Virtual Instruments: Avoiding "The Abyss", trouncing Brocade and not hiding behind SDN

Virtual Instruments CEO John Thompson focused on cloud-enabling customers' sites

Virtual Instruments, the nearly 5-year-old infrastructure performance management software and hardware maker, is one of those companies that might never become a household name no matter how successful it becomes. In fact, many at first mistake the company for being in the music business.

John Thompson

John Thompson

But CEO John Thompson, who during 42 years in the tech industry has led Symantec and held high-level positions at IBM, says Virtual Instruments isn't trying to win a popularity contest. It's focused on helping customers make what Thompson says he believes is the inevitable transition from physical to virtual to cloud-based infrastructure. "Would you have had the same degree of ambivalence about CA or VMware years ago? The day I announced I was leaving IBM to go to Symantec, the guy I was working for said 'Who?' I bet the world knows who Symantec is today... If we're as successful as I think we'll be, maybe in 5 years a lot more people will know Virtual Instruments, too."

[MORE FROM THOMPSON: Deep dive into Virtual Instruments' strategy]

ALSO: 6 things you might not know about Virtual Instruments]

In a wide-ranging interview with Thompson and Virtual Instruments' Vice President of Marketing John Gentry, we covered everything from competing vs. the likes of Cisco and Brocade to avoiding the SDN buzzword to changing IT careers to naming conference rooms.

Yup, naming conference rooms. Thompson immediately latched onto the candy-themed Reese's conference room name at our office, which indeed does feature a glass container filled with the scrumptious peanut butter and chocolate treats that we're now all sick of. That led to Gentry offering that Virtual Instruments decided to name its conference rooms after virtual reality and sci-fi movies (The Matrix, Blade Runner, etc.), but that he recently decided to scrap The Abyss as the name of the marketing conference room and change it to Star Trek. "That didn't send quite the right message," he says.

Probably a good call for a company that by all accounts is headed in the other direction, growing its customer base and revenue on average 80% to 90% a year (with average deal sizes of $200,000 to $300,000 among mostly Global 2000 organizations) and possibly even filing to go public within the next 12 months. Virtual Instruments (not to be confused with fellow management products company Network Instruments) is a private equity carve-out from a company called Finisar best known for its optical networking technology. Virtual Instruments has raised nearly $70 million in venture funding in an increasingly enterprise IT-friendly investing climate, most recently snagging $27.5 million last fall to help fuel product development. Thompson says Virtual Instruments is chasing a $9 billion market opportunity for software and hardware probes and related offerings.

Virtual Instruments vs. the world 

Thompson says his 250-member team - including 60 in engineering -- feels good about its progress but also has a long way to go. "We've defined a new category called infrastructure performance management and interestingly enough all the big boys (i.e., CA, IBM, etc.) claim they do it, too. We've got to run a bit harder to make sure we don't get caught."

Virtual Instruments gets especially feisty towards Brocade, which has suggested that third-party tools such as those from VI might not be needed thanks to its new Fibre Channel SAN switch management software. Thompson says the two companies were once friendly and he even bounced around the idea of having Brocade invest in Virtual Instruments early on, but that the relationship has soured over time. He argues that Brocade might be able to do what Virtual Instruments can do for Brocade switches, but not for servers and arrays. "They'll be able to do one component of what we do, but not the totality of it. As customers become more cognizant of that, they'll challenge and question...Brocade's sanity." Circling back to Brocade later in our conversation, Thompson smiled and said: "We're going to trounce them."

[GRAB BAG: 16 of the most useful cloud management tools]

As for Cisco, Thompson says he gets along well with the switch/router giant's CEO John Chambers, but hasn't yet been able to convince Cisco that there's value in working closely with Virtual Instruments. "They clearly would like to own more of the component parts around their infrastructure...they're focused on the server," Thompson says. "Interestingly enough, they are part of VCE [along with EMC, VMware, Intel] and we are VCE-certified, so VCE recognizes that our platform has value into that converged stack. So we'll meet [Cisco] in the marketplace, customers will drive demand for our technology and ultimate, if we're as successful as I think we can be, they'll eventually capitulate."

Meanwhile, other companies such as VMware are customers of Virtual Instruments' VirtualWisdom technology, but also could compete. "Everyone who plays in the infrastructure and data center space are going to be a competitor around [market] messaging. If you look at what VMware says today there's not a problem in the data center that they're not going to solve...but customers have problems they need to solve today and they're not going to wait for time immemorial. I give VMware enormous credit for what they've done, but they're not quite where we're at in infrastructure management."

SDN: A moment of silence

The most dramatic pause by Thompson during our discussion took place when I raised the question of "Why no mention of software-defined networking (SDN) in your literature?"

When Thompson did speak, he said VI would rather not "cloak itself in the new jargon" and keep its focus on cloud enabling customers' organizations. "I just saw an ad from VMware about the software-defined data center...well data centers have been running software forever! All software runs on hardware...forever!"

Thompson does see a need for rapid provisioning of network resources to create more agility for enterprises (the sort of capabilities associated with SDN) and says this would benefit Virtual Instruments by introducing another layer of abstraction. "The more layers of abstraction and more complexity you put in the infrastructure, we're happy about that."

While cloud computing itself might be described as similarly jargonish to SDN, Thompson is a big believer in the move to the cloud, though does question what the heck people mean by the term "hybrid cloud." He does, however, see customers moving to private clouds this year and next to become more agile and especially for highly regulated companies in financial, telecom and healthcare, to safeguard data that they don't want to trust to public clouds. He sees small companies like Virtual Instruments completely availing themselves of public clouds, using services such as Salesforce.com and Microsoft Office 365.

On the road for the past couple of weeks visiting customers (including CIOs, vice presidents of infrastructure and operations executives), Thompson says he's had a good view into the challenges IT staffs are facing in terms of changing job responsibilities brought about by virtualization and cloud computing.

"More and more of the complex environments that have historically organized by server, network, storage are now realizing they have a systems problem, not a component problem, and to solve the systems problem they need to put people in place who think about capacity and performance. What's the capacity of the infrastructure I've built and how do I manage the performance of it such that it's not solely about provisioning new devices but is as much about optimizing the mix of where workloads live," Thompson says. "We've seen a number of customers put new organizations in place to try to organize horizontally as opposed to by vertical stacks."

Up next

Thompson pledged the company doesn't have any bombshells planned in the near future, but is plotting the next edition of its VirtualWisdom software for a fourth quarter release and will look to get on a schedule of alternating hardware and software releases every six months. A managed service could also be in the company's future, the CEO says.

The next edition of VirtualWisdom will be focused on scalability, better analytics and a better GUI. Virtual Instruments will also look to become more cross-platform, moving beyond Fibre Channel SANs to better support Fibre Channel over Ethernet (even though demand for FCoE hasn't exactly gone gangbusters yet), and will do network-attached storage for the first time.

Rather than just supporting VMware hypervisors, Virtual Instruments will add support for AIX LPARs in this upcoming edition of its new software. Over time, expect support for Microsoft Hyper-V and Linux offerings. Thompson is on Microsoft's board, but he says that won't influence how soon Virtual Instruments will support Hyper-V. "Our priority is solving problems for customers running mission critical applications and they don't run mission critical applications on any x86 hypervisor, even VMware," he says.

Bob Brown tracks network research in his Alpha Doggs blog and Facebook page, as well on Twitter and Google +. 

Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies