It was less than three years ago that EMC and VMware spinoff, Pivotal, officially became a business. The New York Times ran an article at the time calling it a “well-financed competitor to Amazon Web Services.” 

Pivotal never lived up to the “competitor” part — it doesn’t even have a place in Gartner’s Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) Magic Quadrant.

To be fair, that may never have been Pivotal’s vision, though there’s little question that EMC and VMware had to offer their customers a reason to stick with their more expensive, proprietary solutions instead of rushing to Amazon. Whether they succeeded with that is unclear, but we'll leave it to Michael Dell to craft the rest of that story.

Pivotal, on the other hand, may have the chance to write its own story if reports of its immanent IPO are true. In the mean time, it went shopping — but more on that later.

Pivotal's 3-Play

Pivotal looks to have three plays, which remain consistent to the goals introduced in then CEO Paul Maritz's letter to his newly gathered team of 1200 employees (who came from EMC assets Greenplum and Pivotal Labs and VMWare’s Cloud Foundry, SpringSource, Gemstone and Cetas).

Maritz wrote that Pivotal’s goal was “to enable customers to build a new class of applications, leveraging big and fast data, and do all of this with the power of cloud independence.”

The big data play centered on Greenplum, its massive MPP database, which at the time was married to MapR’s flavor of Hadoop. The plan was to build the new class of applications on Pivotal’s brand of open source Cloud Foundry and leverage the services of Pivotal Labs. A good strategy.

Great Expectations

But much has happened since then. 

Greenplum — which at one time had so much hype around it that Sun Microsystems co-founder Scott McNealy proclaimed, “What Java did for the Internet, they (EMC Greenplum) will do for the web” — never reached great heights. It’s not as well-known as HP’s Vertica, IBM’s Netezza, Teradata Aster or other technologies that have since emerged.

Pivotal spent time, resources and money building its own proprietary brand of Hadoop (Pivotal HD) with a native Greenplum integration. It’s hard to tell how well it or other Pivotal data products sold. Consider that the Greenplum database, HAWQ SQL on Hadoop, Pivotal HD and others are now all open source according to Constellation Research analyst Doug Henschen.  

As the Earth Pivots

It’s not that Pivotal built lousy products, mind you, it’s that enterprises began to demand open source. “It has to be open source or the conversation doesn’t begin," Pivotal’s former director of outbound products, Michael Cucchi told us last year when Pivotal’s open source announcements began.

Pivotal’s data play has yet to live up to its ambitions.

“I would say Cloud Foundry and Spring have been the more successful aspects of the company,” said Henschen.

Pivotal shines in its platform as a service play (PaaS) which leveraged Cloud Foundry and Spring from the start. Though many, many vendors are on board with the open source Cloud Foundry project, ”Cloud Foundry is built at its core by Pivotal,” according to Constellation Research analyst Holger Mueller, noting that many other companies contributed to the project. Mueller added that Cloud Foundry is the “de facto PaaS standard.”

Pivotal also seems to razzle dazzle with its Pivotal Labs business, which marries its developers with its software and agile development approach to deliver third platform solutions for enterprises. This group has benefited from Pivotal’s most recent acquisitions, which number two in less than a month.

Pivotal acquired European Cloud Foundry development and services provider CloudCredo in December. This deal gives Pivotal both a face in Europe and the experience and insights the CloudCredo team has gained via its Cloud Foundry projects. 

Earlier this week, Pivotal acquired Boulder, Colorado-based User Experience (UX) design firm, Slice of Lime. It’s an acqui-hire of sorts that gives Pivotal instant access to some of the more interesting designers in the field. According to a blog post penned at Pivotal, the two companies have worked side-by-side on projects, their cultures mesh, and Slice of Lime employees might get an opportunity to work on edgier, more visible engagements that are typical among Pivotal’s clients.

People Shopping?

These acquisitions might be of greater value than they seem because Pivotal is losing some of its own talent.

According to EMC’s most recent earnings report (which provides a peek at Pivotal’s numbers), Pivotal’s services revenues ($47 million) outpace its product revenues ($15 million) by a long shot. It’s probably safe to assume that the services are provided by people. Which begs the question, what happens when the people who provide expert services leave the company? It’s fair to ask in this case given that, if LinkedIn data is to be believed, Pivotal Software has lost about one third of its employees in less than three years. 

We’ve reached out to the folks who have abandoned ship to ask, “Why leave pre-IPO? Isn’t that what you were working for?” No one's been willing to go on record, but in summary they went to work at other companies, many of them start-ups, that seem to hold more promise.

Who knows, maybe an influx of new blood and a twist of lime can provide the fix Pivotal needs.