Co-Founder Dheeraj Pandey Exits Nutanix

Before departing the company in December 2020, Pandey reflects on lessons learned and the values that moved Nutanix from a hyperconverged infrastructure pioneer to a leader in hybrid cloud.

By Joanie Wexler

By Joanie Wexler February 02, 2021

In its twelfth year in business, Nutanix is firmly established as a pioneer of hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) and the private cloud. The company is now helping create and fuel the growth of hybrid cloud with platform-agnostic software that interoperates across private and public IT infrastructures.

In his final days before departing Nutanix as CEO and Chairman in mid-December 2020, Dheeraj Pandey reflected on how things have changed since he co-founded the company in 2009. The COVID-19 pandemic stirred many emotions, enough so that Pandey felt it was time to leave the company in the hands of new leadership.

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Pandey helped pick the new Nutanix CEO Rajiv Ramaswami, calling him the right leader at the right time.

“With a future-proof business model, a loyal and expanding customer base, and a strong technology portfolio, I look forward to seeing Rajiv take the helm to lead this incredible team,” Pandy said.

When he started the company, Pandey was determined to help enterprises simplify their increasingly complicated IT operations rather than focus specifically on technologies or products. He wanted to make it easier to operate and increase data technology capabilities. He wanted to “consumerize” IT technologies.

A Page from the Web Giants’ Playbook

When Pandey formed Nutanix with co-founders Ajeet Singh and Mohit Aron, he was eyeing two parallel movements in the tech industry. First, Web-scale “consumer clouds” like Facebook, Google, and Amazon were building next-generation infrastructures, he said "shunned anything proprietary" and used software powered by commodity hardware. Second, convergence was happening in smartphones, which were also running on commodity hardware and integrating users’ work and personal lives.

“There was convergence in a massively disruptive way, and software was where the differentiation came in,” recalled Pandey.

“While early mobile giants like BlackBerry, Nokia, and Motorola thought email was the killer app for smartphones, Apple pulled in music, cameras, maps, and more and changed the course of history forever.”

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Pandey didn’t think the enterprise should be left behind.

“Could we take the consumer cloud architecture and bring the idea of convergence to the enterprise?” he wondered back then.

That was a great motivator in the early years and that purpose is still core to Nutanix.

Strong Companies Ask ‘Why?’

Pandey said he believes that strong companies are borne out of the concept of “why.” Why do problems exist? Why should we try to solve them? This leads to finding new capabilities or better approaches.

He said the “what” comes next. What technologies, products, solutions or services can be created to bring about positive change over time?

Nutanix’s initial “why” gave enterprises more integrated IT experiences analogous to those delivered to consumers by Web-scale cloud services and the Apple iPhone. To Pandey, these were experiences that made back-end infrastructure and operations seem invisible.

He considered what Apple would do for the enterprise if applying its expertise there. His answer was to consolidate many disparate proprietary systems, which changed IT operations in ways that called for more generalists than specialists.

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“We came to consolidate things that people used to pay for separately on a commodity grid of hardware,” Pandey said in an interview for The Forecast. “These things can all talk to each other and generalists can spin them up” as simply as someone installing an application from the Apple App Store, he explained.

And thus was born HCI, which was the company’s initial “what.” Pandey said Nutanix and its ecosystem partners redefined HCI many times through the years. Today it is a foundation for many organizations moving to hybrid cloud IT operations.

HCI combines computing, storage devices, storage networking and virtualization into common hardware. Functions are controlled by software-defined processes and can be quickly scaled. It’s empowering many IT teams to build out hybrid and multicloud ecosystems.

Making Infrastructure Invisible

If the “why” behind Nutanix became the goal of making IT infrastructure more invisible to those who use and manage it, then the “how” for achieving it became consumer-grade design and webscale engineering, said Pandey.

These building blocks allowed enterprise IT departments to start small and easily grow, with resources automatically and continuously updated and always available.

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Pandey said the resulting economies of scale with hyperconvergence were derived by three factors: commodity-driven consolidation, the homogenization of hardware and massive standardization.

