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Industry Influencer: Nutanix CIO Talks Hyperconvergence, Supply Chain

Wendy Pfeiffer, chief information officer for a company with 7,000 employees worldwide, sees many challenges ahead, including the ongoing pandemic, supply chain issues and limited resources. But, she says, she’s hopeful for the future.

Following is one in an occasional series of interviews with “industry influencers” — executives in the private sector whose insights into California’s tech market may benefit their industry peers. Today’s subject is Wendy Pfeiffer, an East Bay resident who is chief information officer for Nutanix. This interview has been edited lightly for style and brevity.

Techwire: What’s the biggest shift you’ve seen in government digital transformation over the past year? How has Nutanix tried to adapt to those changing needs, specifically?

Pfeiffer: The obvious and maybe less-interesting answer is the COVID-19 pandemic has driven many of us to virtual and remote interactions, and there were a number of government agencies that needed to accelerate their digital transformation. Others were already operating in hybrid mode and continue to do that. I think there’s maybe a more interesting layer that we’re seeing these days, which is how we move forward. In emergency mode, we all collectively pivoted, and we’ve had a few rounds of this pivoting. What the last few rounds of pivoting have taught us is that it’s very likely that, moving forward, we’ll continue to operate in mixed mode. Some of our constituents will be interacting with us virtually; some of our constituents will be interacting with us in person, and some will be context-switching between those two modes, and in a hybrid mode. Because of that, government agencies – everything from schools and school districts to cities and counties and to state government and so on – essentially are having to offer access to their services and their expertise and their processes both in person and virtually. And whatever mode they’re in now, we can expect that there will be a change to that at some point in the future. So we’re having to be all things to all people. We’re having to truly operate in hybrid mode, and so this is the learning for us these days – for all of us.
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Wendy Pfeiffer, chief information officer for Nutanix

So what is there about hybrid that’s different and that we need to get better at? This is fascinating to me as a technologist and also fascinating to me as a business executive, and I see all these different sectors of government working through the same thing. The first is that we have to get better at asynchronous things. We cannot all get together in the same time and space in order to do things, so everything from requiring wet signatures to requiring an in-person visit for anything from a court date to a deposition to taking a test … all of those things now need to have some component that is delivered asynchronously. And because of that, we need content to be available all the time from everywhere, so the person sitting behind the desk needs to be knowledgeable – but that same access to knowledge needs to be available to the person who’s logging in online. And there need to be these hybrids available, as well. … So having to interact with the notion that some part of that interaction will be asynchronous is something that we’ll have to get better at.

The second piece of the puzzle is that everything we’re doing these days involves some blend of consumer technology and enterprise or government enterprise technology. You and I are having this conversation, and I’m using my company’s Zoom license, I’m speaking to you over public Internet, my home Internet; I’m using my gaming computer monitor and my work laptop computer. This is an absolute blend of enterprise and consumer technologies. So we have challenges around those things. Five years ago, government applications didn’t play well alongside modern applications delivered on mobile phones or mobile devices. There was this real case of the haves and the have-nots. So what do we do about that? The opportunity for us is to borrow, to imitate, to copy from, to use APIs that are available … in order to enhance that user-consumer experience.

But also, there are special challenges around cybersecurity, around access controls, around procuring data, uses of data, privacy – all of those things. We’ve always had those challenges, but in the context of very controlled environments, especially in government space. And now, the attack surface, the control surface, is more complex. And as technologists who are running these things, we don’t control all the components. So we have to think differently about how we work.

Then we have this other thing – we have a large cohort of Gen Z folks entering our workforce, entering our consumer base, and Gen Z is the first digitally native generation. These folks are much more comfortable … living in this virtual, asynchronous world. We’re having to serve them. Their expectations are different – interaction design, access to data, how we seek their identity. …

And finally, the biggest challenge that we’re dealing with is this mixed mode – something that’s a real drain on our systems and our people and our emotions – and it’s this notion of context-switching. When you’re sometimes interacting in the physical world and sometimes in the virtual world, when you’re in that hybrid space, there’s sort of a productivity tax, and a time tax, that’s applied to everything you do. So we’re building a lot of things into our interfaces to try to compensate for that. … We’re moving the needle collectively – technologists and technology companies like mine, but also folks who are working in government organizations are moving the needle on reducing the friction and productivity drain from context-switching. But that’s going to be with us going forward. If we know anything at all, it’s that the context will continue to switch.

