Does it matter if Data Center kit looks sexy or not?

By | July 22, 2010

Does anybody really care if Data Center kit looks cool and sexy?  Do things like blue neon lights make a difference to sales?

While eating out recently with a group of top industry techies* in Tokyo Japan, we had a short light-hearted discussed of the above.  There was a definite difference of opinion; some of the people involved felt it made absolutely no difference at all, whereas others (including me)

think it may make a difference, albeit my be small….  May be we are all wrong and it makes a big diference!?

* Top industry techies included: Greg Knieriemen, Chris Evans, Michael Hay, Devang Panchigar, Robin Harris and the Rickatron himslef Mr. Rick Vanoever.  The Ghelfster was also there, and although she is top notch, strictly speaking Carli is not a techie.

While I do think it makes a difference, I’m not suggesting it makes a huge difference – its certainly nowhere near as important as it is with consumer goods – but I’m open to being wrong.  After all, I’m a techie and not in marketing.

Let me just throw together a quick list of some of the reasons I think it makes a difference –

  1. It’s a conversation point for techies.  Having folks talk about your company and your kit is almost always a good thing.
  2. It helps in marketing.  And we all know that effective marketing is often more important than technical merit or technical superiority.
  3. Things that are aesthetically pleasing on the eye leave us with positive thoughts and feelings about the object. And that doesn’t just apply to good-looking girls!

While on the topic, I’m also one of those that thinks getting your product on poplar TV shows and films is a good idea.  An example that immediately comes to mind is the frequent and positive appearances of Cisco and Apple kit on the popular TV show 24.  In one episode, Chloe O’brien (renowned for being able to hack though any IT security system) makes a statement along the lines of “they have the new Cisco proprietary firewall system, its impossible to hack”.  Corny, I know, but its sewing information and impressions to people.

And then there’s the recent appearance of an EMC VMAX on the same show.  While some point out that one of the VMAX arrays had smoke coming out of it, the important thing was that it powered back up and still worked πŸ˜‰

WARNING: Don’t test burning your own VMAX in your own Data Center.  The above was performed by professionals with all required safety equipment at hand πŸ˜‰

And let’s face it, Apple, Cisco and EMC know how to market a product!

If names are important then surely…..

Also, there is no doubt that companies (including vendors of Data Center hardware) think product names are important.  So if something as seemingly unimportant as a product name (when compared to security or data availability etc) is important, then surely physical product aesthetics are also important?  Both are part of product image and branding.

TIP: Go hire an ex-Apple dude to design the front doors and front bezels to your Data Center kit.  It won’t break the bank or introduce bugs to your code, but it might have a positive impact on branding and and may be even sales.

Just my thoughts.  Please take a minute to register your opiion in the poll below –


Feel free to chime in with your own opinions, as well as images of the good the bad and the ugly of Data Center products.  Here’s quick image that I’ll leave you to make your own mind up on –

Ugly front doors


14 thoughts on “Does it matter if Data Center kit looks sexy or not?

  1. Chuck Hollis

    Here's the thing — it doesn't cost that much more to make a data center device look somewhat physically attractive.  People spend a boatload on data center equipment, so making some effort to keep it from looking butt-ugly is money wisely spent.

    The corollary, of course, is packaging for purpose: density, cooling, floor space, maintainability, vibration, cost, etc.  And we at EMC spend much, much more time and effort on that one.

    The blue light bar on the front of a VMAX is actually programmable.

    Maybe we should have a contest to decide what to do with the lights: make them vary by workload, swing them back and forth like a robot, or perhaps something else?

    — Chuck

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  3. Matthew

    Firstly, a great post as it validates that this conversation is happening in more places than just our shop …strangely this has come up with quite a few more customers than I would have imagined if I'm honest!

    To wit, when we launched our VCE vBlock 2 [this is the vBlock based on VMAX] in Hatfield on 21 May 2010, we included working demos of workload and service catalogue automation as well as tour of the kit in the Solution Centre.  We were rightly proud of the demos we had created, but there was considerable buzz from the blue lights on the VMAX chassis.  More than one customer actually asked if we could program the lights to move back and forth like a Cylon!

    Always wanting to please my customers, now that I've seen from Chuck that they are indeed programmable, watch this space!

    I was also reminded of a company we found who makes 'skins' for datacentre racks …I've secretly been wanting to use the Coke machine skins in our Solution Centre!


  4. Simon Long

    Looks are always important! Even if we don't think they should be. I think it's more of a physiological thing.

    I mean have you ever bought something that's ugly? I'm trying to think of something, but I can't. Even if I'm buying something like a pen, I'll probably look to see what colours there are or if it looks "nice". Or things like loft insulation, you'll never see it, but most of the time you'd opt to buy the nice bright pink roles over a dull grey role

    This could just be me – Maybe I'm just shallow! πŸ™‚

  5. techmute

    Personally, we'd be better off if vendors spent less time making their kits "sit pretty" in the computer room and more time making sure their management GUIs weren't buggy, fugly, piles of crap.

  6. the storage anarchist

    Point taken, TechMute.

    But the two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. We try to keep the cabinet design folks from writing software. And the marketing folks, for that matter.

    The systems need a door, so its not a big expense to make it attractive. And indeed, the block gloss on the VMAX door was inspired by the polished look and feel of common handheld devices…

  7. Nigel Poulton Post author

    Thanks for chiming in.

