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VMUG Boston leader talks up user conferences, downplays Dell-EMC deal

Despite many IT professionals preferring to interact over the Internet, Boston VMUG leader Steve Athanas believes user groups still provide unique educational opportunities.

As the VMUG leader of the Boston chapter over the past three-plus years, Steve Athanas has grown the organization to be one of the largest chapters in the country. It is not uncommon for some of its conferences to attract 600 VMware-focused IT professionals -- not bad in this day and age where most such professionals prefer gaining technical knowledge and interacting with each other over the Internet.

But VMUG leader is only his "night" job. By day, he is the IT director of platforms and engineering at UMass Lowell, where he is responsible for systems and cloud-based applications.

During a rare break at a recent VMUG Boston meeting, where he typically races around nonstop with the energy of a 9-year old -- and often dresses like one, replete with a New England Patriots jersey -- Athanas sat down with Nick Martin, senior site editor, and Ed Scannell, senior executive editor, to share his views on a number of recent developments and issues, including why IT professionals continue to find user groups valuable, the state of VMUG's relationship with VMware and his views on the significance of the recent Dell-EMC merger.

How have user groups changed over the last few years in terms of what people want out of them?

Steve Athanas: Primarily, what's changed is people have come to expect better content. When I took over [VMUG Boston conferences] four years ago, we had sessions primarily given by sales engineers. I don't want to say they were sales pitches, but they weren't in-depth technical explanations. A lot of times, it was just going over documentation that already existed. It wasn't new material, and there was no interactivity or hands-on labs.

The expectation has continued to grow for getting something you can't get anywhere else. Here's the thing: Everyone can go online and watch a YouTube video about NSX. So, we don't need to have somebody come here and talk about NSX. But when we have someone like Ravi Soundararajan come in and do a deep dive on vSphere performance, that's a value add. People want to have things like hands-on labs. They want things like test track. If we put on the same user event that we did in 2012 in 2015, nobody would show up.

What's the breakdown of IT pros as opposed to developers among the members?

Athanas: Historically speaking, you're talking about high 90 percentile IT operations. There aren't a ton of developers here. Out of everyone I talked to today, not one has been a developer.

What influence does VMUG have with VMware, and how has it helped shape the company?

Athanas: Part of me wants to say, 'Oh, we have a great relationship' -- and we do. I just got back from the VMUG Leaders Summit in Palo Alto, [Calif.], and we had [VMware CEO] Pat Gelsinger in the room for an extended Q&A. VMUG provides a great avenue to get feedback into VMware about how their products are being incorporated into the community and marketplace. And VMware gives us a lot of opportunities to bring people in. If VMware wasn't behind VMUG, we wouldn't have this level of presenters at conferences.

What was Gelsinger asked about?

Athanas: VMware has made this big push to move into more than just compute virtualization. One of the areas they've been doing a lot of work in is developer tools: Photon, Lightwave, containerization, Docker support [and] VMware Integrated OpenStack. From the perspective of VMUG leaders -- who are 100% IT ops -- VMware keeps coming out with developer tools, but none of us has any idea what they do. So, Pat was pressed on, 'What does this mean for us?' Because over the past few years, VMware has gotten louder at saying the word developer. In keynotes now, you're hearing developer. I don't even know what Cloud Foundry is. I think the questions primarily centered around, 'What does VMware see five to 10 years out?' VMware has a pretty good track record of being out in front of the curve. They were out in front of virtualization, with end-user virtualization, ahead on cloud native apps. So, questions focused on what are they seeing and what does it mean for IT operations?

What does the Dell-EMC deal mean for the future?  

Athanas: I am very happy about the acquisition. If anything, I think there's a lot of overcrowding in the storage space, with a lot of vendors selling a lot of similar stuff. And Dell and EMC are two of the biggest vendors in that space. Having them merge is a good thing, because Dell has a pretty good story around agile and adaptable storage, and EMC has a better story around beefy enterprise-grade storage. I think the merger is huge, because Dell owns the industrial-grade server space, and now they are into the industrial-grade storage space.

I also like the idea of having a [single] solutions provider that goes from start to finish. From an IT ops side, if I'm doing a VDI project, I can have Dell servers, Dell endpoints, Dell storage and VMware software. I like that I can call one person and say, 'It doesn't work, and you don't have the luxury of referring me to anyone else. Fix it.' I like the one throat-to-choke scenario.

What does this mean for VMware?

I don't think it means anything for VMware. Michael Dell stopped by that leader meeting, and both he and Pat Gelsigner said very clearly and very loudly that VMware will continue to work with the marketplace. It's not as if they'll only support Dell servers, and that's a strength of VMware. EMC was smart enough not to mess with [VMware], and I think Dell will be smart enough not to mess with them either. Once you say VMware runs properly on Dell hardware, but not other stuff, you've shot the whole idea in the foot. The VMware vision, which I believe in, is about de-emphasizing your hardware. I like the fact that I can run different servers next to each other, and it doesn't matter.  

But Dell has to care about the hardware somewhat. Or will they too de-emphasize hardware, and try to become the software and services company?

Athanas: I think it's a mix. You're always going to see Dell care about the hardware. But you're not going to see them try to differentiate their organization exclusively with the hardware. They're going to be differentiated by the solution and stack they can provide; the preintegrated solutions that are ready to go right out of the box. Are they going to keep doing development on servers? Of course they are. One thing they did recently was put a lot of emphasis on cooling. Is it a better, more reliable server than another vendor? I don't know, but what I do know is I can run my data centers 10 degrees warmer, which saves on cooling and electrical bills. So, there's value there.

Aside from giving away even more home labs, what are you doing to attract more people to VMUG Boston?

Athanas: We're giving away a car. [Laughs.] It's not about a numbers game. It's cool when we set a record for attendance, but what matters to me are the stories I hear back from people about what they have done.

That's how we measure success. It's not a numbers game; it's how many people we get in who can share their story about how it's improved their career. For instance, there is a member who won a home lab and it changed their career trajectory, because they got a chance to play with stuff they normally couldn't touch at work. If you're the VMware admin, you can poke around in vSphere. But if you're the Exchange admin, nobody lets you play with vSphere, and nobody is going to fund getting you a lab to play with vSphere. But if we can help that person, they have the ability to grow their own career.

Editor's note: During the afterhours event following the VMUG Boston User Conference, Athanas didn't give away a car, but presided as VMUG handed out $34,000 in prizes to conference attendees, including 12 home labs and 100 VMUG Advantage memberships -- valued at $200 each.

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