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VMUG President Steve Athanas Reveals Key VMworld 2019 Priorities


The massive VMworld 2019 conference wouldn't be complete without VMUG — the massive VMware User Group. As the conference gets set to kick off in San Francisco, ChannelE2E checked in with VMUG President Steve Athanas.

Our conversation covered a range of IT industry trends and market shifts -- and the implications for VMUG members. We touch on everything from professional development and talent, to the latest multi-cloud, cybersecurity, NSX, VDI  and vSphere trends. Here's the conversation.

ChannelE2E: Before we look ahead to VMworld 2019, let’s take a look back at VMUG’s own journey over the past year. What have been VMUG’s core priorities since VMworld 2018?

LinkedIn: Steve Athanas, president, VMUG
LinkedIn: Steve Athanas, president, VMUG

Athanas: Thanks, Joe, for speaking with me today. VMUG has been busy since VMworld 2018. The biggest thing we’re focusing on is how we can continue to evolve to serve our members. When we surveyed our members the past two years, “Professional Development” emerged as the top reason they are involved in VMUG. Our members are savvy; they know technology is changing fast, and they want to keep at the top of their game.

In order to support our members, we have overhauled our one-day conferences—called UserCons—that we run across the globe. The changes include more community sessions, so members can hear from peers who are transforming both their companies and their careers. We also implemented a global UserCon call for papers to standardize the vetting process for our sessions. This has led to increased attendance at sessions and stellar member feedback.

Hands-on experience is also important to our members, so we have increased the availability of Hands-on-Labs at our events. At these events, attendees can bring their laptops and work through a realistic lab with an expert moderator.

We close out the day in our vSolutions Hub so members can recap the day, network one last time, and talk to VMware experts or get the contact information of a sponsor that made an impression. VMUG membership is for end-users, partners, and VMware. It takes the entire community to fulfill VMUG’s mission, so bringing everyone together is the perfect way to end the day.

ChannelE2E: What are VMUG’s core priorities or focus areas for VMworld 2019?

Athanas: VMworld is VMUG’s Super Bowl. We use every annual gathering to introduce VMUG to new members, connect with our leaders and members, and also connect with VMware and partners. At VMworld 2019, we will start the week with a VMUG board meeting on Sunday. I’m proud that VMUG is volunteer-led, including our board of directors—all of whom serve in a volunteer capacity. It’s an honor and highlight of my “community career” to be the president and lead the board and the organization. The board focuses on the future and strategy to shape where VMUG should be now and in 3-5 years. Listening to the keynotes is always insightful to give us a glimpse of where VMware is going. We also draw on the experience of the board’s experience as experienced technologists and leaders in their companies.

Each year, we have a super-popular member party Sunday night after the Solutions Exchange Welcome Reception. VMworld 2019’s party will be at SPiN, across the street from Moscone. This is like VMUG’s family reunion. We’ll see friends from around the world whom we haven’t seen since last VMworld, meet friends face-to-face whom we have only connected with online, and meet new friends who have similar tech interests. We often have a special guest or two stop by as well to join in. It’s always a good time, please come by!

Our leaders, now 200+ strong, are really the backbone of VMUG in your community. VMUG is not VMUG without our local volunteer leaders. I have been a long-time leader in Boston, and it has helped my career tremendously. Because we value our leaders, we have a special lunch just for them. We cover some VMUG business in this lunch, but the biggest benefit we have is when VMware executives come and talk to our leaders in a small setting. Here, we provide a setting where leaders can ask questions directly to VMware executives. This is the type of access most can’t get outside of VMUG. It also shows the great support we get from VMware: we’re truly a partnership, and we’re tightly aligned. The executives change year over year, but Pat Gelsinger, Ray O’Farrell, Sanjay Poonen, and Chris Wolf have all participated in the past.

During the week, we will have a booth that is focused on gaining new members and spreading the word about VMUG. Our leaders will be working the booth to engage with members and future members.

