Tesla? God no. I did my level best to avoid the media hype, the social chatter and the swarm to Tesla because I just didn’t want one. My resistance was due less to the character and quality of the car than to the polarizing stigma they have here in Silicon Valley, just another emblem of the culture of “one-upmanship.” If you can get yourself past that, then you must endure “fan-boy” Tesla drivers pitted against the financial community and media purporting everything from concerns over the business model to build quality issues, all topped off by the hysteria around Elon’s behavior on the assembly floor and quarterly conference calls.

But that’s just the broader ethos. Equally challenging was that I also had to set aside my upbringing as a “petrol head,” because, yup, I was that kid with the Lamborghini Countach and Ferrari Testerossa posters on my wall growing up. So how in Hell could that kid grow into this old guy contemplating a ride with no noise, no engine and scissor doors on a “people carrier”?

Taking the Datera CEO role and engaging every day in the battle that has become the Bay Area commute was what put me over the edge and led me to get into the “diamond” HOV lane to maintain some semblance of sanity. But I’d already ordered and rescinded two prior TeslaX purchases in the past: I put my name down due to my interest in the doors, which swing upward like an eagle, but bailed after my upbringing got the better of me. Later, I even went to see the recently released Tesla3 at the San Jose Auto Show and was amazed by the looks and cockpit configuration that convinced me I should reconsider. But I remained conflicted.

Fast forward a few months to when I found myself motoring off to a meeting with one of my board members, who himself had replaced his original Model S with a 3. I was not expecting to be pinned to the back of my seat with just the base dual motor model nor so intrigued by the whole experience. To satisfy my inner geek as well as my HOV need, I put in the order right after the lunch bill showed up. Still no proper test drive, but I figured the convenience would make up for not having a Lamborghini’s look, feel and purr. As for reliability, I just assumed that I’d sort out the reality from the paranoia of the old school auto crowd.

Delivery Day

Taking ownership was a straightforward and simple process since the car was personally driven to my house and the transfer paperwork and signatures took less than a minute, the orientation to the new car took only a couple. Once done, the Tesla delivery guy ordered up an Uber, bid me farewell, and walked down the road to a more obvious meetup point. End of the road, on to the next.

The car turned out to be super intuitive. Bottom line, if you can work your way around an iPad, you can operate a Tesla. So Wifey and I jumped into the car and after a few “right foot planted” starts that blew our hair back (ok, her hair, since I am chronically follically challenged), we got accustomed to the new ride and returned hours later, suitably impressed.

Enjoying the Ride

Over the last 3 months and nearly 4,000 miles, I have honestly been astonished by this car, not just for the 0-60 time, the autonomous driving capabilities or even the electrification, but by the way the Tesla engineers clearly sat down and re-imagined how a car could and should be for the new generation.

These are things I know they reconsidered:

  • Control Panel: What about that funky cockpit with the oversized iPad dashboard thing? Well, it was so simple that it took exactly 0 seconds to get used to it. That makes perfect sense considering the Tesla design HQ is just down the road from the Stanford Research Institute offices where the first Graphical User Interface was made. But the additional benefit often overlooked is that there are no illuminated dials between the driver and the road which improves visibility and creates less stress on the eyes.
  • Personal Fit: Gone are the wing-mirror switches and steering wheel adjuster. In their stead, a single button on the steering wheel temporarily adjusts all those items through a ‘you won’t need a manual’ simple UI and once done, moves on to control the major audio functions.
  • More than Plain Jane Home-Link: Tesla developed a home-link with GPS to control the garage door and the gate, though sadly not yet the mailbox. This means I don’t have to fumble about with the clickers and try to figure out which of the three buttons actually operates the damn door. Same thing for the gate. And the system is GPS aware, so the car takes over operating both based on my distance from each. Now, I round the corner coming or going and the openings and closings take care of themselves.
  • Identification: Even something as simple and boring as the license surround has been reimagined and designed more like a sleeve for easier installation and greater visibility.

So, these were my initial (<1000) observations that don’t even scratch the surface of truly understanding what these folks created.

