LAS VEGAS – Taking the stage for his first Discover show keynote since being named as HPE CEO four months ago, Antonio Neri took just a moment to start on a personal note.

“I was born in Argentina, my parents are Italians, but I have a Dutch wife. But my kids were born in Boise, Idaho,” he said. “In fact my family is here actually, in the second row, watching with me today.”

It was a nice moment that reflected on Neri’s personality, and also one of just a few fleeting moments where the new CEO wasn’t zeroed-in on communicating his vision of the company strategy. HPE’s had a tumultuous leadership track record in recent memory. Former CEO Meg Whitman’s departure in Q4 of last year sent HPE’s stock sliding. With that in the shadow of the firm’s schism with HP Inc. in 2015, and the memorably bad leadership that preceded that reorganization, it’s easy to imagine that Neri might be feeling some pressure in his early days as CEO.

During the firm’s Discover show, which brings together senior IT leaders, channel partners, and press on a semi-annual basis (one is hosted in North America and one is hosted in Europe), Neri did that by focusing on HPE’s relevance for that audience. There was little talk about the internal machinations of HPE’s organization or its plans to integrate its latest acquisitions. Instead, there was a lot of time spent on its vision for IT in the next five years and how that could help customers. Neri even threw in a major funding announcement, a couple jabs at competitors, and some bold predictions for the future of enterprise computing. The performance won him good reviews from the Canadian IT leaders in Las Vegas for the show.

Neri puts his stamp on HPE culture

“HPE actually has a direction again,” said Kin-Lee Yow, CIO of the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA). “It’s focusing on the customer, on innovation, and on company culture.”

In a session with press, Neri was asked to rank his top three priorities. He put “customers and partners” at the number one slot, followed by innovation, and culture of the organization. The senior engineer didn’t shy away from his background in speaking to these priorities.

“This is an engineering based company, that’s an advantage,” he says. “We have our own silicon in many of our products… that’s a deep engineering culture I want to keep.”

What HPE will be engineering over the next five years is edge computing. Neri defined this concept at the show as “anywhere that technology gets put into action” and “where people live and work, where most of your data is being created.” He also described it as a third place where computing is done that is not in the cloud or in the data centre. During the show, HPE announced new products to support this model, including new Edgeline devices and new software-defined WAN gateways from subsidiary Aruba Networks.

Neri sees software-defined architecture as a major piece of HPE’s strategy that will support customers infrastructure from the edge to the cloud. He also took the opportunity to throw barbs at competitor Dell Technologies.

“Dell doesn’t seem to have an edge strategy,” he said. “Definitely they have a core large business, but so do we in many ways. Ultimately we have a long-term vision and innovation, which I think is going to change everything. Generally, they have not been innovating anything.”

$4 billion commitment on ‘intelligent edge’ R&D

Neri announced $4 billion will be spent by HPE in research and development on the “intelligent edge” over the next four years. While it’s not clear if that’s over and above the usual average of $2 billion HPE has spent on R&D in recent years, it does signal the firm is serious about developing AI and other unique cloud capabilities as close to customers as possible.

As the largest vendor backing Microsoft Azure Stack, HPE is already finding ways to run workloads on-premises that have so far been limited to public cloud services.

It’s an approach that Yow appreciates. He rates CAA as being at a mature stage in its digital transformation, with enough public cloud experience under its belt to know that the public cloud isn’t the answer for everything. It has to be approached from a service perspective rather than a workload perspective, he says, because high transactional tasks can end up breaking the bank.

“A lot of companies forget about the bandwidth costs,” he says. “Suddenly they see their network costs going up and up.”

Then if you want to run some workloads in the cloud and some on-premises, you need to rely on the interconnectivity to bring it all together. So HPE’s talk of pushing AI to the edge and making data available there makes sense to Yow. “All these pieces actually work well together.”

Neri also dabbled in a vision of a more distant computing future. HPE has been working to develop a memory-centric architecture that it says will be faster and more energy efficient demanding tasks like applying AI to large datasets. Its prototype for the project, “The Machine,” serves like a concept car might for an automaker. It’s unlikely that it will ever be released to market, but learnings from its design will be applied to other products across HPE’s portfolio.

HPE The Machine Prototype
HPE’s The Machine, a prototype that showcases its R&D on memory-centric computing.

At this year’s Discover, it introduced a developer sandbox environment that brings together many of those elements, including its Software-Defined Scalable Memory, NUMAlink fabric, and its Superdome Flex box. Neri spent some time forecasting how innovations discovered with such an environment could eventually change how enterprises approach computing.

“The hardware is going to look different, the software is going to look different,” he said. “One day you will run the whole enterprise in-memory, you won’t need databases or licences.”

The crystal-ball gazing isn’t what stuck with Ryan Burgess, manager of infrastructure for Vancouver-based credit union BlueShore Financial. A long-time user of HPE ProLiant servers that has yet to explore public cloud development environment, but is preparing for a hybrid infastructure, he was mostly relieved to not sit through another lecture on an internal reorganizational effort.

“At past Discovers, they were talking a lot about the mergers and internal things HPE was doing… but it wasn’t really relevant to us as a customer,” he said. “This year was a breath of fresh air. This is a Discover where they’re starting to refocus, where they’re actually clear on what they want to do to help the customer.”

There was one other brief moment when Neri let his guard down during the press session. A reporter took his opportunity with the mic to inquire about Neri’s opinion on the World Cup – “So is Ronaldo better than Messi do you think?” – referring to Portugal’s star, who scored a winning goal, and Argentina’s star, which was victim to a 3-0 routing in its opening game from Croatia.

“Ask me that at the end of the tournament,” he said.



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