Executive Q&A: Denis Kennelly, GM of IBM Storage

eWEEK EXECUTIVE Q&A: IBM's Denis Kennelly is one of the most influential executives in the data storage industry. eWEEK contributing writer Charles King, a principal analyst with PUND-IT, discusses trends and the roadmap ahead for Kennelly and IBM.

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Denis Kennelly’s passion for technology and leading enterprise transformations has resulted in a remarkable career spanning multiple continents and major vendors. Following senior roles at DEC, EMC and Motorola, Kennelly became SVP of engineering at Vallent Technologies, a mobile solutions start-up that was purchased by IBM a few months later. Leadership positions in IBM Tivoli, IBM Security and IBM Hybrid Cloud followed the Vallent acquisition.

In August 2020, Kennelly was appointed GM of IBM Storage. He leads the team that delivers industry leading storage solutions and supports client journeys to hybrid cloud and AI.

Pund-IT: It’s good to talk with you, Denis. Appreciate you sharing some details about your life and work, including your new role in IBM Storage as general manager (GM). Can we begin by discussing your upbringing and education?

Denis Kennelly: I come from a pretty humble background, growing up on a farm in the town of Listowel, which is in County Kerry, Ireland. My mother was the “career coach” and insisted that I get a college education; otherwise, I might be a farmer today!

Pund-IT: How did you become interested in technology, etc.?

Kennelly: I always liked mathematics and the sciences, which led me to a primary degree in Electronics Engineering. I really enjoyed computer hardware design and understanding how computers actually worked from the ground up.

Pund-IT: Many people are familiar with U.S. universities with a strong focus on IT (Stanford, MIT, etc.). What was university like in Ireland? Do you believe that you learned, experienced or were exposed to things there that were unique?

Kennelly: The college that I attended in Ireland, the University of Limerick, was heavily influenced by U.S. colleges and used the U.S. GPA grading system. At that time (1984-88), the technology industry was still in its infancy in Ireland and so the curriculum was full of lecturers who had either studied or worked in the U.S.

Pund-IT: What degrees were you awarded?

Kennelly: I earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Limerick in electronic and electrical engineering. I also received a master’s degree in computer science from Trinity College in Dublin.

Pund-IT: After university, what was your initial professional focus? What intrigued you about that area? What companies did you initially work for, and what were your duties?

Kennelly: In 1988, I went to work for Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), applying my knowledge of computer hardware to the VAX 11/785, one of DEC’s flagship machines at the time.

Pund-IT: What sort of duties did that involve?

Kennelly: One of my initial responsibilities was troubleshooting system memory crash dumps, which required me to understand the VMS Operating System, down through device drivers all the way to the hardware. It was an amazing learning experience.

Pund-IT: DEC has fallen into the memory hole for most people, but the company developed some remarkable technologies.

Kennelly: DEC was challenging IBM at its peak, with $11B in revenue. Unfortunately, over the next ten years, the company fell sharply from that position, eventually being acquired by Compaq in 1998. (Note: Following the acquisition by Compaq, DEC’s assets, including its notable Alpha processor technologies, were acquired by HP in its 2000 purchase of Compaq.)

Pund-IT: What did you do after leaving DEC in 1993?

Kennelly: I wanted to try a startup and move into the telecoms space – mobile telephones really intrigued me. The idea that somebody could make a phone call over the air was simply wondrous to me then. While the startup I joined – Telecom Ireland – was modestly successful, my desire to work with a leader in wireless/mobile drove my next career move. In 1996, I joined Motorola as a software engineering operations manager. That was during the time when GSM – a truly industry-changing experience – was in the midst of being deployed in Europe.

Pund-IT: In 2001, you joined EMC’s UK organization as the VP of its storage management business to lead product development and strategy for what would eventually become EMC’s Control Center. That seems like a bit of a jump from your early work in wireless/telecom. What factors opened the door from one discipline to the other?

Kennelly: Yes, it was a big leap and not an obvious one. First, EMC had a major operation in Cork, Ireland where I had settled, and my wife and I were expecting our first child. The company approached me as they needed somebody to lead a large-scale development team. I was attracted by its innovative culture, which was cultivated by an ex-Israeli military leadership team.

Pund-IT: It must have been challenging.

Kennelly: For sure, it was a huge transition for me, and I had to learn and adapt very quickly. Each day, I was challenged by the team to innovate and execute at a paranoid rate and pace,

Pund-IT: It sounds like working in a veritable pressure cooker.

Kennelly: EMC was a truly innovative company, creating the storage business that we know today. The company was a disruptor and keenly aware of The Innovator’s Dilemma that Clayton M. Christensen spoke of. Ironically, many of the offices that EMC occupied were those of DEC – they had good reason to be concerned.

Pund-IT: After nearly five years at EMC, what led you to Vallent Technologies, and then IBM?