VMUG will also have a lounge in Moscone West. This is an area for members to have meet-ups, get equipment charged, and take a break before the next session. It’s a great place to learn more about VMUG and connect with peers or VMUG leaders. I plan to spend a bunch of time here.

ChannelE2E: Shifting to some recent market themes, VMware has balanced its AWS relationship with growing partnerships across Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud Platform and IBM Cloud. How far along are VMUG members in their multi-cloud journeys, and are they succeeding in those journeys?

Athanas: VMUG has members in all demographics and regions. While some are running these new offerings in production, most of our members are educating themselves and exploring how these solutions bring value to their companies. I hear members talk about needing a catalyst for them to make the jump; for example, a Disaster Recovery need, a new app deployment, or a hardware refresh coming due. Since these things happen all the time, many members are learning all they can in advance, and testing out scenarios to see what works best in a demo/test lab. Members keep telling us that they like choice, and VMware has done a great job giving them options. We started with IBM Cloud, but have now added AWS, Azure, and GCP—not to mention the 4,000 VCPP partners in regional markets.

I mentioned earlier that professional development is top of mind for members, and understanding new platforms is one of the reasons. It’s not just learning how to deploy and take advantage of a specific cloud offering, but also how to take advantage of the cloud-operating model. This requires more than rethinking the stack—it sometimes means rethinking the whole model, including infrastructure, costs, and business processes.

ChannelE2E: Let’s shift the conversation to security. It seems like every IT department – regardless of organization size or vertical market – now faces cyber risks from a range of threat actors. How are VMUG and VMware working together to help VMUG members understand and mitigate cyber risks?

Athanas: I love this question because it illustrates the strong connection between VMware and VMUG. We at VMUG have been working hand-in-hand with VMware to provide opportunities for our members to improve their security skills. Of course, security has many facets, and one of the areas that our members have been curious about is how to secure critical data in a hybrid or multi-cloud environment. We’ve been offering a program called NSX Cloud Academy at UserCons, which gives attendees a chance to dive deep on how to keep data secure as it moves in and out of their local datacenter.

In my role as Associate CIO at UMass Lowell, I’m always concerned about the security of our solutions; we take the safety and security of our student information incredibly seriously. My team has been implementing NSX in a VDI environment to ensure that students using our labs are more secure than was ever possible in a legacy, physical lab. My team has benefitted from the resources available to them as VMUG members in order to move this from a PoC to production quickly.

VMware has also provided a lot of support to VMUG in order to have security experts come speak at UserCons. In fact, in March I was at two events in Australia, and VMware flew in awesome resources to talk about how technologists need to reframe how they think about security. They were great sessions that we were able to deliver to hundreds of members because of our joint efforts.

ChannelE2E: Any other key themes from VMUG that members and partners should be tracking as we look ahead to 2020?

Athanas: 2020 will continue to see progression in the tectonic changes in the IT industry, and vSphere will be a big part of it. While vSphere might not be the new flashy product on the block, so much of the modern IT infrastructure is built on it. That’s why our members have an advantage: they know vSphere inside and out. Many of our members were responsible for originally virtualizing their company’s datacenter in the beginning. Having the server virtualization mindset is valuable, as those themes can be applied to storage, networking, and OS’s (containers). This makes the transition easier for experienced VMware professionals.

In order to transition effectively, changes need to be more than just infrastructure; there needs to be a shift in the IT department to move at the speed of business. Many companies are just starting this journey and are looking to their IT department to lead the change. This is a great opportunity for our members to step up and make a big difference in their company and their careers. What’s so exciting right now from my perspective is that, more and more, we’re hearing that VMUG members are moving ahead in their careers and are getting into positions where they can influence these decisions and move their companies forward faster. And by being VMUG members, they can reach out to over 150,000 members worldwide to get insight, support and guidance as they do so.

Joe Panettieri

Joe Panettieri is co-founder & editorial director of MSSP Alert and ChannelE2E, the two leading news & analysis sites for managed service providers in the cybersecurity market.