenge HDS faces with their sales force. Time and again one hears tales of clueless HDS sales reps pushing the same old SAN products to the same old customers rather than talking about HCP and the value of a strategic storage platform. One fellow event attendee remarked that his rep hadn’t ever mentioned HCP and HDI, even though it would have been a perfect fit for his large multi-national corporation. The rep either didn’t know about it or didn’t want to bother rocking the boat, and both are equally damning for HDS’ future growth.
One also senses a certain frustrated pride from some HDS employees, and this can be off-putting. This event was populated by some of the best and brightest representatives the company has to offer, but some continually resorted to a pointless “been there, done that, invented it” grouchiness. To hear them tell it, Hitachi is the secret force behind just about every enterprise storage innovation of the past two decades and their failure to dominate the market is a cruel injustice. But this is patently false: HDS is an innovator to be sure, but they play in a competitive market of equals. They must take responsibility for their own failings and work harder for success rather than whining about pretenders and upstarts.
As the baseball season begins, I can’t help but compare HDS to a big-budget team like the Chicago Cubs: They have all the tools and talent they need to succeed, but only time will tell how competitive they can be.
HDS should be commended for acquiring and developing the HCP technology, as well as spotting and fostering great new faces like Michael Heffernan, David Merrill, and Dave Wilson. But HDS must execute.
My prescription is simple but difficult: Lose the hubris and really dive into the battle for hearts and minds. Engage thought leaders and customers alike and show them how you can solve business problems rather than blathering on about unrecognized technical superiority. Educate the sales force and better incentivize them to “go strategic” instead of falling back on “speeds-and-feeds” SAN sales, and cut off anyone who isn’t on board. Let Heff and Wilson run free, find more like them, and bring Merrill into every CIO-level meeting.
HDS has to step up and be the healthy competitor for NetApp and EMC that the enterprise storage industry so desperately needs.