Virtual Instruments CEO: We're the bridge between physical and virtual

John Thompson, former Symantec CEO, explains why the company he now heads offers a better way to manage the performance of cloud infrastructure

Every transition in computing spawns a new market in management tools -- the evolution to highly virtualized data centers and the cloud is no different. Virtual Instruments is squarely focused on delivering the next generation of management for, as its name implies, this new virtual world. But Virtual Instruments is different from other startups trying to tackle the virtual management challenge.

First, it's not a start-up at all. Rather, the company began as a 2008 spin-out from optical network company Finisar Corp. Second, Virtual Instruments sports one of the tech industry's most seasoned chief executive officers in John Thompson, former CEO of security vendor Symantec and, earlier, top executive at IBM. In this installment of the CEO Interview Series, Thompson spoke with InfoWorld Editor-in-Chief Eric Knorr and IDG Enterprise Chief Content Officer John Gallant about what makes Virtual Instruments different from existing management companies and why enterprises from PayPal to Unilever have committed to the company's technology.

[ Find out the topics and issues affecting tech's biggest names and news makers as revealed in the IDGE Insider CEO interview series. | Stay ahead of the key tech business news with InfoWorld's Today's Headlines: First Look newsletter. | Read Bill Snyder's Tech's Bottom Line blog for what the key business trends mean to you. ]

Q: What's the unique proposition behind Virtual Instruments and what's the value you deliver in this highly virtualized moving-to-cloud world?

A: What's very clear is that there is another transition under way in our industry. They happen about every eight to 10 years, and we're in the midst of yet another one -- one that, as I've said to many customers around the world, is inevitable. The physical, the virtual-to-cloud transition will happen, and what we're doing at Virtual Instruments is positioning our product platform to be the performance management platform for that environment.

As you make the transition from physical to virtual, there are risks that crop up in the environment, and we believe it will require a level of visibility that heretofore hasn't been available to many, many clients, or the tools that have been available have been a hodgepodge or a collection of tools for doing that. Hence, by delivering a completely integrated platform, to be able to provide deep visibility from the server through the switch fabric and back, gives us an opportunity to help customers manage this transition to the cloud and do it in a way that minimizes risk, improves operating expense and, quite frankly, improves the deployment of capital more smartly across the environment.

Q: If you take the traditional infrastructure management tools that our readers know, what's different? What are the key elements you bring to the table that you wouldn't find in that portfolio?

A: Those traditional tools emerged or evolved two transitions ago. They were built during the client/server transition of the early 1990s. I think what history would say is that while they still are effective, they are unlikely to be as effective in a highly virtualized, cloud-based environment. Having a newly architected platform that looks at performance-related information in real time on the wire is what makes us unique, and quite frankly will cause some of those older platforms to question just how viable they are for this new environment that's being created.

Q: Pin that down to a few key capabilities that you have to be able to deliver that they can't.

A: First, real-time performance management: I don't mean polling the device and aggregating information and looking in my rearview mirror to tell you what performance is, but I mean right now, on the wire, watching all of the traffic as it flows. Second, the ability to correlate insight across the server stack, the switch stack and the [storage] array to get a real sense of what the performance of the entire infrastructure is like. Third, to be able to predict, based upon what we see now, how things might evolve as you move workloads around. If you think about the promise of the cloud, particularly the private cloud, it's that I'll be able to dynamically allocate workload based upon the real-time demands that may be coming from users. Well, without knowing what the current performance implications of that infrastructure truly are, I don't know how you adequately dynamically allocate resources without problems.

Q: Is this at both the physical and the virtual level?

A: Absolutely. We all talk about the virtualized world, but the virtualized world runs on a physical infrastructure, and unless you have really, really deep insight into what's going on in the physical infrastructure, you can't be predictive at all about what's going to happen in the virtualized or cloud-based world. The deep level of inspection that we provide for the physical infrastructure and our ability to provide analytical capability about the implications of that in a cloud or virtualized world, is what's unique about Virtual Instruments.

Q: You have a long background in the tech industry, and you've worked with some very successful companies. Why was this opportunity so enticing to you?

A: I started here as an investor, not as an operator, and the thesis that drove me to make the investment in the spring of 2010 was that there was an inevitable transition going on. Right then, I was thinking physical to virtual and that this company had a unique capability to help people manage the physical-to-virtual aspect of that transition. Just as antivirus technology existed before Web enablement, it became big after Web enablement. Just as provisioning and systems management tools existed before we client/server-enabled everything, they became really big after we client/server-enabled everything.

My view was that performance-related, availability related technologies existed before, but they will become even more important as we virtualize the infrastructure. That prompted me to invest. I got involved with the company as a board member, and as is not uncommon with early-stage companies, we hit a little bump in the road a year later. I stepped in to try to figure out what happened and why did it happen, and it stuck to me like flypaper and I've been here ever since. I'm having a great time, too.

Q: Since you've taken over, can you give us some sort of sense of where you are in this mission? I mean what kinds of metrics are you looking for accomplishment at this point?

