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Catching Up with Our CTO: The SaaS-ification of the Application Layer

Each week I travel around the country or the world to meet with the IT and business leaders at large companies. Some are clients. Others are prospects. All of them are looking to add capabilities or optimize their infrastructure. This post is the first of my field notes from these travels.

Anyone who has spent time with me over the last two decades knows that I’m obsessed with storage. Typically I focus on the storage layer. The Nasuni Global File System, UniFS®, has been the single focus of our company for over a decade. It is built for scale. It addresses the issues around the sheer scale of file systems that are still plaguing large organizations: too many files, long unwieldy backup windows, and any number of performance issues for file access across locations. I know this because I meet with the leaders of large organizations every week, discussing these very problems. Media, Manufacturing, Energy, Gaming, Oil & Gas – these pain points are common across industries.

But let’s go up a level.

Many of the same companies that we work with rely on industry-specific applications. They have different names in different industries but let’s call them “orchestrators” because their job isn’t to store or create files. Their job is to orchestrate or organize the workflows that allow teams of people with different skills to get their jobs done. If you’re in print media, for example, your editorial teams will work in Adobe Creative. But you probably rely on a tool like ESKO to orchestrate your print workflows. Manufacturing organizations often depend on SolidWorks to create their files, but they require an orchestrator like PLM’s Teamcenter to coordinate jobs within their engineering teams. Companies that need complex software builds rely on Perforce. Jira, with its roots in ticketing, is a popular choice as a general-purpose orchestrator. Different apps, different industries, but they all share the same issues when attempting to deploy at a global scale.

Today they reside in silos, and this is a massive hindrance to productivity.

What I’ve been hearing more and more from enterprises is how their users are struggling at this application layer with the same pain they experienced at the storage layer – scalability, performance, version control, and an inability to foster efficient file sharing and conflict-free collaboration across geographies. I love technology and I love to discern repeating patterns in technology. When I sit across from a CIO or an IT leader and I hear these complaints in the application layers, I can’t stop thinking this is effectively the same problem we solved years ago at the file system layer. We pioneered storage as a service, and now we are SaaS-ifying the applications that depend on the storage layer.

Imagine you’re a large game developer. You have an application at a certain location with users generating code for a game. This app runs across hundreds of locations. Thousands of users need access. With traditional NAS infrastructure, each location has to manage capacity, and coordinate with the teams using the application at other sites. This is identical to what happens at the file server or NAS layer. The only difference is that the end users are only interacting with the files through the application. The applications are in charge of managing important tasks like version control, which means if I’m working on a game, and I change a line of code that adjusts gravity, the app needs to ensure that this change propagates and is firmed up in the final version.

These apps are not designed to manage all of this efficiently. They should not be asked to do so, either. They should be left to their strengths.

The printing application ESKO, Teamcenter, Perforce – all of these apps share the same essential problems. The storage these apps rely on is siloed at different locations, and the apps have to maintain the system of record to ensure the final build or design is the right one. When I talk to IT and line-of-business leaders struggling with these problems, they want the same thing: They want central management, infinite capacity, built-in data protection, and most important: a single global name space that consolidates their disparate, geographically isolated, file systems.

They want consolidation. They want these apps to behave more like the Nasuni Global File System.

They want to collapse the many app silos into one system that manages all workflows across the whole organization. They want a single service, available to the entire company, that connects all these distributed sites and allows people and groups in different locations to work together seamlessly, as if they’re in the same office.

Again, this is exactly what we do at the NAS layer. But Nasuni isn’t just for storage. At multiple large enterprises, we’ve brought our capabilities and services up a layer, and SaaS-ified their applications.

The benefits to the IT organization are similar to those we deliver at the NAS level. But this SaaS-ification is truly transformative for line-of-business users. Designers and mechanical engineers and game developers are able to get their work done faster. Less waiting for files means that everything can get done in less time. The walls around all those regional silos come down and companies operate like true global organizations.

The aforementioned game developer, for example, wants to collapse several hundred application silos into just three hubs, which will then be accessible to those locations. What is Nasuni’s role? We are the glue, or, as I like to say, the plumbing.   

This might not sound fancy but consider what it makes possible: Huge, distributed global teams can develop and test the same games without wasting hours waiting for files to load, or even more hours resolving version conflicts. Like actual plumbing, even though most of us hardly notice its existence, it is part of what makes the modern world possible. Plumbing is critical!

Another one of our clients, a specialty electronics manufacturer, relies heavily on another one of these orchestrator-type apps, Teamcenter. The company has eight global locations, several of which need to collaborate on the same projects. Prior to Nasuni, it took the firm’s engineers two minutes to load a small model in Teamcenter at one location. Trying to access the sample model from a remote location was quite a different story. There are waits and then there are go-get-a-coffee and take-a-stroll  and spend some time on reddit kind of waits. This was that sort of wait.

This has changed completely with Nasuni. Now a given model can be available to anyone in the company, at any remote location, in roughly the same timeframe. The application hasn’t changed. The plumbing changed. And engineers don’t have to wait for files to load. They don’t have to concern themselves with long check-in and check-out procedures. This accelerates time to market in product development – an essential for the company.

This demand for the SaaS-ification of enterprise applications isn’t all I’m hearing about in my travels. Organizations are still struggling to move and share large files. Troubles with siloed NAS infrastructure at large enterprises persist for those companies that haven’t transitioned to the cloud – or haven’t chosen the right platforms to do so. But the one unifying theme is that IT leaders are clamoring for change. We are in the era of the global file system and everything it enables. Global plumbing. Wait for it … IT wants SaaS-ification.

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