Not Just Analytics, Action

I’ve been in the data management and manipulation game since the late 80’s, having run companies in the analytics, management and security sectors and led the top enterprise storage and data protection concern for years. Whether by design or by accident, I am now chronically obsessed with how technology can be harnessed to generate faster and deeper insights and to thereby generate faster and better informed actions. And Tesla is a prime example.

Tesla currently has multiple driving modes, including, ‘Adaptive Cruise’ mode for easy driving and navigation, ‘Auto-Steer’ Mode to follow along in-lane, and ‘Auto-Pilot & GPS” to plot direction and destination. In this last mode, the car can also follow a car in a lane on a road which, when combined with its GPS capabilities, warns you to change lanes, slow the car for corners, and junctions etc… This last setting is interesting in part due to the interaction between driver and car: it warns, you respond; it changes lanes, slows down, takes an intersection, speeds up, and you respond again. Not fully autonomous but pretty impressive and scary to boot.

Headed up the freeway to Sand Hill Road – VC territory, literally littered with Teslas, I was more engrossed in Russell Brands’ latest revelations via audiobook through the car than my travels. Right then, the car started indicating on its own, thus hopping into the right hand lane, slowing down and taking the junction without any of my input, which was both rather exciting and an interesting revelation.

I’ve had many conversations with friends over what data Tesla must be collecting, from the basics like speeds, trajectory and destinations, to the more obscure like attentiveness of the driver via the inside cam (was it the car’s fault or the driver’s fault?). But I recognize now that I was just scratching the surface of all the little things needed to continuously improve the driving experience, efficiency and safety. For example, how about understanding the actions at any major junction like Highway 280 and Sand Hill Road: when do I hit the indicator? Do I break first or change lanes first? How long until I take the second action? How far from the junction do I pull over? What speed is acceptable for me to take the junction? And what do I do about all those skinny people in Lycra on just two wheels?

With a Bit of a Mind Flip

Tesla tailors this information for me and also effectively ‘crowdsources’ this data on every road and junction, getting smarter along the way, yielding a ‘safe and normal and sensible’ map that feeds back into my autonomous driving machine learning algorithms for everyone to one day make fully autonomous mode a reality. Finally, it dawned on me, scoring an OMFG moment: Tesla isn’t about electric motors, it’s about telemetry and the power of data. Plain and simple, it’s getting better with every mile whilst the competition still thinks the game is all about the next generation of battery technology years down the road.

Consider the contrary – the original Audi A3 E-Tron. Combustion engine out, electric motor in, slather of batteries jammed underneath, ‘high fives’ all around and, voila, a Tesla competitor is born. Well, maybe not so much, since it headed out of the showrooms back to the design center. The Germans have stayed loyal to their own as years later the company has made commercial progress on its home turf, but has it really figured out that this isn’t all about the motor and the performance?

I bought the Tesla to serve a specific purpose and have found myself getting more and more value from it. My purpose has a lot to do with my specific drive over the Santa Cruz mountain range, which while beautiful can make for frayed nerves, immensely long commutes and fun races. But once you break the concept of what a car is, consider the needs of the driver and break away from the ‘ultimate driving experience’ being in the main about the motor, the options are boundless. The brain of the car is no longer the motor, instead it’s the data. It’s the ability to get live ‘call home’ data to enrich the product and ‘Over the Air’ upgrades with new knowledge and capabilities.

The enhancements to my car in my relatively short time, include many new driving modes ranging from Fart Mode (you can look it up – makes selective farting noises from the seats of your choice) to Romance Mode (OK, don’t ask, don’t tell); from Charge Me Up Mode (a dynamic map of superchargers and their online availability) to Pet Mode (makes the car safe for my bulldog Alfie). There are of course the more pedestrian updates that you’d expect, including a USB Dashboard Camera and faster 0-60 acceleration. Question: what extras have you gotten from your car since you bought it, aside from a lovely recall here or there?

