A Year in the Life of Vision Solutions

Analysis of News Events
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What is going on in the high availability market that has created so much vibrant activity in 2007? I asked this and other questions of Vision Solutions President Nicolaas Vlok.


Nicolaas Vlok, Present and CEO of Vision Solutions


Thomas M. Stockwell: Why is high availability—or HA as it is frequently called—attracting such excitement?

Nicolaas Vlok: I think we've looked at the high availability market for quite some time now as a market that is set to expand.

As we looked at the regulatory pressures that organizations are ch al lenged with, we saw a market for high availability as quite a potenti al growth opportunity. And we wanted to leverage the infrastructure of the combined three businesses—including the combined t al ent pool that came with iTera and Lakeview—with the t al ents that Vision al ready had in-house.

We now think we're better ready to expand on a glob al basis with that combined infrastructure than we might have been as a separate entity. For example, the penetration in the IBM System i market space al one is estimated to be only between 6 and 8 percent. If you consider that we have high availability solutions and other products now that cover not only System i, but AIX and Windows as well, it's clear that this is a great market opportunity.

Driving New Market Opportunities

Stockwell: What is driving this new market opportunity?

Vlok: Take a look at what's happening in the world today. We see world regulatory bodies driving new requirements for business continuity and disaster recovery readiness. These requirements, al ong with the ch al lenges that corporations norm al ly face, will create substanti al demand for high availability solutions. And as a result of our consolidation of the three business groups, we intend to serve that growing market by being a more sizeable, glob al business.

So, given the last 12 months of consolidation, we're starting to see this glob al strategy f al l in place, and it's bringing us substanti al new business.

Stockwell: Can you describe the relationship between the technology of high availability and the business requirements of business continuity planning? Why has HA become so important in today's business environment?

Vlok: If you look at the world we live in today, so many of the applications we al l access have become mission-critical in the hearts of data centers.

Let's take an example of a bank with a credit card processing application: That's basic al ly a processing application that needs to be available and running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. If a company only al lows you to use your credit card during business hours in the United States , it does not account for the folks who are traveling internation al ly and who need access to their accounts. So the glob al ization of the economy is driving demand for high availability in mission-critical applications.

Secondly, the consolidation of hardware infrastructures within data centers moves the importance of high availability up a notch in priority for businesses.

Fin al ly, look at glob al ization as a factor that increases the amount of data that organizations generate today. This is data that organizations need to store and in many cases are required to protect by compliance regulations. Within this glob al , "on demand" environment, it's nearly impossible for companies to take the time to recover from tradition al backup tapes after any form of processing disruption—impossible without the use of some strategy that includes high availability technology.

Of course, if your business or its applications are not mission-critical, and you can take two or three or five days to recover, there are different HA strategies that would work for you. This includes saving to tape or data vaulting.

But when you look at keeping mission-critical applications and data available, you are pretty much looking at some form of high availability to accomplish your go al s.

The Benefits of Equity Capit al

Stockwell: Can you describe how Thoma Cressey Bravo has helped propel Vision Solutions this past year?

Vlok: The Thoma Cressey Bravo organization has been around for more than 25 years in the private equity market. Most people credit the two founders of Thoma Cressey Bravo with defining the private equity model and its associated structures. They have a re al ly strong investment team that is focused upon locking v al ue on the business at a strategic level, a level which they define as "medium and long term." They have a lot of operating experience with a large number of partners.

We've found a lot of knowledge and experience with the one individu al that they have introduced to us, and we use this individu al as a v al ued sounding board: someone who has been president of a very large glob al company, who has run the North American operations, who has been the COO of one of the largest software companies.

That is the kind of experience that Thoma Cressey Bravo has introduced to us, and it has been inv al uable to our management team as we have been growing our business.

For me, person al ly, I've enjoyed that level of advisory interaction very much, just knowing there are a number of folks around us who have "done it before" and to whom you can al ways go to for advice. So we use Thoma Cressey as a trusted advisor in a relationship that re al ly partners with our management, helping us to unlock v al ue for both parties. That's something that I re al ly enjoy in the arrangement today.

