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Exclusive Interview with Phil Bullinger, CEO, Infinidat

In leadership positioning in high-end unified storage

Phil Bullinger, 58, is CEO of Infinidat since January 2021. Globally with 35 years of experience in the storage industry, he has led several business and department entities. He was SVP and GM of the data center business at Western Digital for almost 4 years, before SVP and GM of Dell EMC Isilon business unit for a little bit more than 3 and half years, SVP storage at Oracle for more than 2 years and has spent 13 years at LSI, leading the Engenio storage group.

Beyond his current duty, he enjoys amateur astronomy, walking on the many trails in Colorado, and the relentless pursuit of a perfectly smoked brisket. He also is involved in a craft brewery with a college friend and his son, and enjoy providing recipes and “field research” for that endeavor.

StorageNewsletter: Infinidat is a leader in the high-end storage segment, shaking established market positions with its InfiniBox product line based on DRAM and HDD historically and more recently with its SSA model. Could you share some indicators to help us understand the size of the private company and its weight in the market?
Phil Bullinger:
Infinidat was founded in 2011, and is now the leading independent high-end enterprise storage vendor, with top line annual revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Our growth rates over the past 2 years have been among the highest in our industry, with 40% Y/Y bookings growth in 2021, including a 68% Y/Y increase in bookings in 4Q21. Our business in the Fortune 100 more than doubled in 2021 over the prior year, and more than 25% of the Fortune 50 are now Infinidat customers. Since mid-2020, we’ve doubled the number of customers who’ve purchased $10 million or more, and our average usable capacity per customer across our entire installed base is 13.4PB.

In 2022 we’ve been executing very well with another strong growth outlook, continuing to build on our momentum with new and existing customers. We have been able to accelerate our double-digit growth on the strength of our expanding product portfolio, including InfiniBox and InfiniBox SSA for primary storage, InfiniGuard for modern data protection, DR, and cyber resilience, and InfiniVerse (cloud monitoring/AIOps), as well as a variety of ecosystem integrations. Customers are typically large enterprises and service providers with petabyte of data who place a premium on reliability, scalability, performance, and TCO as they strive to consolidate and simplify their datacenter operations.

You already raised more than $300 million and thus you’re a unicorn. What are the next steps? Do you plan an IPO? Are you profitable?
We have consistently achieved an EBITDA profitable business model with a positive cash flow for more than 2 consecutive years, which we’re reinvesting back into the business to fuel our continued growth and scale. We significantly expanded the company’s product portfolio, available market, and our go-to-market scope and organizational scale while elevating the company’s profile and awareness in the market.

Our focus ahead continues to be on scaling-up all the facets and capabilities of our business, and we are exploring a range of possible steps to continue to accelerate that journey through partnerships, investment, and organic growth.

Why did you join Infinidat and what is your mission given by the board? Accelerate an exit? It is your first CEO position.
I was initially attracted to the opportunity at Infinidat because of my past interactions with customers of the company and how vocal they were about their very high levels of satisfaction and positive experience with the platform and pre/post-sale interaction with the company. After spending some time with the board, I realized this role was a great fit for me, given my past experiences successfully scaling a number of enterprise storage businesses.

My experience here at Infinidat, coming up to nearly 2 years, has been very positive and fulfilling. In fact, it has been one of the most enjoyable of my career. I’m really enjoying the role of CEO and working with the Infinidat team, and the opportunity it’s giving me to shape the totality of the company’s culture, our strategy and operational execution, as well as interactions with our customers and partners around the world.

We mentioned that your compant belongs to the top of the pyramid but you’re clearly an alternative vendor. How do you secure users and how do you explain your growth?
It’s because we typically exceed the highest enterprise-class service level objectives that our customers have for availability and performance, yet at a significantly lower cost and lifetime TCO than all our major competitors. We also consistently hear that our customers love the set-it-and-forget-it simplicity of operations and management with our systems, compared to the others. Our unique approach is enabled by our architecture and advanced use of software to intelligently and automatically do things that other systems often require to be done manually by skilled storage administrators. In addition, we consistently provide customers with our industry-leading white glove support experience.

So, in a nutshell, we win new customers on resilience, performance, and TCO at scale, and then we invariably expand our footprint with a very differentiated customer experience that builds and drives trust and enduring relationships.

