EMC's Secret Skunk Works Project for Small Business and Consumers


I love skunk works projects; they provide a chance for a big company to act like a little company and do something amazing. They also allow people to be heroes to their company, and I think everyone should have at least one chance in life to be a hero. I became aware of the EMC Skunk Works offering several weeks ago, but it took a while to run down Brian Gruttadauria, the EMC software engineer who pulled it together.


This particular project is fascinating because most of the folks worked remotely. This is the first project like this I've studied that owes its existence largely to advances in collaboration and conferencing tools. I'll talk about the product a bit at the end, but I want to focus on the process.


The Idea


Back around 2005, EMC realized that to truly lead in storage management, it couldn't ignore the fastest-growing technology segment, which was consumer and small business. Microsoft was expected to enter this segment with HP and something called the Windows Home Server -- HP eventually branded it MediaSmart Server -- and EMC needed be competitive.


But EMC is structured to build and sell products to large enterprises, which are about as far removed from the target audience as you will get. Were EMC to use normal processes, what would likely result was something similar to the International Harvester Scout, a product that would cost too much to create and build, and that wouldn't sell.


Gruttadauria, one of EMC's top software engineers, after a management brainstorming session in 2005 focusing on this competitive problem, had and shared an epiphany. The company could use its existing technologies to build a superior product, but only by going around EMC processes and avoiding the typical internal politics that often result in a crippled offering (the IBM PCjr comes to mind).


Creating the Product


This was to be a skunk works project: top secret and driven by an elite group hand-selected from across EMC. Folks came in from all over the world with much of the work actually going on in EMC's new China Development Center, but led by Gruttadauria, based in the United States.


Heavily using open source tools such as Bugzilla and wikis, and drawing on partners from Intel and Iomega, which it later purchased, this team used a broad set of usability and technology skills to slowly create and bring the product to market. The team grew to 40 people before the initial pass was done and members made heavy use of VMware to model the product while it was being designed. This use of VMware also helped them create 11 language-optimized products concurrently.


The Birth of Lifeline


The result, EMC LifeLine, appears to be easy to use, secure and robust while not overly costly. It's a product that could never have been created at EMC in any other way, and one in which the team takes personal pride. Currently, only the Small Business version of the product, marketed by Intel as a white-box offering, is on the market. The much more aggressively priced consumer Iomega version is expected to be released shortly.


The product eventually is expected to encompass and provide a suite of offerings covering a broad base of products including Mozy, PI Net, RSA Security, multimedia optimization, automated indexing, and Retrospect backup and recovery. On paper, it likely will become the most comprehensive blending of localized and cloud-based technologies targeting the home and small-business market. Granted, it still will have to market and sell the result, but the amazing thing here is that it couldn't have existed without the vision and drive of one man and a small team of expert heroes who believed in a dream strongly enough to make it a reality.


I love stories like this and hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed hearing and telling it. We need more stories like this and, as I find them, I'll try to share them with you. The lesson is that sometimes little teams of amazing people in large companies can still do amazing things.


Nice way to close out the week.