Tech Leadership and Innovation

Pure Storage CEO on a mission to modernise data experiences

Charles Giancarlo is ploughing cash into R&D to virtualise and containerise storage and related infrastructure.

Pure Storage

Tech Leadership and Innovation

Show More

Pure Storage has emerged as by some measures the largest of the crop of datacentre-orientated startups that emerged 10 to 15 years ago. Some have been highly successful, notably Nutanix, while others such as Nimble Storage, PernixData, Tintri and SimpliVity were acquired. But Pure is still standing with a market cap of $8.8bn at time of writing and almost $1.7bn in revenues for its last financial year.

Getting on for seven years since its IPO, the company continues to grow on the back of a hugely popular and fast enterprise storage portfolio based on a pioneering all-Flash approach. Once seen as risky and pricey to get fully behind, Flash is quickly becoming the default storage medium for more and more companies in the enterprise and cloud markets Pure serves. Now the company is seeking to write another chapter through a policy of virtualisation and encroachment on complementary security and adjacent markets. It’s a classic story of scaling up, according to CEO Charles Giancarlo when we meet recently in London.

“Where do you go from here, after you’ve had a breakout hit?” he asks rhetorically. “People say ‘you’re a niche. We love the way you work but you just don’t have the portfolio’.”

Today, he reckons Pure can serve over 50% of customer datacentre needs and it is hoping to push that figure even higher, thanks in part to a chunky research and development commitment. The company is spending about 20% of annual revenues on R&D, Giancarlo says.

Pure made its name by making a better mousetrap in a storage sector that had become the domain of giant incumbents such as EMC, IBM, HP (now HPE), HDS and others. “The majority saw [storage] as a commodity,” Giancarlo recalls, but Pure and other newcomers showed how fast and resilient infrastructure could be if only you committed to a radical vison of re-engineering.

Casting an eye over rivals today, Giancarlo remains unimpressed. Dell is “a supermarket of technologies and they don’t provide anything leading edge … HPE is something similar”. By disassembling and virtualising storage, he hopes to make the sector truly software-defined. It is “the last technology to become virtualised [whereas] IP and Ethernet viritualised communications 20 years ago à la VMware, which virtualised compute”.

Container excitement

Aided by the $370m 2020 acquisition of Portworx, a pillar of Pure’s vision is offering a host of managed data services including backup and restore based on Kubernetes containerised applications running across clouds, on bare metal and on arrays. “[Storage is] a very conservative market where EMC is still the big gorilla but our big bet is the virtualisation of storage and it has never been done before.”

Giancarlo, who has in his career spanned engineer, entrepreneurship, blue-chip tech leader and life as venture capitalist, effectively wants to have it all. Pure can be both best-of-breed supplier and one-stop shop, he says, offering simplified usage-based tariffs and a simplified technology stack to deliver what the company calls “modern data experiences”.

“Timing is everything,” he says, and modern communications networks are enabling a step change in data performance and availability. “Before, network speeds haven’t been high enough: one gigabit was never fast enough but 400 gigabits is plenty fast enough.”

Another market change comes in the form of increased interest in ESG. “Four-and-a-half years ago, customers didn’t care: in the last six to eight months, they’ve started to care,” he says, as swelling energy bills, a need to attract college talent concerned by corporate ethics and attention by governments and watchdogs demand attention. By combining efficient hardware and software to sip at electricity and as-a-service subscriptions programmes that minimise e-waste, he believes Pure can help customers radically reduce their power envelopes.

New directions

Given that Pure is moving in so many new directions from workload orchestration to security, is the Pure Storage name a misnomer and burden? Giancarlo laughs knowingly, saying the topic is a regular in internal meetings but adding that most of the alternatives have been taken.

He has his hands full overseeing a massive technology change programme but says there are always more opportunities. He is concerned about the scalability of HCI, for example, but says “never say never” when I suggest a converged infrastructure offering could round out a Pure suite.

Giancarlo was once seen as potential successor to John Chambers at Cisco but he left the company in 2007 after disagreements on product direction and what he saw as a drift towards bureaucracy. He says that today he is living his ambition of building and leading companies.

“All companies are broken all of the time,” he quips. “The goal is to constantly repair functions.”