Kennelly: While I started out with EMC in Cork, Ireland, I quickly moved to Hopkinton, Massachusetts. I spent five very happy years at EMC headquarters. During that stretch, five children had come along and my wife and I were considering where we wanted to educate our kids and whether to be closer to family. As fate would have it, I got a call from some old colleagues at Motorola to join a small software company called Vallent Technologies that they were trying to scale. I wanted to try a startup again, so we made the decision to return to Ireland and go on the journey with Vallent where I became its SVP of engineering. Just three months after I joined, IBM made initial contact and acquired the company one year later.

Pund-IT: Talk about timing. What factors made you believe that IBM would be a good and interesting place to work?

Kennelly: First, the whole acquisition and due diligence process blew me away with its high level of rigor and analysis. It told me straight away that IBM was a very well-run company. Plus, IBM was serious about expanding into the telecom OSS market. Along with Micromuse (that IBM acquired 12 months previously), Vallent was a market leader, which meant that suddenly we were a startup/small company looking to grow within a large company.

Pund-IT: IBM’s strategic move into telecom made sense but it wasn’t one of the company’s traditional focus areas.

Kennelly: That was a very interesting challenge, both in educating the IBMers about the telecom space and generating pull from the massive sales machine.

Pund-IT: Lots of synergies there. Did you consider it a long-term opportunity?

Kennelly: I never planned to stay in IBM beyond two to three years – I thought the company was simply too big for me to have an impact. My plan was to get Vallent integrated and then move on to my next opportunity. Almost 15 years later, that move has yet to occur.

Pund-IT: Since your career at IBM began over a decade ago, you’ve had leadership positions that appear wildly different from one another. Would you agree with that assumption or are there linkages between them that might not be immediately apparent?

Kennelly: The wonderful thing about IBM is that you can have multiple careers without changing companies. In my case, I have had different careers working in three separate business units (BUs): Tivoli/Netcool, IBM Security and IBM Hybrid Cloud. In terms of product offerings and buyers, all are different. But since they’re part of IBM, there are linkages and ties to the integrated value of IBM overall.

Pund-IT: Give me an example.

Kennelly: Take Hybrid Cloud, where I was responsible for IBM Middleware and helping clients transform their workloads to a Cloud run-time. There are synergies between Netcool and Security to the Hybrid Cloud, as they provide operational and security visibility for the Hybrid Cloud run-time.

Pund-IT: So, it would be a mistake to think of them as separate and highly separated technologies and businesses.

Kennelly: IBM prides itself on driving synergy sales in client transformation deals across product families such as these.

Pund-IT: Are there any events, products or developments from your time in those BUs that you’d like to mention or discuss?

Kennelly: Each of these roles was transformational in nature when we needed to make technology shifts as the market(s) evolved. My most recent role in Hybrid Cloud is a good example.

Pund-IT: How so?

Kennelly: Our core middleware franchise was being disrupted/transformed into a cloud native development model. We made the strategic bet to move the entire portfolio to containers to enable a portable cloud consumption model with what we now call IBM Cloud Paks. This was a major transformation of the portfolio, simplifying the offerings, pricing and GTM (go to market) positioning.

Pund-IT: How did your previous work or positions inform your IBM efforts?

Kennelly: When I think back to my days at DEC and its inability to transform quickly and the maniac focus on disruption at EMC, these experiences drove me to move as quickly as possible in these roles and get ahead of the disruption wave.

Pund-IT: Did your efforts in those IBM BUs reflect deeper or continuing themes in your work and career? How so?

Kennelly: Yes, one of the recurring themes in my career is the ability to move into a new market or business segment, quickly develop an understanding and a point of view and drive an execution plan.

Pund-IT: In what ways?

Kennelly: Good examples include IBM Hybrid Cloud and the transformation of traditional enterprise middleware into a cloud consumption model; IBM Security and building out a product line that addressed the key needs of the CISO; and at EMC, going from a hardware centric storage portfolio to a mix of hardware and software.

Pund-IT: Given your history with EMC, is there a sort of Back to the Future feel in your move to IBM Storage?

Kennelly: In a way, yes. But the storage business has changed dramatically since I last worked in it. We operate in a far different world versus when I was at EMC. Today, it’s a Hybrid Cloud world, with data literally everywhere which raises the omnipresent risk of a cyber-attack. As a result, we need a consistent operating mode for Storage across Hybrid Cloud while also playing a critical role in both protecting enterprise data and unlocking critical business insights.

Pund-IT: Are there any key issues or elements related to enterprise storage today that you believe people misunderstand or get fundamentally wrong?

Kennelly: As clients transform their IT environments, much of the focus and attention is on the target run-time for the application stack. Data and Storage are often a secondary consideration and as a result, they can limit the ability to access data as the application stack moves.

Pund-IT: What is IBM doing to address those points?

