Darren Lowe is a living history of the virtualization of computing. Today, he’s director of systems engineering at Nutanix, which made its name by virtualizing data center hardware into a software package called hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI).
As a teenager growing up in Cradley Heath, England, Lowe helped people fix their printers and other computer peripherals. Before long, he learned to build servers in metal boxes sold to companies that needed computers to run their business.
As his career unfolded, he went from building business computers by hand to implementing software on them.
“I have no computer science background,” Lowe said in an interview with The Forecast by Nutanix.
“Everything that I've done has been self-taught in environments where we could basically play around, installing applications and looking at how we scale software and hardware. It’s really just doing the hands on-work.”
Lowe found plenty of work as virtualization began to take off in the early 2000s. He noticed his experience of working on hardware was quickly surpassed by time spent virtualizing hardware. Going forward, it would be a software-defined future for this IT guy.
Drinking the Nutanix ‘Champagne’
In 2022, one of Lowe’s key jobs is overseeing the IT infrastructure that runs Nutanix and allows its development teams to build software that thousands of customers use to run hybrid multicloud IT operations. Founded in 2009, Nutanix sold a package that installed HCI on dedicated commodity hardware. In its early years, the company primarily used VMware’s hypervisor to manage the HCI environments sold to Nutanix customers. Things changed for Nutanix’s marketplace after the company introduced its own hypervisor, AHV, in 2014.
Nutanix’s IT department, which provided development environments for the company’s software engineers, did not adopt AHV right away. While Nutanix was selling its own hypervisor-driven software suite to enterprise customers, its in-house engineers were still building apps in VMware environments when Lowe joined the company in 2017.
It fell to Lowe to help the company’s IT department “drink its own champagne,” a philosophy of Wendy M. Pfeiffer, Nutanix’s chief information officer. Pfeiffer and Lowe previously worked together at GoPro, the camera company, and she knew Lowe had the skills to shift Nutanix over to its own technology.
Stints at internet pioneers like Cisco Systems and Yahoo! helped Pfeiffer realize the importance of companies using the same tools they sell to their customers.
“I learned that I was passionate about helping companies take advantage of their own disruption,” Pfeiffer said in a 2019 profile on The Forecast.
Trying it Before Customers Buy It
Nutanix is a global enterprise software vendor with over 5,000 employees. Its products help companies thrive with virtualization in on-premise, hybrid and multi-cloud environments.
Since the company’s birth, its IT department has been responsible for providing stable, effective development environments to its legions of software engineers. The VMware environments they implemented used proven technology. It wasn’t broken; why fix it?
The answer was a paradox that had to be resolved: Nutanix’s own developers worked night and day trying to outdo VMware. If Nutanix’s virtualization technology could best VMware’s, why not use Nutanix tools in-house?
Lowe and his team test this proposition every day.
“We will take on new products first and we'll test them out and give our feedback as to whether things need to be changed or tweaked or tuned,” Lowe said. “And we'll go through what a new customer would go through in terms of onboarding.”
This means staying in constant communication with product teams very early in the beta phase of testing.
“We'll give our feedback on functional testing to make sure it works,” Lowe added.
The ‘Champagne’ Philosophy in Action
The open-source Kubernetes container-management system offers an example of how “drinking their own champagne” shakes out for Nutanix developers. Public cloud providers offer custom versions of Kubernetes that are optimized for their technology platforms.
“They bolt on 25 other things that you might need, or you might not need,” Lowe said.
The Nutanix Kubernetes Engine, by contrast, is pared down and optimized to dovetail with the entire Nutanix software suite.
“It’s as close to a bare Kubernetes engine as you can get,” he explained.
This gives Nutanix clients the flexibility to implement Kubernetes to fit their precise needs without a bunch of bells and whistles they may not need.
And thanks to Lowe’s IT team, Nutanix’s developers also have this freedom when building applications.
Nutanix Files, an application for software-defined storage, also illustrates the value of the company using its own software. Nutanix was running Windows servers that had a bad habit of failing at the most critical time of each month, generating costly downtime.
“We switched over to Nutanix Files and for us, it was just a big shift in reliability,” Lowe recalled. Outages have been reduced to seconds or milliseconds.
Nutanix Cloud Manager, which automates the deployment of applications across multi-cloud environments, is another time-saver.
“We automated everything and took our deployment times down from a couple of hours to about 20 minutes for deploying 500-600 VMs,” Lowe said.
Lowe’s IT team has more than a rooting interest in the usability of Nutanix’s software.
“One of the reasons why we drink our own champagne is so that we can use our own solutions — and we can champion our solutions when we really like them,” he said.
Looking Back on Three Decades in IT
Lowe says his IT career was like many of his generation. In the early 1990s, as companies were running Windows 3.11, he was mastering the process of making the software run properly on hardware.
“I moved more into server infrastructure and server architecture,” he recalled.
There was a lot of do-it-yourself back then: Building servers by buying a chassis, circuit board, CPU, memory and hard disk.
“We’d put them all together and ship them to a customer of ours, or build them on site if needed, and set them up,” he said.
Each implementation deepened his direct experience with the nuts and bolts of operating systems and business applications. It got to the point that when he would attend classes to teach people how to use software, he often knew more than the instructor.
Today, he lives in southern California with his wife and two daughters, ages 5 and 8.
“They're definitely more interested in arts and creativity than technology,” he said.
His hands-on approach is a source of creativity from which he helps Nutanix and its customers evolve into a more software-driven world. In the future, Lowe predicts, hardware and even virtual machines will become increasingly invisible to the end user.
Lowe realized this first-hand while overseeing Nutanix’s transition to using its own technology for all of its IT operations. Ultimately, that shift produced little drama.
“I think everybody held their breath, waiting for something to go wrong,” Lowe said.
Everything turned out fine.
“Looking back, it was like, why did we take so long to do this?”
Tom Mangan is a contributing writer. He is a veteran B2B technology writer and editor, specializing in cloud computing and digital transformation. Contact him on his website or LinkedIn.
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