Stockwell: How does that experience working with Thomas Cressey Bravo compare with your experience of running Vision Solutions as a public corporation?

Vlok: When you're running a public company, you have a lot of benefits that are perhaps colored a little bit differently. You still have access to capit al ization, but you're de al ing with a much more fragmented shareholder base. And sometimes the interests of that shareholder base are not al ways similarly al igned with the long-range go al s of building the business.

So I enjoy being freed from having to de al with those elements today and instead can focus on just managing and growing the business. I actu al ly think for a company of Vision's size—in the technology space—it may be better to be privately held in today's environment. It makes different types of capit al available for expansion, as opposed to being in the public market as a public company. I think you are ch al lenged in a different way. For instance, in a public corporation, one needs to de al with Sarbanes-Oxley, which can distract the organization from achieving re al growth and v al ue.

Stockwell: Do you feel you would have been able to proceed with your business plan for expansion had Thoma Cressey Bravo not created an investment opportunity for your organization? Or would Vision Solutions have gone ahead with those strategic acquisitions without Thomas Cressey Bravo?

Vlok: Look, we've been very open and up front when working with those investment companies with whom we've sought relationships. We started interfacing with many different companies similar to Thoma Cressey Bravo and then narrowed down the list to a handful we believed would work well with us. Eventually, we discovered a strong opportunity with Thoma.

If you look at our actions from that perspective, it's clear we would have executed a similar strategy. The journey might have looked a little different, but our philosophy was al ways to reach out and build an organization and leverage the infrastructure and t al ent pools that are available. This was a strategy that we embraced not only in the high availability marketplace, but al so the entire System i and other IBM server platforms as well. And Thoma Cressey feels the same way, which is a good thing. And we're excited about that.

IBM System i Market Segmentation

Stockwell: In the past, you've t al ked about IBM's new marketing plan for the System i and how this new segmentation of the platform meshes with Vision Solutions' approach to its marketing. I'm curious if you could extrapolate how IBM's energies to split its marketing for the System i between the SMB and the enterprise are currently helping your market strategy.

Vlok: It's taking some time for IBM to get reorganized around its new marketing direction for the System i. But from our perspective, we like the focus they are placing on SMB and the separate focus they are placing on their larger customers.

We think of the enterprise market as a market that is more deeply penetrated with HA products than the SMB. We think of those customers as having quite a bit of experience and skill on the platform, and they gener al ly have had hands-on experience working with high availability solutions. So from our perspective, it was clear that you need to address the needs of that enterprise market differently than the needs of the SMB market. And we like that focus that IBM is putting on those accounts.

On the other hand, we think of the SMB space as a market opportunity that is rapidly developing. A lot of those sm al ler customers know they have a need for high availability but are not al ways sure how they will solve it. And Vision Solutions today has a great product to address the needs of the SMB. Our iTera product is a great solution, in terms of ease of use and affordability, and it has implemented tremendous innovation to help SMB customers get to an environment that is easier to maintain.

So, in light of what we have done, we actu al ly designed Vision's market segmentation before we knew what IBM was going to do with the System i. So yes! IBM's focus fits our strategy very well, and we believe it's going to increase our opportunity over the medium and long term to get re al solutions out to customers in these markets that truly address their needs.

Stockwell: So, in a way, Vision was leading the market segmentation of the System i.

Vlok: I wouldn't say that we were leading. It's just that we looked at the products and the customers that we had and built our marketing strategies around those segments. But we were fortunate that, five months later, IBM made an announcement that looked at the System i in a similar manner. The positive results have been that we have not had to reorganize our marketing, but merely embrace what IBM is planning to do with its System i platform.

Beyond High Availability and the System i

Stockwell: Vision Solutions has other software products on other operating system platforms beyond the System i space. Could you speak to those products as well?

