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Formation Data CEO: Dell-EMC deal doesn't guarantee innovation

Dell’s pending $67 billion acquisition of EMC has sparked plenty of discussion about overlapping products. Yet despite the enormity of their potential merger, the newly fused Dell-EMC may not have everything it takes to compete in a changing storage world.

“It doesn’t solve their problems of needing to look at how they’re going to react to next-generation players like Amazon. It makes them bigger, but it doesn’t give them innovation,” said Mark Lewis, CEO of Formation Data Systems, a startup specializing in data and storage virtualization technology that runs on commodity x86 server hardware.

Lewis has fielded lots of questions about Dell’s acquisition because he worked at EMC from 2002 to 2012, including a five-year stint as executive vice president and chief technology officer. Also a veteran of Compaq/HP and DEC, Lewis has witnessed his share of IT industry mergers — and he admitted he struggles to recall major tech acquisitions that have been successful. Execution will be the critical element, he said.

“It’s a really good move for Dell,” said Lewis. “If you think about Dell wanting to get into the enterprise, wanting to diversify, they had some real gaps in the enterprise. You can build it, but it’s really hard to build that go to market and all those capabilities. So, I think it’ll be really good for them structurally and economically.”

But, as CEO of a startup, Lewis also views Dell’s acquisition as “a big positive, because it really showed how the legacy market, or the existing data center market, is going to continue to consolidate because of slow growth and the need for consolidation of that platform as we move to the next-generation platform.”

Lewis sees the next-generation platform as the “software-defined cloud storage” that creates systems like Amazon Web Services, which enable users to set up storage in automated fashion. He said legacy systems target storage administrators with low-level tasks such as provisioning storage and service-level agreements. And the older vendors often try to leverage their old technology “when really what they’ve got to do is a paradigm shift,” he said.

“You don’t merge two video rental companies and get Netflix,” said Lewis, echoing sentiments he raised on his Formation-hosted blog. “You get scale. You get other advantages. You get operational efficiencies. But, you don’t get innovation, and that’s an element they’re going to have to figure out how to drive into their new business.”

One challenge confronting Dell-EMC will be the melding of “inherently different cultures” spanning Dell’s Texas-based operations and EMC’s Massachusetts headquarters and California-based VMware division, Lewis acknowledged.

“Culture’s a big part in acquisitions and integrations and mergers, and people often [discount] that impact,” he said. “That’s something they’re going to have to sort out.”

Could startups such as Formation Data Systems ultimately become acquisition targets for traditional storage vendors such as Dell-EMC? Lewis said although they will need to look at buying “third-generation data center technology” at some point, such acquisitions would present difficulties.

“Our economics are such that we believe we can lower the cost to store data by 10x,” Lewis said. “That fundamentally changes the market dynamic. I can grow to a billion-dollar company, but I might consume $10 billion in total market to do it. So it’s good for me. For the guys that make the 10 billion, it’s not so good.”

Glenn O’Donnell, a vice president at Forrester Research, thinks it’s more likely that the new Dell-EMC will build its way into the storage software space. “They’ll make some targeted acquisitions, but acquisitions are going to be difficult in the future. Now that they’re shelling out all this money for EMC, they don’t have much left in the kitty,” he said.

“EMC has a lot of software people,” O’Donnell added. “Everybody looks at both of these companies as hardware companies — which clearly they are – but nobody’s in the hardware business these days unless you do an awful lot of software.”

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