The Net Effect

What’s somewhat of a personal indictment of my own blinkered prejudices is that I am now driving a car that’s one third the price of my previous one, and I can honestly say it the best vehicle purchase I have ever made. For anyone who knows me, this will come as quite a statement. It feels like German build quality. Power is delivered smoothly, it’s planted to the road, silent, no squeaks or rattles, and it’s semi-autonomous, fully electric and plants a smile on my face daily. Further, its operations have become ingrained in my psyche and I have absolutely no idea how I could go back to the old way of operating.

So, Would You Shut Up About Tesla Already?

Ok, so this does relate heavily to my daily life in the data management and storage business. Start out with an industry similarly steeped in predefined assumptions, smothered in cost, and layered in generations of complexity without much hope for change. Along comes the cloud to turn it on its head to drive a much needed but painful modernization to confront escalating costs and the chronic inability to meet the needs of customers for not just reliability, but the agility to grow and thrive. For the first time in a while, it’s not about the blinking lights in the cages, but instead about the software and data needed for change. That’s where the storage brain is now, and that’s where Datera comes in.

Once on board and really able to get under the hood with the team, I was able to see just how many parallels there are to the automotive industry. Datera wasn’t built by storage array engineers. In fact, the entire founding team were production hyperscale cloud maniacs frustrated with the inadequacies of typical storage operations (think of an octogenarian using a walker being coddled by a health attendant) and the chronic inability to change quickly or scale easily. We’ve heard it many times – “there’s gotta be a better way.”

Now don’t get me wrong, storage arrays have their purpose and have proven to be fantastic assets for relatively fixed data centers as well as the Museum of Computer History down the street from our offices. But the harsh reality is that an array design that dates back 15-20 years was focused on the engine and not the telemetry. It’s entire being was built to ensure that the drives stayed up and active so we could put what we wanted on it, which at that time was a single app, dataset and purpose. Those same architectures, best practices and user experiences are still driving many an agenda today. While they’ve gotten better and more adaptable, they’re still about the chassis and the engine, like Tesla’s competitors. When will they ever learn? So, the old school car industry iterates its way into the age of the electric car whilst Tesla is defining a new age of data and telemetry running on electric power. This marks an industry ripe for disruption.

For us on the ground, the fundamental difference in design stems from the team’s experience and mindset. If you’ve always built an array, then you will iterate that towards the promised land without truly understanding the experience needed. We’ve all heard the saying, “walk a mile in my shoes” and it sure fits here. How can you possibly build for the cloud if you’ve never experienced what that means other than what you hear from Jim Cramer on the bloody TV?

Datera set out to build a low latency, block-based storage platform for hyperscale usage entirely designed around automation, agility and commodity bricks. Able to fabricate an entirely new storage array out of a swarm of commodity servers, it is fundamentally designed to embrace new and ever-changing workloads, use cases, topologies and componentry devoid of continuous human intervention. Let’s leave our health care workers to do health care. The resulting invention is an SDS data platform that accelerates Tier1 workload performance and powers availability but with the insight, telemetry, looping, migrations, upgrades, and enhancements that I now get with my Tesla. Datera gets the data about data usage, application intent, network bottlenecks, availability zones, data center layout, brick type (NVMe, Flash, Hybrid Flash), tenants and more. It compiles it all, processes it, and provides resources and moves information around autonomously to maximize against the constraints an administrator generates, rather than the other way around. Datera is not just a different engine to the same end game, but a different approach entirely to achieve a new and better end game without sacrificing the standards that we set in the past.

In recent months, I have pieced together some more of the puzzle. Hiking in the footsteps of what’s possible leads you forward. If not, you are doomed to tread in the past and make incremental changes designed to comfort, not disrupt! We now live in a world of private, hybrid and, on the horizon, multi-cloud that is no longer just buzzword bingo. The customers we seek out are beginning to recognize that they cannot deliver on their vision for data unless data is freed from the chains of the past and put to use more wisely at a pace they have never seen before. And we as a team at Datera will not rest until we get them on the path to the future with continuous self-optimization, rather than doomed to repeat the past with a new motor and same steering column!

Congratulations to Marc, Nic and the engineering team for your vision and dedication to taking a new approach and many thanks for bringing me on the journey…

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