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Pure Storage founder John Colgrove on ‘sticking to the original vision’

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez June 26, 2024
Summary:
John Colgrove, otherwise known as ‘Coz’, reflects on fifteen years of Pure Storage and what the next phase of data management will look like.

An image of John Colgrove, Pure Storage founder
(Image sourced via Pure Storage)

Last week Pure Storage held its annual user conference in Las Vegas, where the vendor shared its strategy for what the next phase of data management will look like - with a key focus on scaling performance, improving reliability and offering customers simplicity. We noted at the time that the strategy has evolved from focusing on the benefits of flash storage compared to disk, to one that prioritizes software capabilities to improve ease of use for more people in the enterprise. 

However, this vision has been 15 years in the making and started with John Colgrove, founder of Pure Storage, now the company’s Chief Visionary Officer. Colgrove established Pure in 2009 with the belief that flash storage would one day eventually overtake disk, offering a cheaper total cost of ownership, better performance, and improved sustainability. Last year Colgrove took to the stage in Las Vegas to say that the time had come and that flash and disk had finally converged, cementing the beginning of the end for the latter. 

Taking a look at Pure Storage’s recent earnings, it’s clear that the company’s flash storage proposition, alongside its ‘as-a-service’ model with Evergreen, is now resonating with the market. It may have taken fifteen years to be fully acknowledged, but as Colgrove notes: 

I always wanted to build a big successful company and become the number one company in storage. And we are heading in that direction. We’ve done it by sticking closer to the original vision and thoughts, compared to most other companies. 

One of the biggest things we're continuing to push is the opportunity to kill the rest of the disk industry and take over all the disks. It’s always been a question of ‘when’, not ‘if’, disk would be replaced. 

I had to be patient for 15 years, but now I can say that even if the disks are free, the flash is better. We are at the point where I can go to anyone at scale and make the case that they’re better off to do that replacement. That was part of the original vision. 

Ease of use at the center

With the convergence of flash and disk, Pure Storage is expanding its focus to the platform in order to allow enterprises to more easily manage their datasets. Last week it outlined how Fusion, a management platform that unifies arrays and optimizes storage pools on the fly across structured and unstructured data, would now be coupled with Pure’s Generative AI Copilot. 

The idea is that because of Fusion and the collected metadata, customers will now be able to ask the Copilot questions that they used to have to go and ask customer support - for example: why is there a latency problem? But at the center of this strategy is ease of use, as Colgrove explained: 

Another part of the vision was to make storage simple and accessible - partly because when you make it simpler, you make it more reliable. But also, why shouldn’t it be simple? If you look at what we’re doing around Fusion and then the Copilot interface, that’s going to mean that senior executives in companies will be able to ask fairly complicated questions about how they’re doing with their storage infrastructure and get an answer without having to send someone off for three weeks to figure it out. 

Pure Storage’s ambition is that this will democratize storage and data management across the enterprise in new ways: 

My mother was born before all this technology, and she never quite trusted it. But, I see a path over the next few years where we could get to where someone like my mother could do a better job of running a major company’s storage infrastructure than the experts do today and have for the last decade.

It's not like the Copilot produces something that anyone couldn’t do. But if I've got a fleet of 50 arrays, I might have to go to all 50 arrays, run 10 or 15 commands on each one, and then take all that information and do a week's worth of work to correlate it all out, to get the same kind of understanding [that the Copilot could quickly provide an answer to]. 

And so that's a gigantic leap forward in usability. If you think about the goal of taking someone who knows nothing about storage and let them run a fleet of storage arrays as good as an expert, and we're gonna do that in just the next couple of years…It's a major leap forward. 

Efficiency and AI

There are two other key areas that Colgrove highlighted as strategic advantages for Pure Storage over the coming years. Firstly, is the often underreported challenge of power shortages and energy costs as it relates to technology investments. There is a concern that as advancements in technologies continue to progress, particularly those relating to AI and blockchain, that there will be too much energy demand for the power grids to withstand. As Colgrove noted: 

For the hyper scalers, it’s front and center. We’ve had conversations with a couple of them where they’ve said that they budget their data centers in watts, not dollars. 

This means that organizations that have had budget in the past to buy their way out of the problem (just spend more on energy and power) may not have the option in the future. Pure Storage has long promoted its performance as it relates to sustainability metrics, with its hardware requiring fewer racks, delivering better performance with less space. However, the old way of thinking is still prevalent amongst buyers who perhaps don’t yet understand the challenges ahead: 

I was talking to this one guy in New York and he was too busy to talk to us about how our solution could save him 6/7s of his power because he was retrofitting water cooling for his data in midtown Manhattan. Do you know how many millions that costs? How about you do this change and you don’t do that? 

But there is a shift that is happening: 

You see these things coming more and more from customers. They can’t fill up racks because they don’t have enough watts because as the servers get more energy intensive…their co-location payments are so many dollars per kilowatt and you get a maximum of so many kilowatts...so it’s an issue. 

There are still customers where they aren’t responsible for the power bill so they’re not really focused on it, but the ones that are looking at the whole data center, they’re talking about it more and more. So we’ve been pushing it. 

In addition to the sustainability advantage, Colgrove also sees strategic benefits for Pure Storage with enterprises needing better performance for their AI investments (unsurprisingly). Whilst Pure is investing internally in AI across the platform, for example with its Copilot, it is also highlighting how flash arrays are more capable with the heavy data workloads that are required for AI projects. This is particularly true for organizations, Colgrove said, that are going to want to make extensive use of their data with AI models: 

We’ve been pretty clear that we think that the biggest AI opportunity is actually using the data. You have ‘training’, you have ‘using’, and you have ‘improving’ [when thinking about AI]. 

Using and improving kind of go together and in using and improving, you’re going to take what you’ve trained on and apply it to all of your data. Pick your favorite large business, are you going to make a copy of all of your financial data? All of your customer data? All of your telemetry data? No, you’re going to want to use the same data. 

You’re going to have the same need for availability, resiliency, durability, availability, replication, plus need a bit more performance, because you’re now going to get more use out of the data. You’re going to take this other stack to do inferencing and tie it together. We’ve got a really great product for all of these needs. All flash does really well with that. 

My take

Often the mistake vendors make is being distracted by short to mid term trends in the market, making huge swings based on hype that quickly fades. I like how Colgrove thinks about underlying principles for Pure - ease of use, reliability, performance, sustainability, to name a few - and the company’s strategy is guided by these. Many of the trends in the market, such as AI, can be talked about in the context of these principles, rather than throwing the principles out the window to make everything about ‘AI’. Sometimes it pays off to be patient too. Speaking with Colgrove, it certainly feels like the moment in time the vendor has been waiting for is starting to be realized - now it needs to execute effectively and continue to educate buyers in the market.

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