Part three (and, you’ll be relieved, the final installment) of this multi part post comparing and contrasting NetApp and Rubrik looks at the two companies and prognosticates on their respective futures.

First, to the incumbent

NetApp is attempting a transition from their roots as a provider of on-premises storage arrays to a future as a data platform across the datacenter and public and private clouds. This transition necessitates a fundamental shift across not only technology but messaging, go-to-market and core culture.

Customers are increasingly expecting that a storage vendor that is truly cloud ready will give them all of their needed functionality in one hit. This isn’t about having the fastest storage arrays that exist or offering the same functionality as another vendor but at a few percentage points better TCO – this is about abstracting responsibility for an entire swathe of the broader storage function away to a third part.

The reason for wanting this level of abstraction is that NetApp’s own customer face the same disruptive threats that NetApp itself does – they don’t have the luxury of being able to obsess about their own plumbing. The more than can offload to a third party, the more than can focus on the stuff that really matters.

An organization that, for example, wants to run analytics over large data sets in the cloud, and have those datasets automatically replicate from on-premises infrastructure, is fair to expect that the storage vendor will put everything in place for them to do so – snapshot and clone, deduplication, the most optimal networks etc. All of these requirements have less to do with “storage” per se, as they do with flexibility around customer data.

Given this likely direction of travel, it is fair to predict that the siloes that exist today between, for example, those vendors who consider themselves storage vendors and those who consider themselves virtualization vendors, will cease to exist. Rather, vendors will become concierges, handling all of the heavy lifting and abstracting responsibility for all infrastructural tasks off to their vendor(s) of choice. Witness VMware’s moves into the world of hyperconverged infrastructure – while that doesn’t go as far into the abstraction journey as we would like, it is certainly a good start.

The innovator’s dilemma writ large

It is always hard for a traditional vendor to move to newer business and technology models. Many books have been written and presentations were given about the topic of disruption and reinvention. I strongly suspect, however, that the challenges and opportunities that NetApp faces have less to do with technology and far more to do with messaging and go to market motions. NetApp must aggressively move to embrace the cloud so they can not just function there but truly lead. This isn’t about putting a “cloudy spin” on top of an existing approach, this is about core re-invention.

In the conversations that we had with NetApp executives, there was something of a tendency to point to ONTAP Cloud and hold it up as an example of NetApp “getting the cloud.” While NetApp should be applauded for enabling organizations to have parity in storage technology between their on-premises and their cloud infrastructure, and that this is a great short to mid-term opportunity for growth, increasingly organizations that are really at the innovative end of the spectrum are seeking more than that.

Being unencumbered makes life so much easier

It strikes me that the reason that Amazon Web Services (as an example) enjoyed such stellar growth in the first decade of the cloud is that they were unencumbered by traditional models, unconstrained by the allure of traditional revenue streams, and unhindered by a sales force that was accustomed to a certain style of working. It is challenging for a traditional sales force to embrace new markets, and this is especially true when selling to cloud customers.

While NetApp is certainly making moves in the right direction (ONTAP Cloud, Open Source involvement, etc.), there appears to be something of a disconnect between these initiatives and the broader message that the market, and thus perhaps the sales force, is receiving. To put it simply, there is a vast difference between a traditional vendor that is embracing some new and innovative tools and approaches, and one that is reinventing itself to be something completely different.

Let me put it simply: incremental change is not really an option for NetApp. The company should greatly accelerate the rate at which it reinvents its positioning and messaging and finds ways to change or augment its sales force’s approach to be one of a data management provider, and less of a storage asset one.

Clearly, NetApp has a large and lucrative business that it is unlikely to turn its back on anytime soon. It is, therefore, necessary to consider a bridging approach between the old and the new. While NetApp may well contend that this bridging process is currently in place, customer demand and market dynamics will, over time, show that the pace of change that NetApp is undertaking is insufficient.

And on to the challenger

Rubrik has none of the constraints around existing revenue streams, sales force motion or customer expectations that Rubrik has. As such, it is a fair summation to suggest that Rubrik has a very good chance of succeeding with its aims and disrupting the incumbent players.

But such a simple assessment ignores another trait of our industry – that of legacy vendor managing to reinvent themselves (or, at least, neutralize the disruptive risks) over and over again. One only needs to look at a vendor like Oracle to see this in action. Oracle has been dismissed, time and again, as a dinosaur that has zero understanding and appreciation of the future that is staring it in the face. And yet, every time Oracle has managed to perpetuate its position.

It may not be a favored vendor, but popularity and success are two very different things. By coercing where necessary, leveraging a dominant position to wring every last dime out of its customers or, where no other option exists, to kneecap its competitors by acquiring them when the “real and credible danger” got too big, Oracle has maintained its position as one of the dominants in the industry.

While it is easy for the pure technologists to suggest that the best tech will win and that Rubrik’s arguably more forward-looking perspective will be the dominant method for the future, there are many examples where poorer technology has crushed a promising and technically superior approach (Betamax, anyone?)

MyPOV

With a $1 billion valuation, and pockets full of lucre, Rubrik is well positioned to execute both the technology build it needs, plus the all-important go to market requirements. Indeed, Rubrik has been hiring influential thought-leaders en masse and, despite being a far smaller company than NetApp, has a presence, credibility, and voice that far exceeds that of its larger peer. Indeed, Rubrik today reminds me of SolidFire (a company that NetApp ironically acquired a couple of years ago.) While SolidFire was doing something ostensibly boring (all-flash storage arrays and, later, storage software) it created a narrative that was far broader than that – articulating its ambition to be the enabling technology that would bring the cloud to the masses.

But while thought-leadership on the blogosphere and in the Twitterverse is useful, it isn’t a replacement for existing enterprise pedigree, and by this measure, NetApp is far ahead of its rival. NetApp sales people, despite being tightly wedded to existing products and existing revenue models, have deep relationships with the world’s largest enterprises. Rubrik is spending money to hire top-shelf salespeople, but that’s a process, and they still have the disadvantage of going in cold to customers.

Fundamentally, if NetApp realizes both the opportunity and the threat, this battle is theirs to lose – they have the pedigree, the existing market share, the cash reserves and the brand recognition to pull one out of the bag and guarantee their future. Rubrik’s success is, at least in part, predicated on the inability of NetApp and its ilk to see that they’re flying directly into a mountain. Whether NetApp can “pull up” in time is something that will have to be assessed in time.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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