Let’s speak about your product strategy. Infinidat clearly promoted for several years an HDD-based storage model coupled with DRAM and intelligent algorithms. Now you jumped into flash-based arrays with the SSA, how do you justify this change? Was it a serious divergent point with the historical management and product team?
To talk about our product strategy, we need to start with our architecture. From the outset of our company more than 10 years ago, the Neural Cache data placement architecture and DRAM implementation have delivered a very high level of performance by achieving cache hits above 90% at multi-petabyte scale. This allows our standard InfiniBox platform to deliver great performance and unmatched TCO with an HDD-based backend. This unconventional approach and the innovation in our Neural Cache are unmatched in the industry and continues to differentiate Infinidat.

However, it’s important to understand that the Infinidat architecture has always been readily adaptable to the type of backend persistent storage media layer. Today, there is an increasing number of applications that require very low latency 100% of the time, which is why the SSA version of our InfiniBox was brought to market. With the SSA, we introduced in 2021 an all-flash storage platform that consistently delivers performance and latency results that surpass traditional AFAs, with the unparalleled reliability, 100% availability, ease of use, and customer experience that enterprise customers have come to expect from the Infinidat family of enterprise storage solutions.

In practice, many of our customers today continue to deploy our standard hybrid InfiniBox for the majority of their capacity, with the SSA deployed for those workloads demanding the lowest and most consistent latency. In fact, as recently validated by storage analyst firm ESG, the InfiniBox SSA can consistently deliver 35μs of latency at petabyte scale in production workloads, and no other vendor is close to that performance for real world applications. And we have a quick native transport tool to seamlessly, transparently, and with no system downtime move data between the hybrid and SSA arrays as workload requirements evolve and scale. It’s really an “And” situation, not an “Or”. Because the 2 InfiniBox platforms are the same platform architecture and software defined storage stack, we simply match the requirements of the customers’ applications to the best persistent storage media implementation – HDD or Flash – that optimizes SLAs and TCO.

Neural Cache is clearly a differentiator. Any more details you can share with us, since it is very important for your HDD based InfiniBox? Is it still the case with the SSA?
Sure. Let’s dive a bit into the technology, although I can’t say much because this is a core part of our software intellectual property. Neural Cache, unique to Infinidat, is our patented data placement software architecture that excels in getting the right data on the right media (DRAM, NAND, or HDD) at the right time. Unlike tiering approaches, Neural Cache requires no tuning or administrative activities. And it was designed for multi-petabyte scale, significantly greater than typical cache approaches.

Neural Cache maintains a knowledge of both spatial and temporal locality on a block-by-block basis, and this approach has proven to drive extremely high read cache hit rates for enterprise workloads that exhibit a mix of random and sequential access. The software architecture quickly optimizes as conditions change and workloads scale to always keep the system operating at peak performance without any storage administrative overhead or intervention. It’s the fundamental, built-in “AIOps in the Box” architecture that delivers a true set-it-and-forget-it operational model with all Infinidat platforms – regardless of backend media types.

Historically you exposed the array with FC or iSCSI on the block side and more recently you introduced NVMe/TCP, why this choice? Any feedback on this adoption on the market?
We launched our initial NVMe/TCP implementation back in 2020. We still believe the TCP transport layer approach is the most interesting long-term path for large enterprises.

With the latest version of our single SDS architecture, we delivered 2 new capabilities to enhance modern VMware infrastructures, including NVMe over TCP certification with vSphere ESXi, and vVols replication with VMware Site Recovery Manager integration. This makes Infinidat one of the few providers with an enterprise storage solution certified with NVMe/TCP for VMware.

Beyond that, we anticipate introducing additional NVMe-oF transports in the future based upon customer demand, such as NVMe/FC and NVMe/RoCE. It is still very early days for NVMe-oF overall in the large enterprise market that we focus on.

You play in the unified storage space with block and file. I think you sell first block and users enable file access, later gaining confidence with the platform with the wish to consolidate workloads. What is your strategy here and do you plan to add S3 to become an universal platform?
Our systems feature FC and iSCSI for block, and NFS and SMB for file support. While the majority of our customers use our systems for block workloads, about 40% also run some file on these as well. Approximately 15% are file only systems. Yes, we have plans to add S3 as a native protocol.

Do you target specific use cases and workloads? What are the domains where InfiniBox excels?
Infinidat addresses a wide variety of use cases where petabyte scale data is concentrated, including cybersecurity, containers, virtualization, consolidation, business continuity, big data, cloud, databases, and most mission and business critical applications and workloads. The Infinidat portfolio covers a full range of robust storage and data protection capabilities, with solutions spanning across primary storage, cloud storage, BC, and DR applications.