Those things together are opportunities for us, moving forward in hybrid mode, to improve our use of technology, to improve the operational processes underlying our use of technology, and to improve how vendors like Nutanix show up in this mixed ecosystem and enable government to do its work.

I’m fascinated by this topic (asynchronicity), thinking about it all the time. Both as someone who consumes and uses technology in support of business, but also as someone who works for a company that provides that technology, that’s the pool I swim in.

And I’m hopeful. I think that technology holds some of the enablement answers for us as we’re trying to move forward in this unpredictable hybrid world.

Techwire: Do you see 2022 being a breakout year for emerging technologies — and if so, which ones? What’s your outlook for AI, ML and blockchain?

Pfeiffer: A huge thing that’s happened that hasn’t changed, that’s still ongoing, is we’ve changed in general our conception model for technology. We’re consuming capacity and bandwidth and access and data very differently than we were a couple of years ago. And at the same time, something we’re all experiencing are these supply chain challenges. There’s the collapse of the supply chain, but there’s also some profound changes in the supply chain. As I think about it, I’m the CIO of a company that has about 7,000 employees around the world, and I’m providing them with compute and storage and network and application services and devices and bandwidth and all of those things. The way that they consume that capacity and that capability has changed. I used to bring them into our hubs, and I had very beefy capacity in my hub campuses, and they would consume things there. Now they have the same consumption needs, but they’re at the edge. I don’t control the edge. I’ve had to move my bandwidth and my capacity outward. In order to have enough capacity in all the different modes, and to deal with geographic dispersement and all those things, I have to consume capacity from somewhere. And supply chain issues have made that difficult, whether it’s purchasing hardware for our data centers, or getting access to network bandwidth, or ongoing challenges in public cloud. ...

I had to create a hybrid operating model, one that says I can’t count on consuming capacity in just one mode. I cannot count on setting it and forgetting it. I can’t count on my demand and access requirements always looking the same. So we’re seeing a shift from infrastructure as a consumption model, or cloud as a consumption model, to hybrid cloud/hybrid infrastructure as an operating model. Now I literally have an operating model that says I will buy capacity in multiple modes because I need the mix. … I have this hybrid operating model as a core tenet of how I operate.

Nutanix was ahead of the curve on this. Since the 1970s, we’ve had an operating model called IT Portfolio Management, which is very much like a stock portfolio. We employ a mixed mode of consumption. This has allowed us to scale, to be resilient, to be able to negotiate with multiple vendors for commodity services and so on, and this is an advancement of that model. It says … whether I have users on iPhones or Android phones, I have to be able not just to deliver short-term, but to operate efficiently in this mixed mode. Nutanix has a hybrid cloud operating system that operates all the hardware, on all the public clouds, and allows me to build operating code – automation – to run my operations in a way that I’m only having to write that operating code once and reuse it across all of those environments. It’s an extremely efficient operating system and operating model. It’s one of those rare kinds of magical moments in my experience in IT over the last 30 years where the theory of the technology – a hybrid cloud operating system – matches the need of the moment: hybrid operating model. That is, honestly, unique.

Techwire: For the coders, architects and integrators reading this interview, please geek out for a moment and discuss what Nutanix is doing with hybrid cloud and hyperconvergence?