A: We are just about to complete today -- hopefully -- our final round of funding. I think it would be fair to say that we are very, very pleased with investor reaction to our progress given the pre-money valuation they gave us. It's up three times from what it was the last round two years ago. What gave them that view was not just the products that we've delivered over the last 12 to 18 months, but their view of the problem we address with current products and the product road map that we've outlined for them, which was why they were willing to invest. We grew revenues last fiscal year 80-plus percent. We grew our customer base by almost a factor of two.

The thrust for us since I've been here has been more about new customer acquisition, build out our product portfolio and drive top-line revenue growth. Let's manage this company like a startup as opposed to managing it like a private equity carve-out, which is what it was. The reality was we didn't have that much revenue, therefore, as a carve-out, so focusing on gross margins and cash flow made no sense to me. We should have focused this company from the very beginning on this: We've got a technology lead, how do we extend that lead? How do we capture as many customers as we can and then drive incremental revenue from those customers with, candidly, a land-and-expand kind of strategy? That's what we've been doing for the last 2-1/2 years or so, and it seems to be working.

Q: When does an enterprise become a great candidate for you from a sales perspective? What's the problem that they're facing that makes them say, "I've got to talk to these guys"?

A: If you have two attributes that are critical to your business, the first of which is the performance of your systems drives a level of sensitivity in your interactions with customers. So if you have a hugely important online-critical infrastructure, [for example,] Wells Fargo, you know for sure that if the banking system is down that has implications on the brand, it has implications quite frankly on the business overall.

Or if you're a hospital and systems aren't available, it has tremendous implications on your ability to serve patients in that hospital. Because every doctor, every nurse, every orderly, every person in the hospital is dependent upon that system as the platform from which services are delivered. If performance and availability and health of the infrastructure are critical issues for you, then you need our tools. Make no mistake about it.

Q:  Can you tell us about a couple great customers? Who are some folks that are using your technology?

A: We have almost 200 clients now, hopefully more than that by the time this quarter ends. Right here locally, perhaps one of our strongest clients is PayPal. PayPal is what I would say is our second largest customer worldwide. The company has fully instrumented both of its data centers with our technology, so every storage port has a Virtual Instruments probe attached to it. And the company monitors traffic routinely, all day, every day. The simple idea for [PayPal] is if the systems are slow or down, and someone shows up to check out and it's not available or it's slow, it has an alternative, and therefore, that can be measured in true revenue terms -- very, very large dollars of revenue per second are just lost if they don't have adequate performance or don't have availability.

Or if you were to go to Europe and look at Unilever, a more traditional SAP infrastructure that runs the whole company, and if the SAP infrastructure is not up and running, guess what? The company doesn't work. Every factory, every purchasing organization, every PR or AR organization reports through, if you will, the SAP infrastructure. And it has now plumbed its entire infrastructure with our technology: one very much focused on performance and availability, the other one, candidly, more focused on availability because of the critical nature of the application. If you were to think about almost every customer we have, the point of view into the marketplace has been one of those two: I have a huge performance problem I want to solve, or I have an availability issue, I need to make sure it doesn't bring my systems down.

Q: Does your technology replace or augment existing tools?

A: We approach it as a complementary solution to things that customers already have. Our customers have tools for provisioning, for capacity planning, for device-level management.

The unique thing about our approach is we take a systems view, not a device view, and we focus almost exclusively on performance, system-wide performance. Most of the tools are device level and don't focus on performance, they focus on capacity planning. They may focus on provisioning. In other words, how do I get a new device on the network working? We are very complementary to what every one of those other tools might be, and I don't envision us in the near future tuning our focus or expanding our focus to worry about provisioning or capacity planning. There's so much work to be done around performance, utilization and health of the infrastructure that we think we can build a huge business around those three domains.

Q: You mentioned PayPal instrumenting storage ports with your probes. How does this work?

A: What's unique about what we do is a hardware probe that we have built that allows us to provide real-time, on-the-wire insight into the traffic as it flows through the infrastructure. We take that data and correlate it to other information that we will gather from the server tier or the switch tier so the customer gets a holistic view about performance, if you will. Were it not for that unique real-time component of hardware, we'd look like many of the other tools that are out there that do polling and aggregation of information. That hardware view that we provide is the true differentiator for our company.

Q: When we talk to, say, CA Technologies or HP or anyone who is in the management space, they talk about all the same kinds of things you do. They say they're equipped for the cloud, ready for the private cloud, ready for virtualized environments. What's wrong with what they're saying?

A: What is truly different about us is, one, we are a new technology platform, architected for the environment that exists today, not the one that was built 20 years ago. Two, we are truly real time. It would be interesting for you to do a keyword search of how many providers now talk about real-time performance management. Then do one layer deeper and ask them to describe that. Is it on the wire or is it polling techniques where every five minutes or 10 minutes or 30 minutes you look at the device and have the device tell you what's going on at that moment, and then you aggregate that over a day or a week and you interpret what the performance is. That's not real time. That's looking in the rearview mirror trying to move forward.

1 2 Page 1
Page 1 of 2