Storage Bin: The new vendor conundrum

Security and privacy are giant data issues. Vendors who speak the new "solutions" language, and deliver products that offer encryption functionality, will steal market share from those who don't.

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Vendors are constantly trying to find the right products to fill the right voids, and to deliver their message to you in the right way. Back in the old days, it seemed easier--if they could sell people the same or a better way to do something for a better price, people would buy it.

Money poured into startups hoping to grab a piece of the pie. They built stuff they thought was cool, and much of it was; but by the time the product got to market, the market had changed.

IT people don't care about cool when it comes to choosing vendors. They buy from incumbent vendors unless there is a life-threatening IT problem the current vendor can't or won't fix, or because the incumbent no longer speaks the language of IT.

When EMC kicked IBM's butt in the '80s it wasn't because EMC's gear was better (trust me, this I know). As a matter of fact, you could argue that the stuff was downright awful. But EMC had taught its sales and marketing people how to speak the language of the customer with catchphrases like "Don't get boxed into a single vendor," "Separate your storage decision from your processor/operating system choice" and the always-valid "Leave yourself flexibility." This differed from IBM's "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM." People started buying from EMC and other startups just because the incumbents were so out of tune from a messaging perspective.

Well, we're at yet another shift in the language. The new world of IT isn't about speeds and feeds or rooting for the underdog. It's about the investment vendors make (or don't make) up and down their ranks in teaching people how to talk the business of IT. Who buys disk arrays when what we really need is "online immutable long-term storage in order to comply with regulation 17-A4 while keeping ourselves clean with Sarbanes-Oxley"? It's "enhancing the ability to create value from reference data repositories" and "dynamic business intelligence and decision support" that gets people's attention.

And it's not just teaching sales guys to speak French--it's making sure these terms, concepts and initiatives live up and down the vendor organization. Customer support, engineering, presales and postsales personnel not only have to understand the new language of business IT, they have to live it.

If you look at who has prospered over the last couple of years, it's those organizations that have invested in learning the new language--folks like Cisco, EMC and Network Appliance. Sure, they talk about product features and benefits, but only after they've talked about the business-process issues.

CIOs don't care about speeds and feeds, they care about "solutions." Resellers began using the "S" word years ago (with absolutely no meaning, for the most part), but users can figure out who's full of it and who's not. Successful vendors now speak the new solutions language at all levels of the organization. They invest in learning the problems and then build their products, services and messages around that investment. Mastering a new language requires ceaseless training and a commitment to a knowledge-based culture--like Cisco has done in storage. For Sun to successfully ingest StorageTek, it will have to recognize this approach and act on it.

Don't take my word for it. Watch for the next change in linguistic nuance and see how market shares shift again. Security and privacy are giant data issues that the world has stuck its head in the sand over, but no more. Vendors who sell the message (and hopefully deliver) on those issues and bring products to market that offer encryption functionality will steal market share. Those that either wait for the market to evolve or believe "they have the best solution," yet refuse to invest in teaching their company the "language," will lose ... again.

This was first published in July 2005

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