Pfeiffer: About hyperconvergence: In order to use technology to run a workload, you need to consume compute resources, storage resources and network resources. Outside of the hyperconverged world, each of those resources lives in its own box, in its own lair. Inside of the hyperconverged world, we have an operating system that takes a look at all of the capacity in the hardware and dynamically assigns that capacity to handle certain workloads – compute, storage, network. The reason this is important is because the nature of workloads is very dynamic, and public cloud, public Internet, has heightened that challenge. … The need to be able to have converged infrastructure that could be accessed dynamically in the moment, as needs and workloads dictated, was something that public cloud vendors started providing, but they did this by throwing massive scale at it – “We’ll just build out 200 percent more network capacity than we need on a regular day so that we’ll have that available on the busiest day.” That’s super-expensive. The theory of hyperconverge is, “We’re going to take the existing capacity that you have … and make all of that capacity available for the dynamic needs of the workload, so we can build out our infrastructure for the average day, and then be able to take advantage of additional system resources on the unusual day.” It’s incredibly cost-effective.

It’s a dynamic role of the operating system itself, and this operating system runs on existing hardware. It runs on Dell, HPE, Lenovo, it runs in AWS, and essentially uses the existing compute-storage-network capacity for these dynamic workloads. So it’s a public cloud-like model making use of scarce or constrained resources. It’s bringing that same scale and power and flexibility and elasticity of public cloud to constrained resources.

During the pandemic, Nutanix acquired a technology that’s particularly helpful to governments that have pivoted to remote interactions, called Nutanix Frame. … Essentially it creates a secure, desktop-as-a-service, Citrix-like, VDI-like (virtual desktop infrastructure) environment for interaction across public Internet. In the days of gaming, you would spin up a FRAME session and you would play some very resource-intensive games with people on the other side of the planet. … You’re not going to be a successful gamer if the interaction is laggy or slow, or not fun because it’s all pixelated, and so playing these very data-rich games over the public Internet inside this Frame wrapper was a very high-performance experience. So Nutanix acquired that technology and we now provide that to enterprises, to governments. During the early days of the pandemic, we were providing Frame licenses for free to governments and schools and so on, to aid these interactions – maybe to support a telehealth interaction, for example. There’s a real need for bandwidth, security, performance … a purpose-acquired, purpose-built technology that aids these remote interactions with consumers and people who need to interact with government that’s super easy to implement, it’s secure. It’s this neat little tool that we provide to school districts and all kinds of groups.

Techwire: What happens next in California public-sector technology?

Pfeiffer: I think we’ll continue to be hit with supply chain challenges. We’ll continue to be hit with this need for context-switching. And I think there’s a level of exhaustion in all of the systems and processes and tools and human beings, and this says to me that there’s an opportunity for us to take a look at our interaction design holistically and understand how easy or how hard it is for us to provide services and tooling and capabilities to those who need to consume it. We need to make some progress in reducing the friction and improving interaction design. And one of the most cost-effective, easily accessible ways to do that is by increasing our use of machine learning tooling, natural language process tooling, AI and ML. If I can use my voice to do something, that’s easier for me than having to type that thing, or go to a computer, or walk up to a counter to fill out that form. We need to make progress on using modern technologies to improve these interfaces and these interaction designs. … I do think machine learning, natural language processing, AI and ML tools, and making some progress in that regard, really hold the key for us over the next year.

Techwire: If a company is interested in partnering with Nutanix, how should they go about that?

Pfeiffer: There’s a couple of different ways. Nutanix doesn’t sell any of our products directly. We sell through our channel partners, so you can go to Nutanix.com and figure out where you fit in the realm of channel partners and connect with us there. If you’re a technology company and you want to integrate with us – your technology with our technology in some way – there’s different avenues for that, as well. We have a certification program, and we also have technology integration with a suite of partners; we have technical integrations with companies like Splunk and Qualys and Palo Alto Networks and so on, so we can also work through a more specialized technology integration. The starting point is our website. I’m always happy for folks to reach out to me and I’ll connect you with the right folks in our organization.

There’s a lot of opportunity for asynchronous connection by interacting with the information on our website.
Dennis Noone is Executive Editor of Industry Insider. He is a career journalist, having worked as a reporter and editor at small-town newspapers and major metropolitan dailies in California, Nevada, Texas and Virginia, including as an editor with USA Today in Washington, D.C. He lives in Northern California.