Will Dell Lead The x86 Data Center Market?

Can Dell's vStart virtualized rack systems that integrate servers, switches, and storage lead a market worth hundreds of billions of dollars?
By pre-integrating these components, Dell is solving a number of problems that normally confront the IT staff as it builds out the virtualized portion of the data center. Those staffs that have been doing virtualization a long time, learning virtualization as they go, don't need vStart. Those that are still learning or seeking a shortcut to full implementation of virtualized networking and storage as well as servers might consider such a package. The assembly's management data output plugs into VMware's vCenter management console or Microsoft's System Center's Virtual Machine Manager.

Dell next year plans to include with vStart its Compellent storage and Force 10 networking--details to be announced. Dell acquired Compellent Technologies in December of last year for $960 million after losing out to HP in its bid to get 3Par. Compellent will bring more sophisticated data management for tiered storage levels and more efficient, thin provisioning of storage per virtual machine to the vStart package.

Dell acquired Force 10 Networks in July for an undisclosed amount. Force 10 brings more flexible switch management to the party, a virtue in virtualized data center settings, where network allocation between virtual machines may have to shift during the day. Force 10 switches can be given commands in Python or Perl scripts. Force 10 didn't gain much network market share during its short startup life--less than 1%--so Dell isn't getting a guaranteed existing customer base. It also faces an integration challenge in getting sophisticated Force 10 switching to work with its vStart assemblies, but Force 10 was notable for its avoidance of proprietary backplanes and other proprietary features. It emphasized following standards, a growing refrain at Dell.

Dell needed to become more of a software company to achieve the integration it has in its vStart system, and it has. Another example of how it has done so is with its Advanced Infrastructure Manager, where it first created the software that treated groups of servers and storage as a pooled resource. On Oct. 12, Dell announced that users of AIM would be able to feed its information into Microsoft System Center Orchestrator, where servers are provisioned, and BMC Software's Atrium Orchestrator. This is partnering in a way that integrates what Dell can do with traditional managers of a larger setting.

Dell has made investments and worked with market leading partners--VMware, Microsoft, BMC--to get its vStart packages to market. If this investment were a one-time event, I would say, wait a little longer and see how serious it is about the virtualized data center. But I think it did the same thing with its effort to make iSCSI a useful, lower cost and standard integration force in virtualization.

At the time it undertook that effort, iSCSI was not a respected technology for high end, mission critical applications. Dell, working with Emulex and other partners and the IEEE, has helped improve the reliability and performance of iSCSI as a storage SAN and as a converged network. That is, it has helped create an alternative to the existing, and pricier, systems championed by Cisco in its Unified Computing System and HP in its BladeMatrix System. They rely on Fibre Channel over Ethernet. Like FCoE, iSCSI can operate at 10 Gbps speeds, work over any existing Ethernet network, handle converged traffic, and implement Data Center Bridging for assured delivery and assignment of quality of service characteristics.

In short, when Michael Dell says this is a different Dell, I'm willing to listen. It may yet fall back into being just a shuffler of x86 parts, one of several thousand participants in a vast and at times conflicted ecosystem.

But at the moment, I think Dell is helping improve and rationalize base technologies for the larger world as well as its immediate market. If it continues to perform that task effectively, plenty of small and medium businesses will benefit, and larger businesses are going to pay attention as well.