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Pure Storage CEO back after COVID-19 battle

Pure Storage CEO Charles Giancarlo said it took him a month to recover from an extended bout with coronavirus. Meanwhile, Pure's revenue grew by 12% last quarter despite the pandemic.

Pure Storage CEO Charles Giancarlo overcame a bout with COVID-19 to return to work, but the health scare and a lengthier-than-expected recovery gave him newfound perspective. "For me, it was 12 days of fever, and I was pretty exhausted by the end of it. And then, another month for recovery. What surprised me about the recovery was the incredible fatigue," Giancarlo said.

Despite the hardship, Giancarlo said the COVID-related shutdown and enforced work-at-home practices emphasized the growing importance of hybrid cloud support. Pure Storage cloud sales helped the vendor post $367.1 million in revenue in the first quarter, a 12% jump year over year. Giancarlo said Pure made emergency shipments to companies that suddenly needed to support employees working remotely. But, like other major storage vendors, Pure said it will not provide revenue guidance for the rest of the year, underscoring the fragile economic conditions that lie ahead.

The all-flash pioneer launched in 2009 and rapidly grew to a force to challenge legacy storage vendors. Pure Storage went public in 2015 and posted annual revenue of $1.64 billion for its last fiscal year, although the company has yet to turn a profit.

In this exclusive interview, conducted during the Pure Accelerate virtual user conference in June, Giancarlo shared how Pure Storage is adjusting to the changing business conditions spawned by COVID-19.

How surprised were you that Pure Storage grew revenues during the economic shutdown?

Charles GiancarloCharles Giancarlo

Charles Giancarlo: We saw a dramatic COVID-inspired increase in our Pure as-a-Service subscription hybrid cloud model, largely because it gives customers the opportunity to pay only for what they use. We had customers that weren't ready to replace their storage, but they had to support many more people working from home. We have a very strong supply chain and sales organization that enabled us to thrive during that time.

Pure Storage wasn't planning its annual Pure Accelerate user event in 2020 but then launched it virtually. Why did you switch gears? Do you expect virtual conferences to be the norm going forward?

Giancarlo: We were planning to change the format after our last Pure Accelerate [in 2019]. We decided we could reach more customers with multiple regional conferences. That was our plan at the start of the year, before COVID hit. Time will tell if this is the norm, but the attendance at our virtual event is three times the size of the single large event we're used to having. It's pretty apparent why: People don't travel, don't pay for flights and hotel rooms. With the virtual format, we can retain the [session material] online and update it over time, rather than just recycle it.

We're still learning the limitations. With existing customers, we can be equally as efficient with a virtual format, but with new customers, in-person contact is important. We also need to get our employees back to where they can work together in the office. Plus, that's also where our physical laboratories are.

Was there anything special you learned that will influence Pure's product roadmap?

Giancarlo: We learned the need to invest more in helping companies with digital transformation. That may sound odd coming from a technology company, but many of our processes are based on very close human interaction. A lot of my industry peers at other companies are trying to push digital transformation, and accelerating it is now a priority at Pure.

Pure Storage layoffs in March cost 100 employees their jobs. How will you avoid another round of cuts as the economy slows down?

Giancarlo: We are very fortunate. In fact, we have continued to hire during this time. We obviously will keep a closer eye on expenses. But I have told my team that it is my personal goal to [avoid] layoffs and furloughs this year. We're committed to getting through this time in the best way we can.

Switching gears, what do you foresee as the next evolution in storage hardware? NVMe and storage class memory are gaining steam. Older technologies, like TCP/IP, are getting used as NMVe fabrics. What do these developments betoken for Pure Storage and other array vendors?

Giancarlo: Most of the rhetoric on serverless computing and virtual computing [suggests] there's never any hardware involved. But, of course, there is hardware involved, whether it's in the cloud or somewhere else. And, if hardware doesn't advance, eventually, software advances will also stop.

We were one of the first storage vendors to introduce an NVMe over fabrics array. About a third of our sales are to cloud vendors of one type or another -- not the hyperscalers as much, but the smaller regional cloud providers. There are thousands of them. Those organizations are driving adoption of new architectures, like Pure FlashArray. They use FlashArray to store all state information. That allows for rack design that is denser and more resilient. Secondly, it allows the servers to be completely stateless, so they can be retargeted at new application workloads within seconds.

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