CRN Exclusive: Dell EMC Directs Open Networking Firepower Squarely At Cisco In Bid To Lead Market Transformation

Dell EMC is stepping up its networking offensive against Cisco, urging solution providers to frame the traditional market giant as "just more of the same" and betting that open, software-defined networking (SDN) strategies will come to dominate in the next three to five years.

Some solution providers can see that future clearly and say their primary earning opportunities in networking are with open systems rather than a closed, proprietary stack.

"I've got a $1 million-plus pipeline in [VMware] NSX and probably no pipeline in [Cisco] ACI," said a top executive at a data center solution provider that works with both Dell EMC and Cisco. "Why do I want to buy all these really expensive [Cisco] switches when I can just layer in NSX? VMware virtualized server, storage and networking and it's a problem for Cisco. I don't think they have an answer for it. I see enormous amounts of opportunity, and you're going to have to have a lot of agility to go after it."

Related: Cisco Mounting Massive Open API Offensive; Says APIs Are The 'Holy Grail' For Partners

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Dell EMC's open networking push comes as Cisco struggles to shed its image as a vendor of a strictly proprietary stack and pivots to a more open strategy. The San Jose networking giant has recently begun to open some Application Program Interfaces [APIs], including its Meraki platform, as a way to help partners drive recurring revenue.

"Most of our solution providers are very familiar with the traditional option: Cisco. Maybe they've got a second source with Juniper or Arista, but isn't that just more of the same? In my view it is," said Tom Burns, senior vice president of Dell EMC Networking. "I think solution providers need to think a little bit ahead about what's happening in the market for hyper-converged and converged and who is the best provider of that today, and where do I get a lot of those solutions today as it relates to compute and storage?"

For many solution providers, the answer to those questions is Dell EMC, Burns said, and the Round Rock, Texas vendor is stressing the importance of rolling its networking solutions into an end-to-end portfolio play, whether it includes traditional switching hardware or open stack software, Burns said.

"There are a lot of exciting opportunities we're working with the team on as it relates to the partner program including Dell EMC networking," Burns said. Dell EMC rolled out its new unified partner program in early February, providing strong rebates and incentives for server, storage and PC business lines.

Networking rebates under the new program closely follow those in the server line, which carries a 4 percent base rebate, a 1.5 percent growth rebate, 1 percent for attaching services, an 8 percent new business incentive and 0.95 percent MDF.

Cheryl Cook, Dell EMC's head of partner marketing, said solution providers have an opportunity to capitalize on broad shifts in customer behavior.

"Customers have an appreciation of the fact that workloads have changed," Cook said. "Cisco's dominance was enabling a generation of client-server relationships. We've virtualized the server. It doesn't require the three-tier model, it's more two tier, and customers recognize the savings in these offerings. We've seen early success, demonstrable cost savings, demonstrable performance."

"There's a huge growth opportunity, and it's an area that is ripe for disruption and innovation," Cook said. "Trends in the infrastructure space are where things are moving to tighter integration, more software defined. We've seen virtualized compute, denser servers, all flash. Networking is that next frontier of innovation and growth."

Burns estimates that the networking market will favor the disaggregated, open, software-defined approach Dell EMC advocates in the next three to five years. The strategy has already taken hold among SaaS providers, webscale and other scale-out customers.

"You'll see us offering and announcing more and more combined Dell EMC server-storage-networking products in the future that allow this disaggregated, open customer choice capability versus here's a proprietary stack, you can deploy it in these, and oh, by the way, you need to do additional training. You don't need additional training," Burns said.

"I'm measuring us on, and I think [Dell Technologies Chairman and CEO] Michael [Dell] is measuring us on, are we helping our customers move from traditional to digital-ready to cloud-native applications by helping them have the data center of the future that can handle both traditional applications and also future-ready applications. We're focused very much on that," Burns said.

And while Dell offers traditional networking solutions through its Force10 unit, Burns draws a bold line between the traditional, proprietary stack where Cisco dominates the market with a more than 60 percent share, and its open model.

Traditional networking requires proprietary architectures, management tools, operating systems and specially-built application specific integrated circuits, Burns argues. Dell EMC's open networking solutions run on standard architecture and orchestration tools; optional SDN/NVO controllers, any networking operating system, open standard hardware, and circuitry.

Dan Serpico, CEO of FusionStorm, a San Francisco-based solution provider that works with Dell EMC, as well as networking powerhouses Cisco and HPE, said that while there is "absolutely" an opportunity for Dell EMC to drive growth in the networking market through its converged and hyper-converged solutions, he's not ready to predict market victory for open strategies generally.

"If I could predict that, I'd work in Vegas," Serpico said. "but we've seen a progression around open source in all aspects of the technology world, so why would we not see it take a stronger foothold in the networking side? We want to understand all the shifts in technology. The question is are we going to take advantage of that and build solutions that support that?"