Sunday, March 18, 2012

Thoughts from the Regional Cloud

This past week I had the opportunity to attend the Varrow Madness event, hosted by Varrow, in Charlotte, North Carolina. The event was well attended and Varrow does an outstanding job of bringing together customers and their technology partners. The event primarily draws from a customer base in Charlotte and Raleigh, NC, as well as southern Virginia and parts of South Carolina. I highlight this because those cities are the #19 and #45 cities in the US in population. They are growing areas with expertise in healthcare, high-tech, banking, state/local government and some manufacturing, but they are by no means Silicon Valley or Wall Street.

Sometimes it's easy to forget that there is a massive IT ecosystem that lives outside the shining lights of the technology and financial hubs. Not every IT department is filled with "hackers" that are ready to contribute their next web-scale finding back into the open-source community. They might think Cassandra is a co-worker's niece and could mistake an OpenFlow discuss for a potential flooding issue in the data center. These IT groups don't lack for skills, as many of them have experienced several technology transitions, and in most cases they aren't as silo'd as the IT press makes them out to be. They would love to be using the latest technologies, but budgets, lack of training and legacy integration often become bigger barriers than compelling ROI.

So what's top-of-mind for these IT organizations and where are the opportunities in the mid-sized markets?

Top of Mind:

These events always draw crowds filled with curiosity. They don't come to debate technology, but rather come looking for things that can help them in the near-term. This is a solutions-level discussion.
  1. Can you help me reduce costs so that I can free up some budgets to take on a backlog of projects that I can't focus on right now? These might be technology costs (licenses, bandwidth, # devices) or it could be people costs (allow existing people to do more).
  2. Can you help me shift costs, without sacrificing Security or Compliance? There were some interesting discussions about Managed Services and Cloud Computing (more below), but they ultimately came back to concerns about Security, Data Loss and Outages. 
  3. Can I leverage your experience and solutions to help me move more quickly into a new area of technology? Dealing with mobile devices and mobile apps (BYOD, COIT) is an area of interest, but clear ways to deal with these or accelerate them aren't wide-spread. [See recent blogs from Brian Katz discussing some of these challenges.]. Dealing with new business analytics (eg. "Big Data") is another glitter hope that needs to get simpler before it will be adopted in this space.
Market Opportunities:
  1. "Cloud Computing" was mentioned several times, but it was almost always followed with "whatever that means to you". About 50% of the audience said they have (or are building) a "Private Cloud" and 80% said they use "Public Cloud" (meaning: SaaS services). Discussions of Public Cloud (eg. AWS, or Hosted/Managed Services) were met with the same pushback - It's not about cost-savings or agility if companies can not clearly articulate how to secure data, audit data/networks and protect data. So if you're going to market with those services, I'd suggest reading this. There are also opportunities to target functions where costs exceed immediate usefulness (eg. Disaster Recovery) or expertise that is hard to obtain (eg. managed firewalls, security audits, etc.).
  2. "Big Data" was discussed in two context - (a) Massive amounts of growing data and the challenges of managing it, especially unstructured data; (b) New forms of analytics that could be applied to private and public sources of data of all types. The first challenge is real for almost every customer as they deal with user-expectations that available space should be "unlimited" and growing regulation to keep data longer. The second challenge could have potential benefits, but the entry point is fairly complicated for many companies. There is opportunity for companies that offer DataAnalysis-as-a-Service services, where elements of customer data could be analyzed to find unique opportunities (market insight, market trends, customer behaviors, etc.). Analyze the data for a period of time (30 days), suggest actions, charge a fee for a percentage of the potential business impact. 
  3. "Shadow IT" and "SMB" were both discussed, although neither were called out by name. They were implied by the questions asking about ways to better integrate various SaaS services. Business leaders looking for immediate ways to impact this quarter or to execute on a new idea. The market for this may begin to heat up again soon, especially as the "app economy" continues to change mindsets that every small challenge could be fixed with an app. 
Change is the one constant that runs through both the technologies and the industries at an event like Varrow Madness. The attendees are eager to learn and they recognize the value of technology to impact their business. But success in these markets, unlike some faster paced locations, means bringing solutions (not technology) to problems and to realize the impact on both the people and the business. Buzzwords and trends matter less than execution and relationships. 

[Full disclosure - My employer, EMC, was a sponsor of the Varrow Madness event and Varrow is a partner of EMC.]


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