Helping Data Center Customers Tackle Their Greatest Challenges

On the eve of the big Lenovo Transform event in New York we sat down with Kirk Skaugen, the inspiring new President of our Data Center Group (DCG), to see what was on his mind and find out what comes next for Lenovo's Data Center business. Here's how it went down.

OK, I’m going to cop right up front to the fact that I am not a true techie. (And neither are many of our readers so maybe I’m in good company.) Let me start by asking the obvious: what is a Data Center and where does it fit into today’s computing world?

A data center is essentially a very large, specialized facility used to house computer systems and associated components. These computer systems organize, process, store and disseminate huge amounts of data. IT organizations rely on their data centers to run business operations, whether on premises or through the cloud.

Because of ThinkPad, everyone knows by now about Lenovo’s heritage in business computing and PCs. But what is our heritage in the Data Center? Where did we come from in terms of that side of the business?

We became a much larger data center player with the acquisition of IBM’s System x business back in 2014. Thanks to that, the Data Center Group has a 25-year heritage in x86 systems technology. Our introduction of the ThinkSystem and ThinkAgile portfolio is the latest chapter in that evolution.

Our road since the acquisition hasn’t always been easy. We've hit bumps along the way but we are right now in the midst of a really thrilling turnaround. We are making changes over a three-year period that would previously have taken eight or 10 years. As we’ve gone about our way, I keep coming back to the wisdom in this Henry Ford quote: “One who fears failure limits his activities. Failure is only the opportunity to more intelligently begin again.”

Our sense of belief comes from the talent we have at our disposal. For starters we have 52,000 employees all over the world, customers in 160+ countries, four global data center manufacturing facilities and about 10,000 IT specialists ready to serve customers at any given moment. We also have seven data center research centers innovating on behalf of our customers around the world.

Marketing people love to use the word “re-branding.” Is that what’s going on today? Explain the new ThinkSystem and ThinkAgile naming if you would.

Sure. The new Lenovo ThinkSystem portfolio pulls together next-generation servers, storage and networking systems under a single unified brand. In the past we’ve had multiple brands from our acquisitions, the existing Lenovo server portfolio and what we inherited from IBM. ThinkSystem brings out the best of our heritage as #1 in customer satisfaction, quality and reliability in x86 servers. It’s important the brand represents that and the products demonstrate that. Today we have more than 30 x86 server benchmark records worldwide. So all of this is what makes up the new ThinkSystem brand while recognizing we are now not just a server player but a networking and storage company as well.

Since data centers are increasingly fluid resources that must adapt to fast-evolving business needs, we are announcing Lenovo ThinkAgile. ThinkAgile is a software-defined solutions portfolio—built on a solid foundation of Lenovo ThinkSystem platforms—designed for hybrid cloud, hyper-converged infrastructure, and software-defined storage. All that means is the world is moving to a set of software workloads on traditional high volume x86 computing server hardware. It’s that and Lenovo’s lack of legacy network and storage businesses that positions us extremely well for this disruptive trend.

Now let’s step back for a moment. You’ve made a case for our solutions and our expertise. But what do we stand for? What should people know about DCG’s core values?

I think the team in the Data Center Group stands for the same values our overall brand represents. Three words immediately come to mind: quality, reliability and innovation. Three things we strive for and challenge ourselves to live up to every day. A fourth word would be trusted. We are striving to be “most trusted” by our customers, which is so important for organizations running mission-critical business applications. They are counting on us to be a true partner.

I can get on board with that. I’ve been talking to a lot of our colleagues lately and this feels like a really significant moment for Lenovo. How and why are we changing the way our Data Center Group is set up?

We are taking that long legacy of IBM and Lenovo and combining it with the velocity of a truly global company. We are embarking on a journey with ThinkSystem and ThinkAgile—an end-to-end data center portfolio and two new disruptive brands.

I’ve been at Lenovo for a little more than 6 months, and I can feel the excitement in our corner of the business. I believe we’ll look back at the Lenovo Transform event in New York and see that it marked the moment we became a significant global player in the data center industry.

We are undergoing a significant transformation that positions us as a disrupter in the data center market. We want to challenge the status quo, to transform customer experience, to transform the industry.

We want to be one of the top 3 data center players in the industry. We want to be the largest and fastest-growing supercomputing company in several years' time. We want to remain #1 in quality and customer service and extend our leadership position. We want to leverage our position as the only true East-meets-West data center provider and be our customers’ most trusted global partner. Today, we commit to disrupting the data center and accelerating the pace of innovation for our customers and partners.


OK, I am all about disruption. Where do I sign up? Seriously, this sounds terrific but how do we get there as a business?

Well, to your point, we can’t just say these things and not have a plan to deliver. So we’ve been hard at work. In the last 100 days, we implemented a brand new channel program, we hired more than 250 new sales people—many of them from our rivals—and attracted key executives from around the industry to join our team. It’s only a start but we’re seeing 17% revenue growth in our largest global accounts (the toughest to please) and we’re seeing many of our geographies start to turn the corner with the increased data center sales focus, passionate leadership and customer-first mentality.

We want to help our customers solve their most challenging business problems—to move faster and be more agile. This means partnering to drive innovation, performance and reliability. It’s also important for us to help our customers start fresh without starting over. We want to provide the data center solutions they need without locking them into rigid proprietary architectures or software. We don’t ask them what they want to buy—we start with “What do you want to accomplish?” And then we ensure that the new approach integrates seamlessly with their legacy investments so they don’t have to completely re-build their data center.

I saw you speak at an employee event earlier this year. Your keynote was one of many that day but it stood out to me. Don’t get me wrong: I’m no Data Center aficionado but I was really inspired by a point you raised. You said that, with the enormous power of data centers, people have the opportunity to solve humanity’s biggest challenges. That made the hair stand up on my arms. Can you elaborate on what you meant and tell us about some of the awesome challenges you were thinking of?

If you look at what’s happening in High Performance Computing, and specifically Supercomputing, you start to believe that anything is possible, that we can overcome obstacles that were previously insurmountable. For example, our ThinkSystem portfolio helps power MareNostrum 4, one of the fastest and most capable supercomputers in the world. MareNostrum, which sits inside the Barcelona Supercomputing Center, supports the international scientific community and sits at the forefront of computer, life, earth and engineering sciences. [See our separate article about the BSC here.] 

Data centers are capable of computing massive amounts of data, way beyond the capabilities of humans.  If you think about the medical industry and the amount of research being conducted to solve diseases such as cancer or diabetes, a data center can analyze and manage enormous amounts of genomic and clinical data.  These data centers can give researchers efficient access to a large and rapidly growing store of valuable biomedical data from around the globe.

With the power of these Supercomputers, we can set our sights higher and let our dreams and ambitions guide us.

I see. At its best, technology makes us dizzy with possibility. And even if those of us who are non-techies don’t always “get” the tech behind the quest, we’re thrilled that the quest is accelerating. Kirk, thanks so much for taking the time to chat. We’ll let you get back to work!

You’re welcome. It was my pleasure.


Gavin O'Hara is Lenovo's Global Social Media Publisher.