Sun’s Secret Weapons at STK

Things change, no doubt about it. But honesty and integrity remain the mainstays of success.

When Sun Microsystems announced a few months ago that it was purchasing StorageTek, the pundits were all over the news. The metaphors flew hot and heavy.

Half the world said that it was the dawn of a new era in storage at Sun, a company with—well, let’s face it—not a stellar track record in the storage arena. The pro-acquisition voices saidScott McNealy and company were buying themselves legitimacy as an enterprise-class player by picking up one of the most stable and respected brands in the field.

Critics of the acquisition saw things differently, of course. STK, they argued, was already in its sunset years. Adding StorageTek to the Sun play card was like hiring an aging NFL quarterback to helm an already-struggling team. The QB dreamed of reclaiming old glory but lacked the knees or the throwing arm to pull it off, while the team owners were hoping that the press buzz would at least fill more seats on game day, keeping their stadium a paying concern.

I didn’t agree with either view… least not completely. Knowing what I know about STK, I didn’t believe that the company was suddenly going to make Sun’s StorEdge play look real.

The Louisville, CO.-based company, not known for hyperbolic marketing, wouldn’t change its stripes just because it now shared a logo with a fixture of Silicon Valley. The folks at STK have consistently built solid gear and gone after deals one at a time, and have built a resilient business doing so. I suspected that there would be problems blending the two cultures that would go well beyond the merger of two hype-mongering companies such as Veritas and Symantec, for example. Frankly, I worried that a lot of STK stalwarts would jump ship, feeling they didn’t fit in with plastic Californian culture and didn’t much care to learn how.

On the flip side, I didn’t agree that STK was past its prime, unless you measure a company’s prime to be that of a teenager: all attitude, like EMC. STK was seasoned, to be sure. Without much attention from the press, the company had moved beyond its roots in the mainframe tape world, fielding new, innovative, and intelligent products (such as BladeStore) that actually delivered the promised value to customers. They brought a wizened eye to their customer base, and a formidable set of knowledge, skills, and experience that imbued them with a sense of trustworthiness.

The secret weapon, in my view, acquired by Sun with the purchase of STK (if they appreciate it, which remains to be seen) is a couple of guys: Randy Chalfant, STK's CTO, and Rob Nieboer, who bears the inauspicious handle “Tape Sales Specialist.” Between the two of them, more sales were probably made, and more loyal customer relationships were cultivated, than by the combined sales forces of both Sun and STK. These men are customer educators and “honest brokers” of insight and reason about storage in an industry that is short-handed in both categories.

I know Chalfant personally but Nieboer only through correspondence and through his writing. I first encountered Rob about two years ago, when he was making a case to anyone who would listen about what he called “the broken storage model.” With deft, even strokes of the keys, he eloquently articulated what I have been ranting about for some time. To his credit, he made the case in a way that didn’t make him sound like his hair was on fire—a criticism I sometimes get from vendors and analysts.

Nieboer observed that the way storage was being packaged from a technology perspective, and the way that it was being represented and marketed, were contributing to an acquisition pattern that was not only much too costly to sustain, but were also irrevocably self destructive. If we didn’t fix the storage model, he argued, it would eventually fix all of us … permanently.

The cautionary words were intended not only for consumers, many of whom he helped to make more intelligent analyses and acquisitions of storage technology, but for the industry as well, where it largely fell on deaf ears. He is currently posted to his native Australia, I understand, which probably accounts for the remarkable economic prosperity and growth that is being evidenced by many companies there. I hope Sun will give him more visibility, both here and abroad, so we can all learn from him.

Of Randy Chalfant, I could write volumes. Early in my career, when I was transitioning from IT practitioner to sometimes writer, Chalfant was one of my mentors. Actually, I knew him in both of my careers. When I managed mainframe data centers, he educated me in channel-extension technology. Later, he helped to edit some of my first articles at a publication to which we both contributed (and still do).

Over time, as I learned more and more about technology and industry politics, a friendship developed. This fellow is not only a technical expert of amazing depth, but also an extraordinarily business-savvy evangelist who can explain the most complex technical architecture without so much as mentioning a bit, citing a performance metric, or naming a component by its product name. He makes his business-value case for technology in a language reserved for Harvard MBAs.

Chalfant is the ultimate chameleon—the poster child for business/IT alignment who is as much at ease in the back office of the data center as he is in the front-office boardroom. If he chose to work for the dark side in this industry, he could sell a million ice boxes to a million penguins.

Thankfully, that’s not his style. As a former law enforcement officer and just a very decent man possessed of a strong sense of responsibility and a solid grasp of right and wrong, Chalfant is inclined by his nature to take the customer’s side every time. We are lucky that’s his nature, or we’d all be in a lot of trouble.

These two professionals (and I’m quite sure that there are others I don’t know at STK) are the real gems obtained by Sun in their acquisition of the company. Ultimately, the value of the acquisition will come down to whether McNealy and his team have enough sense to recognize it.

Your opinions are welcomed.

About the Author

Jon William Toigo is chairman of The Data Management Institute, the CEO of data management consulting and research firm Toigo Partners International, as well as a contributing editor to Enterprise Systems and its Storage Strategies columnist. Mr. Toigo is the author of 14 books, including Disaster Recovery Planning, 3rd Edition, and The Holy Grail of Network Storage Management, both from Prentice Hall.