Dell Strives To Simplify The Data Center

Propelled by a series of acquisitions, Dell's Active Systems platform takes aim at Cisco, HP, and IBM.
Dell gave shape on Thursday to its 2013 enterprise strategy, revealing the company's plan to transition from a manufacturer of hardware rooted in the stalled PC market to a provider of full-fledged networking, storage, and services that can compete with IBM, HP, and Cisco.

Speaking at an event in San Francisco, Dell Enterprise Solutions president Marius Haas stressed the need for intuitive products that cut down on data center complexity while providing scalability and affordability. Noting the $12.7 billion Dell has spent in acquisition investments, Hass announced the company's proposed answer to these needs: the Active Systems platform, a suite of converged infrastructure platforms designed to simplify deployment of virtual desktop infrastructures and private cloud deployments.

Hass stated that businesses of all sizes, from SMBs to large enterprises, can benefit from avoiding the complexity, expense, and lock-in of proprietary systems, illustrating with the claim that HP's Blade System Matrix and Cisco's UCS do not provide the "right balance" between price-to-performance outcomes, flexibility, and open architectures. Dell's accrual of standards-based intellectual property, he said, has equipped the company to offer intuitive, versatile, and power-efficient products.

[ Does Cisco feel threatened by Dell? Read Nuts To You, Cisco Tells Dell. ]

To make its case more concrete, Dell revealed the first offering in its new infrastructure platform: the Active System 800, a pre-assembled rack that includes Dell's 12th-generation blade servers and Dell Force 10 networking technology.

The system, which Dell said will offer 45% better system performance per watt and 2.3 times more compute nodes per rack than competing Cisco products, typified characteristics will define the Active Systems family: a PowerEdge M1000e chassis with Dell Compellent or EqualLogic storage, and a new plug-and-play blade I/O module dubbed the PowerEdge M I/O Aggregator that is optimized for virtualization and is advertised as delivering up to six times more bandwidth to the data center network.

Dell also introduced its Active Systems Manager, a template-based provisioning resource that simplifies and automates many common server configuration and administrative tasks. In a demonstration during the San Francisco event, the interface essentially reduced the task of preparing a new Active Systems rack to clicking a series of boxes in an interface that resembles an installation wizard. Dell claims the system eliminates 75% of the steps needed for "power to production," relative to competing products.

In an interview, Rob Meinhardt--GM for Dell software client systems management and former CEO of KACE, which Dell purchased in 2010--said that user-friendly automation tools such as the Active Systems Manager demonstrate how Dell appeals to businesses of all shapes and sizes. SMBs, he stated, often employ generalist IT managers who can benefit from the simplified processes. Larger enterprises, meanwhile, gain the ability to free up their most experienced administrators for forward-looking projects, as the intuitive interface permits relatively junior staff members to take on many day-to-day administrative duties.

Dell plans to deploy Active Systems products in two major varieties: pre-integrated systems that have been engineered, assembled, and tested to be ready for near out-of-box use; and Active Systems Architectures, which provides blueprints for building virtualized infrastructure to companies willing to sacrifice some of the system's simplicity for greater customization.

In addition to the hardware offerings, Dell also cited several technological advances, including a memory structure that treats discrete SSDs within the server rack as a single pool, permits data to be optimally spun up based on where it is stored with respect to the server, and uses application awareness technology to store and recover information intelligently based on data attributes. The company claimed it will offer 10 times better performance than current approaches for certain applications. The technology will not ship with the first Active Systems products but will be available to early adopters via future updates.

Dell also mentioned system security, touting its SonicWALL technology as a cost-effective way to integrate next-gen firewalls and to not only block attackers from infiltrating the system but also to use encryption to prohibit malicious activity if a breach occurs.

If Active Systems succeeds, it will validate Dell's careful acquisition strategy, which factors into the company's relatively modest R&D.

Dell plans to ship the Active System 800 to U.S. customers in November, with a global rollout to follow in 2013. Pricing was not immediately disclosed.

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