Nth Generation Keeps Customers Interested


Cash, comedy incentives help convey enterprise storage messages at annual end-user event


Nth Generation Computing President and CEO Rich Baldwin sure knows how to throw a party.

At its annual end-user event on Wednesday, the San Diego-based solution provider--one of Hewlett-Packard's key server and storage partners--arranged for HP to send a top executive as a keynote speaker and let funny man Steve Sicola of Seagate provide some laughs. Nth Generation also used some intriguing incentives to keep attendees involved, and in the meeting rooms, as long as possible.

For instance, at every breakout session, someone from Nth Generation was on hand with a crisp $100 bill to give to a member of the audience. And if the chance of winning $100 wasn't enough to get attendees to participate, Nth Generation had another incentive for the 12:15 session: Attendees could pick up lunch in the hallway but had to attend the session to get silverware. Those who stayed at the event to the end also had a chance at prizes, including a home theater system.

Nearly 240 business owners and IT administrators attended this year's event, held in Disney's Grand California Hotel in Anaheim, Calif., within walking distance of the Happiest Place on Earth.

And Nth Generation's incentives apparently worked, as attendees stayed tuned to Nth's focus on the enterprise, especially the need to be prepared for disasters and to get prepared for compliance issues.

In his opening address, Baldwin asked how many in the audience were not using tape as part of their data backup and archiving regimen. Four people raised their hands. About 10 people raised their hands when Baldwin asked who was backing up data to remote locations. Roughly half of the audience indicated that they use storage virtualization in their data centers, and a similar number said they use data snapshots regularly.

Baldwin also introduced a new service designed to keep track of all maintenance contracts, which drew applause and a few "wows" from the audience. Offered with the help of Carlsbad, Calif.-based MaintenanceNet, the free service ensures that all licenses are kept up to date and sends reminders to customers 90 days before a license expires. It also offers electronic links between customers and their vendors so that the latter can instantly access service information during a service call.

Next up was keynote speaker Mark Gonzalez, Americas vice president of enterprise storage and server sales at HP. Gonzalez said it's in his best interest to make sure customers are happy with his company and its products and services, if for no other reason than the fact that 20 percent of HP's executive compensation is tied to customer satisfaction. "So when I tell you I care, I really care," he said. "It's my pocketbook."

Gonzalez urged the audience to stick with one vendor instead of going for a menagerie of best-of-breed products. To illustrate his point, he borrowed a well-worn analogy from the speech book of Sun Microsystems' Scott McNealy about buying an automobile.

"You want to buy a car," Gonzalez said. "You think Rolls-Royce makes the best body, so you buy Rolls-Royce body parts. You buy a BMW engine. You buy Japanese electronics. Everything is great and wonderful. But when it breaks, who do you go to? HP offers all the parts. We take care of everything."

Following Gonzalez was Steve Sicola, vice president of advanced storage architecture at Seagate Technology and, years ago at Digital Equipment, the main force behind what is now HP's storage line. Longtime storage industry watchers at first might not have recognized Sicola, who recently shaved his moustache for the first time in 30 years.

Donning a Seagate-logo Hawaiian shirt as well as his trademark shorts and sandals, the laid-back Sicola said there are two categories of hard drives: for the desktop (ATA, SATA and FATA), and for the enterprise (SCSI and Fibre Channel). That remains the case despite attempts by some vendors to push desktop drives, especially SATA models, for use in enterprise-class operations, he said.

"SATA for the enterprise ... I cringe every time I hear that," Sicola said. "You get the 'Grace Hopper Effect.' Back when she was working on the first computers, they were always in the middle of replacing a vacuum tube."

However, FATA and SATA drives can be used safely for long-term archiving and data streaming, according to Sicola. "They just need proper care and feeding," he said. Major storage vendors are getting ready to embrace SATA but are waiting for one thing, Sicola said: "They're still banging us on price."

Looking forward, Sicola said he expects much storage software functionality to be integrated into system-on-chip (SOC) technology. That means mundane tasks will be done on chips, which in some cases will come with embedded Linux or Windows operating systems.

"Twenty years ago, I wrote a paper for the IEEE and said an entire system will be put on a chip," he said. "You could then put several chips in a unit. The unit never dies. If a chip fails, it shoots out of the cabinet, with silicon gunpowder, and a new one is plugged in automatically. Service technicians will be like the Maytag repairman. They'll come by once in a while and sweep the bugs off the floor."

Known for his odd abbreviations in an industry full of odd abbreviations, Sicola said storage management remains "ICKI," or Incredibly Complex and Kludgy Installation.

In the afternoon, Nth Generation held an interoperability lab that featured products from more than a dozen vendors and allowed attendees to try out the technology.