    Techmute. I appreciate that its not the most important thing about an array. My point is that its a quick and easy win.

    Matthew, thanks for pointing out the link to the skins- top quality!  Also thanks for pointing out that these discussions are happening elsewhere.


  8. V

    I agree on the one hand it should look cool – it's not as if you've paid for a ferrari and ended up with with a lada now is it ?

    If it looks cool then it should also give the person who is showing it off – be that a dc manager / techie or a mkg geek (pun intended) something to help them do their job. I've worked in the past for a vendor who's lights on the front actually sold more kit – those lights told you how the box was performing – and yeah they went red when it was .. in need of help.

    It looked cool, sold more and helped when you needed confirmation – a bit of design thought and … spark could act as a visual catalyst  to any well designed storage "box"…

    (btw:  badges from those said boxes are now  sought after πŸ˜‰ )

  9. The Ghelfster

    While I might not be a techie (is it that obvious?), I tend to sway more towards function over form. However, if I were a techie, I would then likely be someone who does care what it looks like. An analogy, if you will: I love cars. With cars, it is not just about how it performs (even though a solid car that won't break down on me is important) but it is also how it looks. Yet when I pack my family in the car for a 10 hour trip — performance and safety win out. 

    If you're concerned about your data, and making sure it's highly available, secure and the system won't break down – who would you trust with your data?  The system that looks good but runs terribly, has too much down time or down-right fails, or the reliable, secure and available one?

    Just some food for thought. 

  10. Nigel

    Hi Carli

    Thanks for your comments.

    But why settle for one or the other when both (form AND function) are easily achievable!?



  11. Michael Hay

    Nigel, I believe your response to Carli is spot on in that form and function are not mutually exclusive.  However with all of the discourse associated to fancy bezels and designs I do want there to be some engineering and industrial design flavor brought to the conversation.  When making buildings, very often architects create wild building designs only to have them knocked down by serious laws, like say gravity.  It is then up to the engineers to make the work a reality that obeys the laws of physics, building codes, and still hits the designer's intention.  In the same way various laws and tradeoffs need to be applied when designing equipment for the data center.  For example I can remember a conversation with an engineer on shrinking a system's form factor by 1U.  While possible the smaller form factor blew other design criteria such as the sound output power and the targeted operating temperature.  

    When it comes to industrial design arguably the leader today is Apple.  Their design is minimalist, by intent, and they aggressively practice the art of removing things from their systems within a design and between designs.  For example on their servers there aren't any bezels at all, their LEDs that signal things like their camera in operation disappear when the cameras aren't in use, etc.  So for Apple their key design criteria, I think, is best summarized by making the functional elegant and integral to the form of the design, or said another way form follows function.

    There are also other complex issues that come into play, for example business intent and the message of the brand that you want convey for the long term — like say for 100 years.  Also in this era of increasing focus on sustainability having a brand that radiates persistence, arguably, may be more valuable — this is my opinion. Another area of balance to focus on is beauty versus usability, where the sexiest design is not always the most usable.  In fact as someone who is schooled in quantitative and qualitative usability testing sometimes it is an ugly design that is the most usable, which may seem counterintuitive.  

    So in conclusion, while I would like to see sexier things, it is necessary to strike a balance with engineering, industrial design and usability to achieve what is best for the end user.

  12. Chris M Evans

    I have to say that I don't understand the need to sex up a piece of hardware that 99.9999% of users will never ever see.  I get the analogies with cars and buildings.  They are things that are designed for their looks – if a Lada could do 0-60 in 3 seconds and 200mph would it be as cool as a corvette?  Probably not.  I do think however there's a need for cool design, a la Bauhaus.  Cool form is good, but tarting it up for inclusion in 24 just isn't.

  13. Nigel Poulton Post author

    Hi Chris,

    I know where you’re coming from, and I want to stress again that it is not top of the requirements list.

    I used to think the same as you (that it doesnt matter at all), and I think most techies like us think like that. However, this is a marketing issue and good techies like yourself arent always the best at marketing. Whereas Chuck and BarryB are both in marketing πŸ˜›

    Most top vendors already spend some effort in trying making their Data Centre kit look good. EMC we all know about. IBM used to provide shark fins for the top of their ESS kit. The USP V was supposed to look like the Matrix. NetApp had the toaster thing, 3PAR have the yellow thing going on……. So most vendors already thinks it matters. Even the Hitachi AIX box pictured in the article above has had somebody design it (albeit the wrong person).

    Sadly (from a techie perspective) marketing matters. I have to wonder…. if EMC were to release an Enginuity Rev on existing hardware the same day that Hitachi or IBM released an entirely new version of their flagship storage products (hardware and microcode), who would get the most airtime? Probably EMC.

    Also, names like “VMAX”, the old “Tagmastore”, “Nexus” and the likes all go to show that branding and image matters to the vendors. It’s about getting the right balance.

    Heck, we’re not likely to see any vendors releasing their flagship products with brown paisley doors or bright pink flowery doors are we. And for good reason, image matters.

    While its not a top priority, I maintain my stance that because its so easy to achieve, vendors have no excuses for hiding exciting products behind dull exteriors.

    NOTE: I use the term “exciting” loosely in the sentence above πŸ˜‰

    Just my penny’s worth.


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