Dell Plays Switzerland Between Microsoft, VMware

Nov 16, 2011 (03:11 AM EST)

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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.

A third piece of software, Dell VIS Director, provides a virtual machine administrator's view of the environment. It includes what-if projections and trend analysis, utilization reporting, chargeback to users, and capacity planning, the latter a frequently overlooked function that's become more vital in shifting, virtualized environments.

VIS Creator works with Dell's own vStart assemblies--integrated racks of Dell PowerEdge servers and Dell EqualLogic storage equipped with two Dell PowerEdge switches. It also works in the more mixed data center, both with Dell and other vendor's hardware.

Asked about Dell's multi-hypervisor approach, Michael Dell said simply: "Dell's view is that any customer environment is a heterogeneous environment."

I would say that three years ago, both Dell and his company would have been extremely cautious about stepping on Microsoft's toes. Likewise, as cloud computing has gained prominence, Dell has sized up its customer base as having a strong interest in running virtualized workloads, and 80% of that interest, according to Michael Dell, is coming from existing VMware customers. So a younger version of today's Dell, say two or three years ago, might have shied away from offering a substitute for VMware management systems.

In the past, Intel, Microsoft, Cisco, EMC, and other dominant players would have inhibited or intimidated Dell from entering what they viewed as their segment of the marketplace. For a long time, it seemed to me, Dell shied away from building add-on products for a strong hardware base. That's changed. Dell is willing to assume the role of honest broker on behalf of customers among warring parties--especially when those vendors have shown no appetite for negotiating such tensions themselves.

About as close as Michael Dell would come to expressing this more mature outlook was to say: "Dell is now competing in the entire $3 trillion sector of IT." That of course means in servers, PCs, storage, switches, and in select cases software. What he didn't say was that Dell is now willing to play Switzerland among contending parties and offer vendor-neutral products when it's in its own interest to do so. Choosing the management of multiple hypervisors was a good place to start.

Dell isn't the only one to say it can help you manage multiple hypervisor environments. There are third-party software providers that do: DynamicOps, Quest Software, Veeam, and others. But Dell is not a small software company trying to get its foot in the door. It's already inside, with a major presence. It still has to show that it can exploit that position and compete with both virtualization vendors and established system management vendors.

Dell may yet show that it can't cut it as a software company. That transition requires a hardware culture to learn how to make future versions of an intangible product credible. That was always a blind spot for Sun Microsystems. But Dell's found the nerve to address customers' multi-hypervisor environments. Let's see if it's willing to identify additional unmet needs and play the honest broker in filling them.