It's time to start thinking differently about Dell.
Dell is well known as a hardware maker. I think you need to think of Dell as a software maker. You need to see Dell as the black-and-white shirted referee between two heavyweight fighters--VMware and Microsoft--which are both essential to Dell's future. And you need to see Dell as the honest broker, on behalf of server buyers, of contending x86 technologies.
Those are the changes I take away from day-long visit to Dell's Round Rock, Texas, campus last week, which included an interview with CEO Michael Dell himself. Dell didn't directly address this new role, but here's why I see it.
[ See our related, in-depth analysis of Dell's change in course during the past two years. Read Dell Earnings Don't Tell Big Transformation Story. ]
Dell is now a software company because it's been acquiring hardware companies that depend on software: Kace appliances run systems management software; Compellent storage arrays have software that manages storage virtualization and tiering; Ocarina Networks has generated algorithms for data de-duplication and compression; and Force 10 Network's switches stay flexible through switching software. Even EqualLogic storage arrays have ample tiering and load balancing code built into their array management firmware.
Dell is promising to do more such software-centric acquisitions. Why? Because you can't be an integrator of x86 parts without becoming a software company, and Dell has chosen to step into that role.
Consider Dell as the neutral referee in a slugger's ring. VMware and Microsoft have made token acknowledgements of each other's hypervisors in their own product sets. Each will stoop to convert a workload intended for the other into the format preferred by its own hypervisor, since customers insist. But they don't literally enable you, the customer, to move from one to the other at will, even though such a thing is eminently desirable and possible with today's virtualization technology.
Dell has filled this gap with a neutral piece of software that brokers between those two. It's called Virtual Integrated System (or VIS) Self-Service Creator. Its purpose is to allow business users to go to a portal and select from a menu the type of server they want and the workload to run on it. Dell's own IT managers have built the templates on the menu and manage them.
After a workflow approval process, with business management signing off on the new server, a second piece of Dell software, AIM or Advanced Infrastructure Manager, deploys to the user's chosen environment. The last thing a user does is select the hypervisor for the workload. The destination host may be running VMware ESX Server, Microsoft Hyper-V, Citrix Systems XenServer, or Red Hat KVM. The host may also be Amazon Web Services' EC2 or other public cloud. Automated policies and procedures govern the final deployment steps. This capability is derived from Dell's Scalent acquisition in July 2010.
VIS Creator and AIM take over a role that both Microsoft and VMware would prefer that their own management systems perform. But neither of them really wants to play the role of neutral broker to the wishes of the workload originator. Dell has stepped up to that task.