UPDATED 13:44 EDT / MAY 12 2011

EMC’s Chuck Hollis Discusses Hadoop, Project Lightening and Human Capital in the Cloud

Chuck Hollis, the VP CTO for Global Marketing at EMC, has become somewhat of a celebrity in his own right, launching a blog and engaging the community around cloud computing, innovation, and his company’s long term goals.  A favorite at theCUBE, Hollis always seems to have time to drop by for a chat, discussing EMC’s vision with a humble take on the company’s position within cloud industry, especially when it comes to new and exciting products, and even buzz words.  In the case of EMC World 2011, that buzz word is Big Data.

Sitting down with John Furrier and Dave Vellante at theCUBE this week, Hollis discusses the “sizzle and the steak,” as Furrier puts it, of EMC World, the sizzle being big data, and the steak being its deployment.  The interview starts out with a simple question for Hollis: what is big data?

“There’s all these different ways to define it,” Hollis starts out.  “But what I see is a change of mindset.  From data being a bad thing, to ‘oh my God, there’s all this data we can assemble and make a lot of money, and actually create a lot of value.’  If you look at most traditional IT value, it’s about lowering costs, getting ride of our data…’those damn users. What do they want?’  Big data is different.  It’s about value generation, whether it’s about curing cancer or gaining business insight.”

Flipping everyone’s mindset about IT is one of EMC’s goals, nicely aligned with its growing product line-up, integrated cloud services and open cloud paradigms.  Empowerment and value-creation are focal points for EMC in this regard, shifting away from merely running the business as usual.  “I think Pat [Gelsinger] said it best,” Hollis remarks.  “Big data can change the world.  It can improve healthcare, cities, and make the world better.”

But the cloud doesn’t always make people’s worlds better.  Just recall the millions of gamers whose world was crushed when the PlayStation Network went down.  The Amazon crash had a big impact on network and cloud computing industry-wide, and will undoubtedly drive new standards around cloud governance.  Furrier brings up this example of Amazon, highlighting it as a situation that’s forced us to “get serious about the cloud.”  For the many businesses still determining their next steps regarding cloud services, they wonder what bridge to cross, and which companies to trust?

“What I saw from the Amazon crash was the need for governance,” Hollis explains.  “What I see with my customers moving to the public cloud is they’re doing it with governance…big data is how we create value from all this; how we are going to take all this technology and create new things.”

“So how do you foster innovation while delivering production-level value to scale,” Furrier asks.  Hollis uses this as a prime opportunity to discuss Greenplum, an open cloud initiative that’s becoming a bigger part of what EMC is doing.  “We’re very clear where it’s not for production level,” Hollis replies.  “You can give them a place to explore and push innovation.  I think the trick is, as people start exploring big data, is showing them different environments.  We can do more, and do more without spending $500k on deployment.”

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When it comes to the open cloud, however, there’s a bit of a “holy war” going on around Hadoop. Furrier wonders if this is something EMC has to avoid, speaking on EMC’s conference announcement of a commercial product for the popular open cloud platform.  “[Hadoop is a] great open source technology,” Hollis says.  “You want high availability, enterprise class support…you have to do this all yourself.  We saw a great opportunity in commercializing this so everyone can explore it.  Yeah, there’s a vendor that can work this up, but it’s early.”

Though it’s still early in open cloud development standards, EMC’s making a big statement in getting into this market.  Hollis sees its maturation as quite similar to the growth of Linux, which still incurs a great deal of innovation from contributors.  As Vellante points out, EMC’s participation in open cloud trends is a signal to the market, saying it’s not just a fad.  However, the question still remains, is Hadoop still vulnerable?

“It’s another tool in the tool belt,” Hollis remarks.  “It’s not the only option out there.  Pat showed a whole stack, and Hadoop is another component in that stack.  I can see a position where more and more of these open source technologies become candidates for big data analytics, and looking to vendors to commercialize them.  Today’s darling is Hadoop.  A year from now we may be looking at something else.”

With the open cloud topic thoroughly covered, the discussion moves onto one of EMC’s newest initiatives, Project Lightening.  “We’re going through a transition from disc to flash,” Hollis explains, speaking on the changing face of storage in the cloud.  “The trick is, how to get the application and the data close to each other.  Historically we’ve had the app on a server, and the storage over here on a storage network, separated by a wire.  The premise behind Project Lightening is we can put storage flash on the server, and intelligently cache data in and out of it.  We need to re-draw the boundaries of what is storage and what is server.”

Project Lightening is still just that–very much a project.  Hollis goes on to clarify that it’s not an available product just yet, but notes that EMC has a history of quickly announcing products and bringing them to market.  A necessary tactic given EMC’s market share and position, but one that also speaks to the ongoing discussions around flash storage capabilities and use cases.  It’s a topic we’ve been following closely, with Fusion-io acting as a prime example to dissect.

While Vellante asserts that Project Lightening isn’t necessarily a Fusion-io killer, Hollis highlights the difference between a product and a capability.  “Back in the beginning of 2008 we were the first vendor to say ‘here’s these flash drives, they go into a big symetrix.’ You start talking about software, they could locate things back and forth.  We said the promise could be, it runs a lot faster and a lot cheaper, but that was all kind of within the array,” Hollis points out.  “All we’re really doing now is taking that discussion and saying, let me draw a boundary through the server, that exact same discussion as before, some of the storage lives in the server.”

The interview comes to a close with the discussion of EMC’s mergers and acquisitions strategy, which has really helped to develop EMC as a business and industry powerhouse.  “I would argue that you have to build a competency and it takes time, like any varsity sport,” Hollis laughs.  “You don’t just show up and play well one day.”

In regards to EMC’s process around M&A, however, Hollis credits the customers.  Working with clients, EMC finds that many of the services they use and need points of integration around are starting points for acquisition deals later on down the line.  Taking the discussion a step further, Hollis goes on to attribute human capital to many of its decisions and consulting efforts.  “We learned more about, not the technology, but the change in the operational process,” Hollis notes.  “It’s one thing to say here’s a bunch of technology, go build a cloud.  It’s another thing to look at what has to happen on the human capital side to make that a reality.”

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