EMC and NetApp still think they're competitors

Storage Bin: EMC and NetApp still think they're competitors; they spend time and money planning defense strategies. Maybe if they paused to think for a minute, they'd see that they're two successful companies growing in vastly different directions.

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Sometimes companies compete so hard for so long they don't notice that one day they really aren't competitors anymore. They still think they are competitors, so they spend time and money planning attack and defense strategies. I think EMC Corp. and Network Appliance Inc. are good examples of that.

First, lets call a spade a spade--these are both ass-kicking companies. Both have proven over extended periods of time that they have the smarts and the legs to succeed in both good times and bad. Both are the envy of their peers. Both think the other is arch enemy No. 1, and both are wrong.

Let's start with EMC. The company is the grandfather of the storage business. It was the first to make consumers separate the storage decision from the server decision, and in essence is responsible for creating a giant industry. It built a better big box, sold the hell out of it and rocked Wall Street for over a decade. Then it stumbled--mostly by believing in its own invincibility--and was forced to change.

Enter Mr. Tucci. I can't tell you how many insiders, outsiders and passive observers told me, "he'll never make it a year." Wrong. He's a tough, straight-shooting (easy to make John Gotti jokes about) kind of guy. He said things such as "we're going to be a software company" and "if Moshe doesn't play nice, he'll have to go." "Sure, Joe," we all said. Damn if he didn't do it.

EMC still sells tons of hardware, but the strategy--good, bad or ugly--of becoming an information life cycle management (ILM) software company is very real. In five years, EMC will be all about the management, optimization, placement and protection (oh yeah, and the actual storage) of information. It has successfully imported mongo talent right out from under the nose of the competitors. This is arguably the single biggest life change that any company in the computer business has gone through since IBM Corp.'s rebirth years ago. Will it succeed and turn EMC back into the juggernaut it was? I don't know, but with a bench like EMC's, you gotta like the bet.

NetApp, on the other hand, has pretty much the same management team since day one--and they are one of the most focused, cohesive (and generally nice) squads in the business. They have proven to themselves, their customers and Wall Street that steadfast focus works.

NetApp's take-over-the-world strategy differs wildly from EMC. The company believes that it can take its entire reason for being and extend it up and out. By purchasing next-generation network-attached storage (NAS) dudes Spinnaker, it prepares itself and its customers to take advantage of bigger, badder systems. By adding iSCSI block services, it grabs the lion's share of the data growth market (Windows) because it's already a trusted supplier and already connected to the right network (Ethernet). Brilliant, if you ask me.

Both of these warriors have very distinct, very attainable (if very difficult) strategies. Both can succeed without the other failing, but both still think each is public enemy No. 1. I think that's funny. How much do you want to bet that in five years these guys are listed on each others' Web pages as partners? One day we'll see Dan W. and Joe T. on stage hugging. On second thought, smiling and shaking hands is a better visual...

This was first published in December 2003

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