The latest installment in the “Thirty Minutes” series leads us down one of the most important areas of IT that has for the longest time been compartmentalized. That is the area of Unified Communications. Admittedly not my strong point, it was a real pleasure to sit down with Jason Burns, Nutanix Sr. Solutions & Performance Engineer for Unified Communications and learn more about the technical ins and outs of UC, but also how Nutanix is able to be an integral part of a UC solution.
DM: Tell me a little about your background and how you ended up at Nutanix.
JB: I was at Cisco Support doing Unified Communications support back in the day on physical servers for all of the voicemail applications that Cisco made. I did that for six years and got to witness the transformation from physical servers to virtual servers of a certain brand to virtual servers of any brand and then moved into professional services. So instead of supporting the solutions I was out there creating the solutions and networks on Cisco.
DM: Did that transition from support to services where you were designing and implementing solutions change your view of Unified Communications, how it worked, and did you discover things that you didn’t know?
JB: I would say that is changed my view in that when I was in support, I was supporting all of these really important features, or at least features that I thought we important. But when you get out into the design and deployment side of things you discover that there are really a very small subset of features that are vitally important that have to work and that everyone wants, and the rest are often times not as critical. That was very important to learn. It was also interesting to see the scale of deployments. From the support side you had to support everything…smallest to largest. But from the design side you were usually working on the largest systems because they were specifically hiring Cisco Professional Services to come and do that. We had to design systems that were nation wide, or even global. Keeping your hands on the technology that made those designs possible was really one of my favorite things.
DM: During that process, having been a support guy, did you run into instances where the manufacturer said “do this” and knowing what you know from your days in support that it was not going to end well if you indeed did that, that you decided to do something entirely different?
JB: Frequently. I was the bane of the sales guys because I was really conservative with my guidance because I had seen the system fail any number of ways, and I still continue to do that to this day. I continue to be very conservative on sizing guidance, implementation guidance to things that I know will really give a better outcome for the customer since I understand how all of the Unified Communications components fit together and I know what each of them does well and not so well. I know where you can stretch them and where you can’t. So being in support was really useful in learning what falls down and does not work like it says it is supposed to.
DM: I think I told you that I write my blog for fun. I wasn’t asked to write, I make no money from writing it and Nutanix doesn’t pay for anything…the domain or otherwise…it’s mine. It’s my outlet because I spend so much of my day talking to people, it’s my time to not talk, but listen as I interview people like you. One of the things that I am hearing from my readers is how much they enjoy the comments about culture and hearing what it is like here because our culture is really a very special thing. So let me ask you this, because you came to Nutanix from a larger organization, one that is headquartered here in the Bay area. How does Nutanix compare when it comes to the culture of a much larger Silicon Valley based company? I ask that because culture fascinates me. When you look at coming from an EMC or other East Coast based company like I did where you expect there to be a culture difference, I find the West Coast based companies more interesting in that discussion, particularly ones that started small and grew into the giants that they are. How did you feel coming to Nutanix where we have a culture that facilitates having open and honest discussions at all levels without the levels of management approving even having the discussions in the first place?
JB: It was a change. I was dealing with “big company” culture before which is very compartmentalized. I had the flexibility to do things within my area, but that was really about it. Nutanix is much flatter, even as we are growing it remains flat. The focus is on getting things done. It doesn’t need to go up two levels for approval and then back down. It’s very much a culture of “we have an idea, it’s a good idea, so go out and talk to the people that we need to in order to make the idea a reality”. Being on the solutions team has allowed me to see where that has happened over and over again for a lot of different platforms and architectures that we put out there for specific applications. If something wasn’t supported to run on Nutanix, we just corral all the people we need to in order to make it happen. Now we have new partner platforms and new configurations, and it is the culture that a smaller, more dynamic company like Nutanix is able to foster to make these things a reality, and I like that.
DM: How are things different from where you came from in your role today, and how does what you do today directly impact our customers?
JB: Now that I am working on the solutions team and we are specializing in applications and certifying apps on Nutanix while coming up with best practices for these apps. Whether that is Exchange, Microsoft SQL or Unified Communications, so that is a little bit different from what I was doing before for my customers. Before I was building a solution from the ground up specifically for them. But it is only slightly different though because I am still building the same solution, but I am doing it in my lab. , Instead of turning it over to a customer “turn-key” I am doing it, and then I am writing about my experience with it and then making that our Nutanix Best Practice, and that is something I thoroughly enjoy.
DM: We have talked a few times about Nutanix being nimble and able to respond to customer needs quickly. Have you had a situation where either working directly with a customer or working from customer feedback on specific issues or enhancements in ways that you didn’t in the past? I ask this specifically because in my past I worked at a large manufacturer in a very specialized role where I was constantly working with the Product Group, but it was only our very largest customers that got to directly interface with them. More often than not I was the go-between.
JB: Absolutely! My role is all about Unified Communications and we have a number of solutions that we have pre-packaged and ready to go. But there are others out there that we may not have a full document or solution on, or something where we have not done full lab testing. But the cool thing about my role here at Nutanix is that I can hop on a call with a customer and the UC vendor together and we can just work through it. At the end, if everyone agrees with the solution we can develop a design that we know will work just between everyone on the phone right there and get to a place where the customer is going to he happy with that Unified Communication product on a Nutanix platform without having to do a full official document, and then lab test it and such. It is very rewarding because now I am getting involved in the sales cycle more than I ever was before.
