Dell a Storage Company – Sure; Dell an Infrastructure Company – Absolutely

Dell has made a number of acquisitions over the last few years as it seeks to transform into a storage company. But after attending Dell Storage Forum in Boston this past week it is evident that it is well down the path of becoming something far more compelling than just a just a “storage” company. It is on track to becoming an infrastructure company.

As someone who has formally covered the technology industry for 10+ years, Dell has evolved a long way from its early days of primarily providing servers, PCs, laptops and low end storage. While it still provides all of those solutions, its acquisitions of EqualLogic, Compellent, AppAssure, Sonic Wall and RNA Networks have resulted in it becoming something much more than just a server or PC company.

But to now characterize Dell as simply a “storage” company as a result of these acquisitions is a bit misleading. Yes, one can argue that Dell now has the needed storage offerings in the form of its EqualLogic and Compellent product lines which it needs to successfully compete and win against the big boys of the storage industry (namely NetApp, EMC, HP and HDS.) 

Further, I am talking to more end-users that are buying storage from Dell on the basis of these two product lines. Just a little over a month ago when I attended InterOp, I spoke with one managed service provider (MSP) who told me it had a million dollars worth of NetApp I could have as it had just replaced NetApp with Compellent to resolve the performance issues it was experiencing in its cloud infrastructure.

That story alone probably makes Dell beam and NetApp cringe. But what should be more worrisome to Dell’s competitors is not that Dell Compellent out performed or replaced NetApp in this example.The greater concern here for storage-specific companies like EMC, HDS and NetApp is that as Dell gets a foothold in storage such as it did with this customer, it can bring to bear some of the complementary technologies it has acquired over the last few years.

The impact that these technologies will eventually have on Dell’s storage portfolio was on full display on the last day at the Dell Storage Forum. Rather than just talking about what it was currently shipping in its existing storage product portfolio, Dell’s Carter George pulled back (see full video at this link) the curtain a bit and highlighted where Dell was going next with the various technologies it had acquired.

Probably the most interesting development was what it planned to do with its RNA Networks acquisition. At a high and most basic level RNA’s technology enables servers to share their cache with other servers and create a mirrored cache configuration.  While that is probably an overly simplistic explanation of what it does, this opens a variety of intriguing and potentially very exciting possibilities for Dell that go well beyond storage.

For instance, using the RNA technology organizations now get entirely new levels of availability and failover on what are essentially off-the-shelf servers. This type of functionality was once reserved for only the most high end systems and required a great deal expertise to configure and maintain. Reading between the lines, it looks like in a very short time IT admins may be able to order servers with this configuration from Dell’s website greatly simplifying and lowering the cost of creating highly available, redundant server configurations.

However where it starts to get really cool is how Dell plans to essentially merge this RNA technology with the technology found on its respective Compellent and EqualLogic lines of storage. The twist here is rather than writes having to go all the way down to either the Compellent or EqualLogic array, the write may be cached on the server, mirrored to another server’s cache using the RNA technology and the application then notified that the write is complete.

This us where the integration with Compellent and EqualLogic comes into play. When this write to the server’s cache takes place, either the Compellent or EqualLogic array is made aware the write occurred so it comes under its management. Now data stored in this cache may either stay there or, if it is not accessed, moved off of the cache and stored on either the Compellent or EqualLogic storage (most likely on SATA or SAS hard drives.)

The management functionality found in the storage arrays and offered to the RNA managed cache also includes other technologies available on these arrays such as their snapshot and tiering technologies. Now from these respective storage array management consoles IT administrators can set snapshot and tiering policies that extend all the way from the server cache down into the storage array.That’s powerful stuff.

Now factor in Dell’s recent AppAssure and Sonic Wall acquisitions and how they facilitate visibility into and protection of applications residing on either physical or virtual servers with data residing on Dell arrays and what you have is much more than a “server” or “storage” solution. You have an infrastructure solution.

This is the aspect that has to make companies like EMC, HDS and NetApp more than just a little nervous. Will this solution threaten them in the near term? I doubt it. Dell is not even shipping this technology yet and unofficially the soonest it will be available is sometime in 2013.

But when one considers that Dell has all of the raw technology to make this happen and owns a good chunk of the server hardware market, it would be foolish for companies not to consider implementing a more holistic infrastructure solution such as what Dell will shortly be bringing to the table as opposed to cobbling together servers and storage hardware such as they have in the past.

This is why when organizations look at Dell going forward they need to look at it in a much broader context than just servers or even storage. Granted these are both hardware components that Dell sells and can use to favorably compete in the market. However the real value that Dell has stitched together and is preparing to unveil is its infrastructure solution and that is what will ultimately separate it from its competitors in ways they will be hard pressed to match.

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