Daily Archives: December 20, 2011

Dell’s Bid for Data-Center Distinction

Since Dell’s acquisition of Force10 Networks, many of us have wondered how Dell’s networking business, under the leadership of former Cisco Systems executive Dario Zamarian, would chart a course of distinction in data-center networking.

While Zamarian has talked about adding Layer 4-7 network services, presumably through acquisition, what about the bigger picture? We’ve pondered that question, and some have asked it, including one gentleman who posed the query on the blog of Brad Hedlund, another former Ciscoite now at Dell.

Data Center’s Big Picture

The question surfaced in a string of comments that followed Hedlund’s perceptive analysis of Embrane’s recent Heleos unveiling. Specifically, the commenter asked Hedlund to elucidate Dell’s strategic vision in data-center networking. He wanted Hedlund to provide an exposition on how Dell intended to differentiate itself from the likes of Cisco’s UCS/Nexus, Juniper’s QFabric, and Brocade’s VCS.

I quote Hedlund’s response:

 “This may not be the answer you are looking for right now, but .. Consider for a moment that the examples you cite; Cisco UCS/Nexus; Juniper QFabric; Brocade VCS — all are either network only or network centric strategies. Think about that for a second. Take your network hat off for just a minute and consider the data center as a whole. Is the network at the center of the data center universe? Or is network the piece that facilitates the convergence of compute and storage? Is the physical data center network trending toward a feature/performance discussion, or price/performance?

Yes, Dell now has a Tier 1 data center network offering with Force10. And with Force10, Dell can (and will) win in network only conversations. Now consider for a moment what Dell represents as a whole .. a total IT solutions provider of Compute, Storage, Network, Services, and Software. And now consider Dell’s heritage ofproviding solutions that are open, capable, and affordable.”

Compare and Contrast

It’s a fair enough answer. By reframing the relevant context to encompass the data center in its entirety, rather than just the network infrastructure, Dell can offer an expansive value-based, one-stop narrative that its rivals — at least those cited by the questioner –  cannot match on their own.

Let’s consider Cisco. For all its work with EMC/VMware and NetApp on Vblocks and FlexPods, respectively, Cisco does not provide its own storage technologies for converged infrastructure. Juniper and Brocade are pure networking vendors, dependent on partners for storage, compute, and complementary software and services.

HP, though not cited by the commenter in his question, is one Dell rival that can offer the same pitch. Like Dell, HP offers data-center compute, storage, networking, software, and services. It’s true, though, that HP also resells networking gear, notably Brocade’s Fibre Channel storage-networking switches. The same, of course, applies to Dell, which also continues to resell Brocade’s Fibre Channel switches and maintains — at least for now — a nominal relationship with Juniper.

IBM also warrants mention. Its home-grown networking portfolio is restricted to the range of products it obtained through its acquisition of Blade Network Technologies last year. Like HP, but to a greater degree, IBM resells and OEMs networking gear from other vendors, including Brocade and Juniper. It also OEMs some of its storage portfolio from NetApp, but it also has a growing stable of orchestration and management software, and it definitely has a prodigious services army.

Full-Course Fare 

Caveats aside, Dell can tell a reasonably credible story about its ability to address the full range of data-center requirements. Dell’s success with that strategy will depend not only its sales execution, but also on its capacity to continually deliver high-quality solutions across the gamut of compute, storage, networking, software, and services. Offering a moderately tasty data-center repast won’t be good enough.  If Dell wants customers to patronize it and return for more, it must deliver a savory menu spanning every course of the meal.

To his credit, Hedlund acknowledges that Dell must be “capable.” He also notes that Dell must  be open and affordable. To be sure, Dell doesn’t have the data-center brand equity to extract the proprietary entitlements derived from vendor lock-in, certainly not in the networking sphere, where even Cisco is finding that game to be harder work these days.

Dell, HP, and IBM each might be able to craft a single-vendor narrative that spans the entire data center, but the cogency of those pitches are only as credible as the solutions the vendors deliver. For many customers, a multivendor infrastructure, especially in a truly interoperable standards-based world, might be preferable to a soup-to-nuts solution from a single vendor. That’s particularly true if the single-vendor alternative has glaring deficiencies and weaknesses, or if it comes with perpetual proprietary overhead and constraints.

Still Early

I think the real differentiation isn’t so much in whether data-center solutions are delivered by a single vendor or by multiple vendors. I suspect the meaningful differentiation will be delivered in how those environments are further virtualized, automated, orchestrated, and managed as coherent unified entities.

Dell has bought itself a seat at the table where that high-stakes game will unfold. But it isn’t alone, and the big cards have yet to be played.