DM: After you have been on the phone with the Unified Communications vendor and a customer, do you find that the customer is surprised at how quickly they were able to have something resolved? I think back to my own experiences when a customer would meet with me at a trade show and I was able to solve their issue in ten minutes without support, legal, or anyone else getting involved. Just two technologists able to have a quick chat and resolve something without the overhead that is so common in larger organizations. Maybe it is because the customer was used to dealing with the policies and such that the companies I was with at the time were…I don’t know. I think back to one customer who had a case open for a month over a license issue and could not get it resolved, but with a single phone call from the floor of Linux World in San Francisco I was able to help them in literally three minutes. They looked like they wanted to hug me because I was able to fix their problem when nobody else could. And it wasn’t that nobody else could, but it was the process to get to that person that kept them from getting resolution.
JB: I know that I am excited and surprised about it, but from our customers perspective I find that they are happy that their expectations are being met. They expect that things will just work. I think they are pleased, but I think that they just expect it to be that way. They say “this is your product, this is what I expect. You guys figure it out”. I think we are delivering what they want, and that is what gives us a real advantage.
DM: Let’s talk about the Cloud for a minute. Nutanix…the Enterprise Cloud Company…when you think of Unified Communications and all of the pieces that go into a Unified Communications solution, are there pieces that are harder to put into the Cloud, or do you see Unified Communications as something that fits very nicely into the Cloud? And taking that a step further, do you think that it is important for customers to look for Service Providers that specialize in Unified Communications, or can anyone with Unified Communication experience implement a solution in-house?
JB: Clearly expertise is important, and if you don’t have that expertise in-house, then you need to seriously consider using a Service Provider that specializes in Unified Communications. As to the Cloud question, some features of Unified Communication Communications are pretty easy to move into a Cloud solution, but perhaps there are some regulations that make that type of thing a challenge. Confidential phone calls. Geographic restrictions such as they have in the European Union about what data can reside where…all of this is important. What I have seen primarily though is customers building their own Clouds of Unified Communications. They didn’t call it a Cloud…they used terms like “East Data Center” or “West Data Center”, and they had a rack of gear in that data center completely dedicated to that Unified Communications solution. And they were not interested in deploying with a big footprint at every site but rather geographically. So the progression from “as few data centers as possible” to “let someone else host it when possible” is a pretty easy and reasonable progression, provided that you can get a service provider to give you the services and reliability that you require.
DM: So, you’ve been doing this a long time, and you have seen the solution mature and really become mainstream. A lot of solutions mature, but they never become a staple of IT. Unified Communications is clearly one of those solutions that has. As you go through your day-to-day, what is the biggest challenge you see with the technology?
JB: Bring your own device in the Unified Communications world can be a real challenge. If everyone brings their own Android or iPhone and the company wants all the calls to go over the VOIP network, and you are hosting your own Unified Communications solution, then you have a pretty significant gap that you need to bridge. That means opening up access to all of your employees to remote connect into your environment, and that can be a pretty big concern security wise. The Cloud kind of solves that problem because the solution is completely external to your internal network. That risk is gone. Also bridging the gap between your own hosted Unified Communications solution and a Cloud Unified Communications system. Finding that balance can be a challenge, and that is where Nutanix comes in. With Nutanix it allows any company to build that internal Cloud infrastructure, or if they are a Service Provider they can easily scale up their Cloud to meet their customers demands.
DM: I’m about out of time so there is one question I have not asked yet that I think is really the perfect end to our interview. Why Unified Communications on Nutanix?
JB: What I have seen in Unified Communications to date in previous roles and such is that it is an important, critical application that has for the longest time been put in a silo. It is normally a whole separate rack of equipment with compute, storage and networking and nothing else touches the resources. Not very efficient. With Nutanix we can eliminate that silo and bring the compute and storage together for the Unified Communications. That box that might run your Unified Communications environment sits right next to the box that runs your VDI environment, or your SQL, Exchange and so on, but there is no delineation that you have to buy a whole new top-of-rack switch, a whole new storage environment or separate compute chassis for that gear. It is more of a logical separation than a physical separation. Certainly we can get physical separation between those nodes but it is at a much more efficient cost than building up those silos for individual solutions, such as Unified Communications. That’s part one. Part two is that when the solution is siloed, you have a whole separate Unified Communications team that is dedicated to managing that silo. We know there are going to be political issues when you have the Unified Communications team ordering storage equipment from vendor “A”, and the rest of the IT department likes storage equipment from vendor “B”. With Nutanix you don’t need to worry about that. You have an infrastructure that is truly invisible to you and you have an infrastructure that you use that just works. All your applications work on it reliably and you can expand it rapidly in a very simple way. Now you can have people who can focus on the applications and spend less time focusing on the infrastructure. When you stand up a Unified Communications infrastructure you normally size it for a set number all at once…the maximum number. With Nutanix you don’t need to do that. You can start with a three node cluster and expand your Unified Communications environment as your needs increase. Mergers and acquisitions is another example. With Nutanix you just spin up the VM’s that you need and slowing migrate two systems into one new one. Makes life so much easier.