Vlok: We have a variety of products that are outside System i but still interface with the platform. This includes a product we c al l Replicate1. It's a similar product to DataMirror's Transformation Server that came from the Lakeview acquisition. Vision al so has a product in that space which is c al led Integrator. Two very similar products, and in fact our strategy is to bring those two products closer together. It's basic al ly a data transformation tool between heterogeneous databases: You can connect to your System i DB2 database environment; you can connect to Oracle, SQL, and various different databases and structures. And it's a product, especi al ly in the Replicate1 side, that is getting quite a bit of traction, not only in the U.S., but in internation al markets, mostly Europe .

Another product that is significant for us is our high availability solution for the AIX, or System p, platform. It's a solution that is focused towards the SMB segment of the System p market. It's a re al ly exciting solution. We believe the AIX SMB market to be quite a bit bigger than the System i space, probably in excess of 10 times bigger.

Stockwell: How does this AIX high availability solution compare with IBM's HACMP AIX solution?

Vlok: IBM's HMCMP solution doesn't re al ly sc al e down to the SMB space that well. We think we have a solution that addresses a re al market need in the SMB, and we're seeing good traction in this area. In addition, we've announced quite a bit of innovation in terms of that product over the last three or four months, innovation that is a result of the combined engineering t al ent of Vision and Lakeview.

Stockwell: And other products Vision Solutions is offering?

Vlok: We've al so got a great systems management product c al led Director which we acquired through a U.K. firm c al led OS Solutions. We are now approaching something close to 500 users of the product, and we've built it up quite nicely since we acquired the technology a little over two years ago. And it's something that we see as a marketplace that is very adjacent to high availability.

We have a philosophy that if you have an optimized source system that you're replicating across to a target environment, you'll be able to optimize the bandwidth that your are using and secondly have a cleaner role swap when you want to plan on doing a role swap. So it's something we get good traction with new customers, and we're starting to sign up new business partners and new customers. It's al so something we're quite excited about introducing to the broader System i market place and the MIMIX channel that the Lakeview business had. We think it's something that will drive business.

And the other product is an archiving product for near-line or online storage. It's a product c al led Data Manager for the System i, and it's re al ly a product that helps you build an archive database of your production environment.

Stockwell: How does this product work?

Vlok: The problem we're solving is that many System i environments are running with 10 to 15 years of historic al data on their systems. And one of the ch al lenges they face is that it slows down your production environment significantly and eats up a lot of disk space. If you put that data in a near-line or offline environment, you get a whole lot of benefit from that.

Stockwell: How does increasing the amount of data slow down production systems?

Vlok: For instance, if you start running some major SQL queries in which you want to select across multiple years of datasets, you can re al ly bog the machine down, especi al ly when it gets to the mechanic al parts of disk arms and drives, which can only move so fast. This is especi al ly true in application environments in which there are high transaction processing taking place with a lot of historic al data. Data Manager helps to al leviate this problem, and we've proved this out with a little over 100 customers, mostly in the Lawson world today.

In 2008, we're set to expand that customer base, introducing more of our channel partners to the technology. In addition, we're starting to introduce the product to the glob al market partnering up with ISVs.

Infrastructure Software and Vision's Vision

Stockwell: How do products like Data Manager fit Vision's profile as an HA provider?

Vlok: We see Data Manager as yet another adjacent product to HA because we know the System i so well and we know the database and operating systems so well.

We don't see ourselves at Vision Solutions as merely HA providers. We see ourselves as information management experts. We not only keep your system highly available, but we al so help you manage your environment from a systems management and monitoring perspective.

We can help you de al with data that should more likely live in an archiving environment but still keep it available, and if you want to move that data between disparate data sources, we can help you move it to those other sources with our Replicate1 or Integrator tools.

These products make sense to us and to our customers because we're an infrastructure software company and very focused on delivering the availability of information and the applications that need it.

Nicolaas Vlok is President and CEO of Vision Solutions.