General security

Interview: Bill Andrews, CEO of ExaGrid

May 13, 2015 by Infosec

Bill-Andrews-Headshot-05132015Bill Andrews has spent nine years growing ExaGrid from a concept to a visionary player in backup storage. With over 28 years of IT data center infrastructure experience, he has proven success in technical sales and marketing. Bill’s work has impacted numerous high-growth companies, including Pedestal Software, eDial, Adero, Live Vault, Microcom and Bitstream.

Bill is a graduate of Fitchburg State College and holds a BS in Industrial Technology.

1. You have the better part of three decades of IT data center infrastructure experience. Given the fast rate of change in the sector, what are some of the most important trends you’ve seen over the course of your career?

One of the biggest trends that I’ve seen over the past 30 years is that there are far fewer IT staff per employee count than ever before. In the early days of the industry, there was one IT person for every 30 employees. Now there is just one IT person for every 150 employees! This has occurred for two reasons. First, the infrastructure – both software and hardware – is far more mature today and requires less IT staff time to operate and maintain it. Second, IT went from a leading-edge need to keep a company competitive, to being looked at (since the year 2000 and even more since 2008) as a cost center. Due to lower IT headcount, IT people have far less time than ever before to do research or to meet with vendors. Today, they tend to buy what’s in front of them from current vendors as they don’t have the time to look around. This is both good and bad. It’s good because they’re buying from a vendor they know, but they’re no longer buying the best solution in many cases, so there’s a longer-term hidden cost.

2. Your skill set includes capabilities in technical sales and marketing. When it comes to talking to clients, do you find that they are generally receptive to the need to spend on the IT data center infrastructures?

IT’s role is to make every employee in the company as productive as they can. Employees are a company’s largest expense, and therefore getting the most out of those employees is a constant mission. Employee productivity includes performance, up time, simple-to-use software and processes, etc. In addition, IT staff need to ensure that all data is secure and that there is a strong business continuity plan in the event of a disaster. Lastly, as IT is a cost center, it needs to continue to figure out how to do more with less; therefore, they’re always looking to cut costs. We’ve gone from building out the railroad (i.e., the Internet) to the railroad being built and now being maintained. The industry as a result is more mature, and therefore there will be consolidation and cost cutting.

3. You worked as a sales representative for a software company for part of the mid-80s. In your opinion, does it take the same amount of effort to win over a customer’s confidence such that it feels comfortable making a purchase?

It’s harder today than it was 25 years ago to have organizations buy from a large non-brand company. For decades, it was all about buying the cool “new-new” thing regardless of whether the company was big and strong or not. Today, organizations are just as concerned with making safe vendor choices as well as buying the best solution. The key is to find the right balance. If a company is growing and is cash and P&L positive, then you’re typically very safe. However, if a company is burning a lot of cash quarter over quarter, you may want to stay away from them.

4. What sorts of tasks and duties are you responsible for as the CEO of ExaGrid?

CEOs work with a lot of people – both internal and external to the company – to figure out where the big and most vibrant market opportunities are, what the customer in those markets truly want, and then how to reach those customers and engage. ExaGrid is the largest independent vendor in the disk-based backup storage market with over 10,000 systems installed. In order to achieve that, we needed a big market, the best solution, and strong marketing and sales.

5. Why should customers choose ExaGrid over its rivals in the sector?

Data backup is moving from tape to disk. In backup you keep weeks, to months to years’ worth of retention. As a result, disk grows very quickly. The good news is that data deduplication technology compares each set of backups against previous sets of backups and will store only the changed data which results in very efficient disk usage, bringing the cost of disk close to the cost of tape.

Deduplication is a necessary feature in disk-backup but how you implement it changes everything in backup. The first generation solution performed inline deduplication which slows backup down and even worse all the stored data is in a deduplicated form so every restore, tape copy and VM boot has to be rehydrated which can take hours to days. Lastly, all of these solutions are scale-up with a front end controller and disk. Since there is a fixed amount of processor, memory and bandwidth with the front end controller approach the backup window continuously grows in length as data grows. ExaGrid looked at the problem from a backup storage point of view versus a deduplication point of view. We of course do the same level of deduplication everyone else does but our architecture is built for backup. We have the fastest backups as we land the backups to disk and do not slow down the backups with inline deduplication. We deduplicate after the data hits the disk but in parallel with the backups, which is called Adaptive Deduplication.

Secondly, we store the most recent backups in a landing zone and as a result we avoid the lengthy re-hydration process so restores, tape copies and VM boots are 5 to 10 times faster than our competitors. Lastly, we are a scale-out approach as we add full appliances (processor, memory, bandwidth and disk) into a scale-out GRID. As the data grows, we add compute with all capacity so the backup window stays fixed in length as data grows. ExaGrid is the only player that has an architecture that performs the fastest backups, the fastest restores and VM boots and permanently fixes the backup window length with Adaptive Deduplication, The Landing Zone and a Scale-Out GRID architecture.

6. What is the most rewarding part of your job and what is the most frustrating?

The most rewarding part is watching a company grow from a concept into a company that is a leader in its space and is cash and P&L positive and is also just a few years from going public.

The most frustrating is trying to get IT backup staff to look past the big brand players with the first-generation approaches.

7. In your opinion, are companies as aware as they should be about best practices pertaining to IT date center infrastructure?

I can only comment regarding data backup. As you can imagine, some are very much on top of their game and others are very broken – and everything in between.

8. What hard and soft skills does an IT professional need to succeed in the industry?

I have never worked on the IT side of the house. I have always been on the vendor side with data center products. I will leave this question to the IT CIOs to answer.

9. While some employers will accept experience in lieu of certifications, earning certifications can obviously be a differentiator for job candidates. What sorts of certifications would you recommend if someone wants to specialize in IT data infrastructure?

IT data centers are very complex and most IT organizations are broken into tech specific disciplines such as primary storage, networking, applications, security, data backup, etc. An IT professional has to first decide which discipline they want to be a part of, and then they can specialize and get training in that discipline.

10. What sort of advice would you give college or university students who want to go onto work in the IT data center infrastructure realm?

They need to first get as much technical training in college as they can. Learning how to code even if you are not going into engineering gives you a strong foundation. Knowing how personal computers work inside and out is also a major requirement. Then you have to learn about storage, networking, and databases and how they all work and play together. It’s a very complex environment. The cloud offerings are trying to hide all the technology such that IT professionals have it easier. I believe this is already working for small businesses, but it is not ready for mid-size to enterprise organizations.

Posted: May 13, 2015
View Profile