Beyond the primary storage products, Infinidat actively promotes InfiniGuard, an InfiniBox dedicated to secondary storage and data protection. Give us the pitch about this product iteration.
InfiniGuard has been a part of our portfolio for several years. The recent release in February of this year introduced a higher performance system that can ingest backup data up to 180TB/hour. This release also was our formal launch of our InfiniSafe Technology for cyber storage resilience and recovery. InfiniSafe delivers a comprehensive suite of leading cyber storage capabilities that protects backup data sets simply and easily with immutable snaps, logical local and remote airgaps, a fenced forensic environment and near-instantaneous recovery. In fact, in our recent launch we demonstrated live an InfiniSafe on InfiniGuard cyber storage recovery of 13PB of Veeam backup data in only 12mn and 25s. That is something no one else in the market can do and that demonstration could have been with Commvault, Veritas, Oracle RMAN, etc.

InfiniGuard features our same software defined storage, Neural Cache architecture as our InfiniBox systems, resulting in exceptional performance, availability and overall customer experience. Regarding how we sell it and who’s purchasing it, InfiniGuard is a very important platform in our overall portfolio and a strong contributor to our growth. More often than not, InfiniGuard wins are with net-new customers of the business, and these tend to be larger initial wins and they actually scale faster over time, as you might expect with data protection workloads and the ever-increasing amount of backup data that is being stored online for business continuity and ransomware protection over longer date ranges.

Robust cyber resilience and a very high level of backup and restore performance are top priorities for most enterprise IT operations now, and InfiniGuard delivers these along with outstanding TCO and our white glove service. It has been a great door-opener for our business at new accounts.

Ransomware is one of the main concerns for IT nowadays. How do you prevent and protect users’ data against this threat?
We help organizations avoid having to pay the ransom that is associated with ransomware, while enabling them to still retrieve their valuable enterprise data, uncompromised and intact. Our advancements to protect users’ data against cyberattacks have made Infinidat a leader in this space.

GigaOm recently named Infinidat as the industry leader in ransomware protection for block-based storage for our InfiniSafe cyber storage resilience software. We are recognized as offering a complete and balanced ransomware protection solution. Our InfiniSafe technology brings together the key foundational requirements essential for delivering comprehensive cyber recovery capabilities with immutable snapshots, logical air-gapped protection, a fenced forensic network, and near-instantaneous recovery of backups of any repository size and comes included at no charge on the InfiniGuard, the InfiniBox, and the InfiniBox SSA II platforms.

We recently extended cyber resilience to InfiniBox and InfiniBox SSA II with the InfiniSafe Reference Architecture, providing our immutability snapshot and the recovery time of immutable snapshots at 1mn or less with a guaranteed SLA on each of those features. InfiniSafe was announced on the InfiniGuard modern data protection and cyber storage resilience platform in February this year. In October, we extended the guaranteed SLAs for InfiniSafe to InfiniGuard with our immutability guarantee and a guarantee on recovery of the immutable snapshot of 20mn or less – which we demonstrated at our livestream launch event.

Enterprise customers want assurance that SLAs will be met. What guarantees do Infinidat offer to enterprise customers and service providers?
Infinidat has delivered the industry’s first cyber storage guarantee for recovery on primary storage – the InfiniSafe Cyber Storage guarantee. This ensures that enterprises and service providers recover and restore their data at near-instantaneous speed in the wake of a cyberattack by using a guaranteed immutable snapshot dataset with a guaranteed recovery time of one minute or less on the InfiniBox and the InfiniBox SSA II.

We also guarantee recoverability of InfiniSafe immutable snapshots on InfiniGuard, and recovery of those immutable snapshots in 20mn or less, regardless of the size of the snapshot. In addition, we offer a new performance guarantee across our InfiniBox and InfiniBox SSA II platforms. These new guarantees join Infinidat’s existing 100% availability guarantee, which was announced in 2019.

Speaking about market direction, what is your cloud strategy as Infinidat is clearly an on-premises vendor?
The bulk of our overall business is in support of mixed workload clouds, so our cloud strategy is very aligned with our overall strategy. It’s very rare to see anyone deploy InfiniBox or InfiniGuard systems just for one application in one department. So, whether our customers call their environments private clouds, hybrid clouds, or something else, expanding that approach is a crucial part of our growth trajectory.

