Individual Hardware and Software Acquisitions Have Yet to Exceed the Sum of their Parts

Over the last five (5) years Dell has invested around $10 billion to acquire a far ranging set of hardware and software companies to include Compellent, EqualLogic, ExaNet, Ocarina, Quest, SonicWALL and others in an effort to transform itself into an enterprise solutions provider. These acquisitions now made, people are beginning to rightfully ask of CEO Michael Dell, “When exactly can end-users expect to see an integrated end-to-end data center solution that is based on these acquisitions?” The precise answer to that question still eludes even him.

Dell is just one of a number of a number of companies that are attempting to deliver a converged, end-to-end data center solution. This offering includes servers, storage, and networking hardware as well as the software necessary to protect, manage and secure the data that end-users access, store and manipulate on this hardware.

However what Dell and most other technology providers are discovering is what most end-users already know. Pulling all of these components together and making them work seamlessly as one so they manage and easily support it while realizing the larger value proposition from their investment in this infrastructure is far more difficult than first meets the eye.

In Dell’s case, it has most of the components to make this holistic end-to-end data center solution that Michael Dell envisioned in 2007 a reality. But its transition to making this vision a reality is a question that even Michael Dell danced around when asked about it by a reporter from Bloomberg.

The best Michael Dell could do was say that integrating all of these various components so they delivered on this vision was a process and going to take time. Deliberately or not, he failed to directly answer the reporter’s question if this integration was going to take another year or another five. Based on Dell’s obfuscated answer to that reporter’s question, it is clear to me that Dell (the man) is not confident that Dell (the company) can execute on that vision in the next couple of years much less the next five.

Nor should he be confident. As I met with various Dell partners and product managers within the various divisions at Dell, there was almost no talk of how they are working together to achieve this holistic, integrated end-to-end data solution that Dell was corporately discussing on stage.

In most cases these individuals are just trying to keep their product lines competitive in their respective spaces and deliver the latest and greatest features for their product to meet some near term requirement. Very little talk was taking place about how they were forsaking some near-term product functionality so they could collectively work together to deliver this more comprehensive solution.

Granted, there is some evidence of Dell integrating its various acquisitions together. The deduplication technology acquired as part of the Ocarina acquisition is already being used in the Dell DR4000 appliance while the Exanet scale-out NAS technology has found its way into the Compellent and EqualLogic product lines.

But my concern even with these two integration points is that the Exanet and Ocarina technologies did not have large market shares from a product perspective when Dell acquired them. So it is no surprise that these two have made the most progress internally at Dell since they were both looking for a problem to solve and resources could be dedicated to achieving that goal. In the case of Dell’s other acquisitions, integrating them into Dell’s portfolio is going to be a much harder goal for Dell to achieve without potentially alienating the existing customer bases of those respective product lines.

Further exacerbating the problem, Dell still has not changed how it is approaching customers since it acquired some of these enterprise technologies. While selling PCs and printers might only require a “smile and dial” sales approach, selling the storage solutions as they are now available from Dell requires a person who is knowledgeable about storage, data protection, application workloads and security.

While the “smile and dial” sales approach might work in a few years once Dell has an “integrated systems approach to support the automated deployment and management of specific workloads” as was mentioned in one of the keynotes, Dell certainly does not have a solution like that to offer right now. So that puts Dell at a decided disadvantage when competing with storage or networking specific providers that have sales representatives and systems engineers with these higher levels of expertise that are needed to sell into existing customer environments.

My intent here is not to pick on Dell. Other large vendors who are trying to deliver this same holistic end-to-end converged data center solution are encountering the same challenges as Dell as they stitch their various acquisitions together and attempt to make the sum of the parts that they have acquired add up to more than they individually equal.

What they are all finding out is that this integration is neither easy nor intuitive. However, maybe more disconcerting for everyone involved is the magnitude of this challenge. Even now the time it will take to address this challenge still cannot be definitively answered by the best and brightest in the industry.

This suggests that a new and yet undiscovered disruptive, end-to-end data center solution might just be lurking in the shadows from an unknown provider that could end up negating all of the investments made by these providers.

In the meantime, organizations should get used to individual products at best only equaling “1+1+1” regardless of where you buy them. Granted, some providers are further along than others in making these individual parts add up to more than their sum but none are to the point where they can yet offer a true “plug-n-play” end-to-end data center solution. This leaves enterprises having to deal with the current reality that adding together the individual parts is at best equal to their sum, possibly less and rarely greater without some third party involved to integrate it together.

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