Birth of the Private Cloud

Hyperconvergence proved to be a stepping stone to the private cloud concept – another “what” for Nutanix that emerged circa 2015.

“Many functions that had previously required their proprietary hardware became apps that ran on our software,” said Pandey.

That situation allowed Nutanix to build the private cloud experience, which Pandey described as a “manifestation of some businesses wanting to own their converged infrastructures” rather than using public cloud infrastructure services.

Nutanix integrated the tools needed to build a private cloud rather than charging customers for all the piecemeal components in its software. Again, the model mirrors how consumers today don’t pay separately for camera, maps, phone, email, text functions, and so forth on a smartphone, explained Pandey.

“Then we added networking, application data storage and disaster recovery, all ‘invisible,’” said Pandey. Operating a complicated data center could now be done as easily an integrated, simple-to-use iPhone.

And like the iPhone platform, “people build applications on top of the Nutanix platform,” he said.

Twists and Turns Along the Way

Nutanix initially built its hyperconverged infrastructure on virtualization software that VMware specialists had written.

“Layering our software onto VMware became a ‘coopetition’ until eventually, VMware became a competitor like Google became an Apple competitor,” Pandey recounted.

Challenges ensued.

“In 2011 and 2012, our technology didn’t work with an older version of VMware,” Pandey recalled. “We had to navigate, in 2013 and 2014, building our own compute virtualization layer.”

This led to AHV, the free Nutanix hypervisor. Pandey said that building its virtualization software showed Nutanix could adapt and continue to grow over time.

The Way Forward: A Common Cloud Operating System

Bridging private and public clouds for early adopters while continuing to support companies that are just getting their feet wet with cloud technology represents Nutanix’s main near-term purpose, said Pandey.

He envisions a common layer of operating system (OS) software on both sides of the private and public cloud boundary one day. It’s an effort that’s going to take some time and partnerships to realize.

“The public cloud pioneers built an OS for huge webscale, and they’re trying to miniaturize it and bring it to the edge,” Pandey said. “We started small and we’re trying to scale up. We’ll probably meet somewhere in the middle.”

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He doesn’t see the hybrid cloud OS effort as one being taken on by formal standards bodies but instead envisions a group effort, with many point-to-point and peer-to-peer agreements.

“The environment has become so complex,” he said. “There’s no point in starting with a committee. We’ll build [interoperability] one relationship at a time, then make APIs available. That’s how integrations happen; we all become pieces of the puzzle.”

Management Mindset

A self-described “humanist to the core,” Pandey applies similar values to his work and personal life. He describes his guiding principles as the four H’s – hungry, humble, honest with heart.

He always keeps the needs of customers and employees front and center. He maintains respect for markets and constantly listens to what’s shaping and driving them.

“It’s a rite of passage of any company to figure out how you innovate and not worry about the naysayers as you address early adopters, then the early majority, all while staying humble and recognizing that market forces are supreme and that the status quo has power,” Pandey said.

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He’s a believer in author Simon Sinek’s “infinite mindset,” which eschews the black-and-white concept of winners and losers. Instead, to Pandey, “a just cause is your customer.” The goal of the infinite mindset is to continually improve a vision for the future and to persevere, even as managers, competitors, customers and employees come and go.

Pandey said his values transcend both his business and personal lives.

“Business is part of life, so there shouldn’t be two sets of values,” he said.

He sees navigating the needs and demands of many amid conflicting market forces and trends that often seem at odds with one another as just part of the challenge.

“Being optimistic and paranoid are two sides of the same coin; so are entrepreneurship and leadership,” he said. “Humans have a left brain and a right brain for that reason. How well you balance them for success is what it’s all about.”

“Any business is about understanding the folks on the other side, which is empathy. If you want to compete, compete with yourself. Do it for your customers, employees and partners.”

Joanie Wexler is a contributing writer and editor with more than 20 years’ experience covering the business implications of IT and computer networking technologies.

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