Kennelly: Storage solutions such as IBM Spectrum Scale address these issues. In addition, when it comes to Cyber Resiliency (i.e., the ability to recover from a cyber-attack), Storage can also play a critical role in helping protect critical customer data with features such as IBM Safeguarded Copy.

Pund-IT: Storage plays a vital role in every phase of enterprise IT, and IBM has a long history in storage innovation. Where does IBM Storage currently stand in comparison to its competitors and the larger market?

Kennelly: The IBM Storage portfolio is extremely well positioned relative to the competition. For example, our open systems storage FlashSystems line has been proven to be 50% more cost effective while delivering double the performance and using almost 90% less rack space than competing products, thanks to our innovation in flash drives. We are also investing heavily in our software business in areas such as Data Protection and Distributed File and Object Storage. This is recognized by the analyst community, which continues to place us in leadership positions.

Pund-IT: What is the company doing differently or better than competitors? Why is that the right course? What are the potential risks or dangers?

Kennelly: IBM continues to innovate, driving cost and capacity improvements for our storage offerings. We live in a Cloud/OpEx consumption model where customers purchase what they need today. IBM is investing heavily in Storage as a Service offerings that are easily consumable based on a customer’s needs today.

Pund-IT: How are customers responding to IBM’s approach?

Kennelly: The biggest risk is having these conversations with clients in a COVID-19 world where face-to-face meetings are no longer an option. We are working to deliver digital assets and experiences where customers can view and experience this value online and make purchasing decisions accordingly.

Pund-IT: Traditional storage functions, like back-up, recovery and archive, have been a staple of cloud services for years. IBM’s recent announcements around its Financial Services Cloud highlight how the company is providing the benefits of enterprise multi-cloud to tightly regulated businesses and industries. How vital is IBM Storage to those efforts and what is its role?

Kennelly: The IBM Storage portfolio is 100% aligned to IBM Cloud and now the Financial Services Cloud. IBM Storage offerings run on IBM Cloud and we continue to innovate around areas such as Tape capacity, providing air-gapped backup/archive, which is critical to security and compliance needs.

Pund-IT: How does storage fit into multi-cloud segments, and broader IBM initiatives, like AI/ML and blockchain?

Kennelly: The IBM Storage portfolio is designed and built for all sorts of Hybrid Multi-Cloud use cases. In addition to Hybrid Cloud, offerings like Spectrum Discover enable data discovery for AI models. In a Hybrid Cloud world, the attack surface is much broader, necessitating the need for far better cyber resiliency. IBM Storage Protected Copy provides resiliency for critical data to address these needs of organizations and enterprises.

Pund-IT: Where do you see IBM Storage in a year? And two to three years? Five years?

Kennelly: Over the next year, I see IBM Storage continuing the momentum in the FlashSystems space. Tape will also play a major role in air-gapped archives in Cloud, and we will offer the best TCO storage offering to meet the accelerating data archive needs. Over the next five years, compute and data will move to the Edge, and IBM Storage will be a major enabler for that shift.

Pund-IT: How about yourself? Would you be willing to share any new areas or emerging technologies that you find particularly intriguing?

Kennelly: I have been in the IT business for over 30 years and during that time, I have seen the industry see-saw between centralized computing (i.e., mainframe) and distributed computing and back to centralized cloud(s). With the ongoing rollout of 5G, networks can enable high bandwidth and low latency connectivity. This in turn will drive a redistribution of compute to Edge. Storage has a critical role to play in enabling seamless data access from the centralized Cloud(s) to the Edge without the need to move data. Which is why we are on the cusp of the next disruption/evolution of Enterprise Computing as we know it.

Pund-IT: Finally, I hear that you’re a huge rugby fan but it’s hard to imagine the game in an age of social distancing. What are your favorite teams and how are they faring in these challenging times?

Kennelly: Through very careful management of players, professional rugby is up and running in these COVID times, and it is a welcome distraction from the ongoing restrictions. My favorite team is Munster Rugby.

Pund-IT: How has the pandemic impacted you personally?

Kennelly: My work life has completely changed. Until this March, I traveled every week. But I’ve not seen the inside of a plane since then. It has meant that I am at home every night, working U.S. hours while living in Ireland, which has travel restrictions. Working in a COVID world does have its advantages – I can talk to a customer in any part of the world pretty much any day. Which makes getting business done much faster and more efficient. That said, I do miss the personal touch of meeting people in person and getting to know clients better over lunch or dinner.

Pund-IT: Thank you, Denis. You’ve had and are continuing to have a remarkable career. I appreciate you sharing your time and insights.

Kennelly: You’re welcome, Charles. Thanks for the opportunity.

Charles King is a principal analyst at PUND-IT and a regular contributor to eWEEK.  © 2020 Pund-IT, Inc. All rights reserved.