If you’re looking at it from the public cloud lens, our systems are often deployed in the many cloud service providers below the hyperscale space who focus on a particular geography or vertical. The natural characteristics of InfiniBox − petabyte scale, autonomous operation, consistent high-performance, leading TCO, multi-tenant, unified workloads, etc. − make it a very attractive platform in the public cloud provider market. In fact, around 25-30% of our business comes from those types of “data concentrator” service providers providing cloud services to their customers. In August at the 2022 Flash Memory Summit the InfiniBox SSA II was named the “Most Innovative Hyperscaler Implementation” for its use by one of our CSP customers for their STaaS, PaaS, and IaaS solutions.

Finally, the hyperscalers, particularly AWS, also tend to appreciate our experience with high-end enterprise customers and storage-centric, demanding SLA workloads, which are not their historic sweet spot or design point. So, we’ve also collaborated with them from time to time, probably most notably with our validation with AWS Outposts, where we are one of only a couple of formally validated Outposts Ready storage solutions. I can certainly see more collaborations like this for us in the future.

What is your view and plan for Kubernetes? Today, you support CSI but what else? Any specific development as Kubernetes means a multi-cloud approach?
Containers are clearly the path forward for mainstream developer-centric “modern application” environments, especially in an on-prem context. We see Red Hat OpenShift most commonly deployed for containers in our large enterprise customer base, followed by upstream Kubernetes, but also hear a lot of good feedback related to VMware Tanzu, and there’s a long tail of other varieties out there.

We have invested in container functionality for years, offered an InfiniBox provisioner integration, even before the CSI standard emerged, and have steadily continued broadening and deepening our containers capabilities. Today, our containers functionality is at the heart of many very large, mission-critical enterprise deployments. And this is only accelerating as we move forward.

It’s important to note that this is still a rapidly evolving space, and we have to balance the iteration and churn inherent in the upstream open-source community development process with the desires from most of our customers for stability, ease of use, and expanding functionality. Of course, we will continue balancing those things as container adoption expands.

You’re a channel company. Is it true for the entire product line and for all deals and vertical sectors? Any OEM in mind? In a nutshell, what is your go-to-market strategy?
The vast majority of our business goes through the channel. We are a channel-centric company, focused on making our partners successful and helping them grow their business. Depending on the quarter, our channel revenue is between 75% and 85% of our business. Earlier this year, we received 5-star recognition from CRN for our channel programs and our CMO was named a 2022 Channel Chief by CRN. We recently announced our Storage-as-a-Service offerings in ArrowSphere for North America. We also launched a new channel partner portal this past summer.

Our go-to-market-strategy, in a nutshell, is to work with a channel partner on deals and to win new business based on Infinidat’s superior value proposition. We lead with the Infinidat brand, which has come to mean unmatched real-world application performance, 100% availability, and lower Capex and Opex.

As a disrupter in the field, we find that partners are initially attracted to working with Infinidat due to the unique price performance we offer. This enables the partners, in turn, to be more differentiated, innovative and bold in their go-to-market strategy, helping them secure new business and new customers. We work with a variety of partners to meet the requirements of end-user customers. We are open to new possibilities with the channel but always keep what is best for customers as the top priority.

Partners then learn that the quality of our products and associated support means that they are able to delight their customers with high performance and trouble-free solutions, which, in turn, creates additional business opportunities for them. Partners also realize that a typical Infinidat sale tends to be a larger scope of business around more strategic workloads, creating better deals and increased opportunities.

How do you price your products? I understand you have several charging models.
We have 3 flexible pricing models that we can deploy in selling our offerings to our end users. FLX is our STaaS offering featuring an Opex-based consumption model. We also offer a traditional Capex purchase model for customers who continue to prefer that approach. Our Elastic Pricing option combines an upfront Capex purchase with either an Opex or Capex follow-on model for immediately available capacity increases. We have had this approach for years and have been a market leader in this method of cloud-like consumption models.

All our cloud-like flexible consumption models come with everything: 100% availability and all our guarantees across storage and cyber resilience; white glove support; Technical Advisor; all-inclusive software and licensing, including our InfiniSafe cyber storage resiliency technology; performance analysis; and 2-hour pricing/proposal turnaround.

To conclude, what are your future directions, both in terms of company and products?
As I mentioned, at the start of our conversation, Infinidat has achieved very impressive growth and is consistently operating with positive cash flow and EBITDA performance. We’ve expanded our portfolio and are now driving significant momentum with our InfiniBox and InfiniGuard platforms. Our focus is to continue this successful trajectory while we explore and pursue opportunities to scale-up and accelerate growth in our product development capacity, marketing and sales reach, and our partnerships in the channel and solution ecosystem.

From a product perspective, our focus will be in expanding our support for more protocols, cyber security capabilities, and cloud integration, but that’s probably fodder for our next conversation.

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