VMware’s Crystal Ball: The Art of Product Development

Christos Karamanolis - VMware Fellow, CTO Storage and Availability BU

Christos Karamanolis – VMware Fellow, CTO Storage and Availability BU

“There are three ingredients for successful product development,” says VMware Fellow Christos Karamanolis. “First, be on top of the industry and its ongoing evolution. Second, to understand the pain points of your customers. And third, to take the developments of the industry and map them to customer pain points.”

Karamanolis juggles a wide range of responsibilities at VMware. He’s the chief technology officer for the company’s Storage and Availability Business Unit, and his charter includes the strategic direction of the company’s storage and data management products. Karamanolis has an outward-facing role that includes leading industry-wide initiatives, evangelizing VMware products, and communicating with analysts and partners. His unique perspective on emerging technologies and market dynamics grows out of scores of interactions with experts, peers, stakeholders, customers, and influencers.

Karamanolis’ other role is driving product direction for VMware, a responsibility fraught with uncertainty. New technologies take time to develop, and as ideas mature into products, markets, competitors, and customer needs can shift. How does he approach such an ambiguous process?

Know the Industry

Understanding new technology and how it may impact markets is critical for new product development. When asked about the current market, Karamanolis points to  key modern technology developments that affect the entire industry. Standard, commodity hardware is now powerful enough to run even the most demanding computations, he says, meaning the need for customized hardware is declining for most businesses.

Storage is changing, too. As companies increasingly move toward software-defined data centers, storage will become just another component of overall IT architecture, says Karamanolis. Today’s solutions enable software-defined storage, running on commodity hardware, to be managed as part of the overall infrastructure. This requires a single set of management tools, simplifying administration.  

“There is an obvious trend of storage moving away from traditional storage area networks (SAN) and toward software-defined offerings, which are more efficient to manage and easier to adapt to evolving hardware,” Karamanolis says. “Storage is moving to commodity servers, which offers a great value proposition for operational efficiencies and grossly simplifies management complexity in IT organizations.”

In another storage-related development, latency rates for a new generation of storage-class memory are, for the first time ever, lower than those of the network. This means that it now makes more sense—and improves performance—to keep data close to the CPU, where the actual app runs. A number of storage platforms, including VMware’s vSAN, take advantage of this ability to keep data local. Meanwhile, redundancy across devices and servers is still utilized, to ensure data availability. For end users, storage is getting significantly better and faster.

Take Time to Understand Customers

“To be honest, understanding customer needs is one of my most challenging tasks,” says Karamanolis. “The question becomes: How do you filter input from a diversity of customers who represent a variety of environments, challenges, and resources? Prioritizing the various issues is a difficult task.”

In his opinion, it’s a process bereft of shortcuts. The best way to understand customer needs, from a VMware point of view, is to invest the time needed to comprehend each customer’s challenges, all while synthesizing a coherent roadmap.

“Solutions should be concrete and speak to specific customer needs,” he says.

Connect Emerging Technologies to Customer Pain Points

Karamanolis points to the example of hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) as illustrative of how VMware approaches product development.

“A few years ago, we identified two important learnings about the market. The first was that customers were struggling with scaling operations in their data centers—things like how to manage the lifecycle of apps, for instance. At the same time, we also noted that solid state devices were becoming cheaper for the general public. We put these two ideas together to build a storage platform, vSAN, that enables HCI data center architectures. Today, HCI addresses the functional requirements of customers for virtualized computing, storage, and networking.”

Karamanolis is quick to point out that understanding technologies, customers, and markets is a challenging task. Understanding changing markets, customer needs, and technologies requires constant diligence. As Emerson once wrote, “The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks.”