Dell To Integrate Technology, Licensing, Service, Cloud Across All Storage Lines

Dell, which has over the last few years acquired all the parts needed for an enterprise-class storage business, is using 2012 to assemble them into a unified storage offering that will compete with the best of its peers.

At the same, Dell also plans to integrate pricing and support programs from its acquisitions in order to make them more consistent, and is integrating cloud capabilities to its storage lines.

All together, Dell is out to completely redefine what the words "Dell storage" mean.

Dell last year demonstrated it could combine disparate technologies from multiple technologies. However, 2012 is the year when Dell will see the fruit of all its storage investments and acquisitions, said Carter George, executive director of strategy for Dell Storage.

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"Lots of companies do acquisitions and end up with a grab bag of companies, with no coherent product lines," George said. "But with Dell, every acquisition we've done not only contributes viable products, but also includes key technologies we feel are important for the future that can be spread around across multiple product lines, making them part of a coherent product line."

Dell's plans are very important for solution providers, said Scott Winslow, president of Winslow Technology Group, a Boston-based solution provider and Dell partner who signed up with the vendor when it acquired Compellent.

As the industry consolidates, it's important for channel partners to align with big vendors, Winslow said.

"We used to be aligned with Compellent and Data Domain, but now we're with Dell," he said. "It's the place to go. Dell has been phenomenal. While it's still only 30 percent indirect, it's clear Dell wants to grow its channel sales. Dell is bringing us into customers we didn't see before because Compellent was too small. And Dell is showing it needs VARs like us to bring storage to some of their customers."

Aligning its storage products more closely will go far in helping solution providers improve their Dell business, said Patrick Mulvee, vice president of sales and marketing at Sidepath, an Irvine, Calif.-based solution provider who also became a Dell partner with the Compellent acquisition.

"Customers can buy more than one Dell storage platform," Mulvee said. "They can buy Compellent, EqualLogic, or PowerVault. They can also buy Dell servers, and Dell networking. So when Dell partners with us on the deal, we don't lose."

Dell's technical consolidation is a big task, given the amount of material Dell has gathered over the last few years.

Dell in early 2008 acquired storage vendor EqualLogic, a leader in iSCSI technology, and as a result became one of the top storage vendors in the industry.

Dell followed that acquisition with the purchase early last year of Compellent, which gave it an enterprise-class storage line.

Those acquisitions, along with its legacy entry-level PowerVault storage line, gave Dell three disparate product offerings with no ties between them.

However, Dell has also acquired such companies as Ocarina, which gives it a strong compression and deduplication technology, and Exanet, a developer of scalable NAS technology. Dell last year also acquired its Force10 Networks, giving it its own networking offering.

Dell has already started integrating technology from its smaller acquisitions across its three storage lines and, in the process, make it possible to tie the three more closely. For instance, Dell last year added its Ocarina compression technology to its DX Object Storage Platform for storing unstructured content, and Exanet scalable NAS technology to its EqualLogic line.

However, that move will accelerate in 2012, George said.

Next: Expanding Scalable NAS, Dedupe Tech To More Storage Lines

Dell plans to expand its Exanet scalable NAS technology, which currently has been integrated with its EqualLogic and PowerVault lines, to its Compellent line, George said.

"For the first time, we'll have scalable file systems across all three product lines," he said. "Customers will be able to move files across all three lines. However, that does not mean providing a single cluster across the three lines."

George left the possibility of clustering across multiple Dell storage lines open. "It's on the planning horizon, " he said. "I can't give a time frame. It depends on customer demand. If customers say they see a lot of value, we can do it pretty quickly."

2012 will also be a big year for dedupe at Dell, George said.

The company early this week kicked off its dedupe plans for year with the introduction of its DR4000 dedupe appliance, its first based on its Ocarina technology.

"Over 2012, you will see Ocarina in other Dell products as well," George said. "Our eventual goal is to have it in all Dell storage products, including our backup, primary storage, archiving, and cloud offerings."

Dell also plans to take advantage of its server, storage, and networking technology to significantly increase its presence in the converged infrastructure market.

Converged infrastructure is a way to integrate multiple IT technologies, such as servers, storage, networking equipment, virtualization, and/or software applications into a larger solution.

George said that Dell this year will combine its Compellent storage line with Dell servers, Force10 networking gear, and related software into new vStart bundles that will help the company target the market currently dominated by Hewlett-Packard and Cisco. The company also has a similar VStart bundle with its EqualLogic storage line, but George said such a bundle centered on Compellent would be heftier.

"We're tying our servers closely with our networking and storage in an end-to-end fashion," he said. "VStart is a completely working configuration in which Force10 automatically recognizes storage and data traffic."

2012 will also see a focus on tying PCIe Flash memory modules to its servers and storage to boost performance, George said.

"There will be PCIe cards in the market providing tremendous performance in servers," he said. "But we're looking at how to coordinate that with the storage on the back end. Today, we can add PCIe Flash memory to Dell servers, but that only serves as local storage for the server. While customers are now looking at how to best use it, we will be offering intelligence that would enable it to act together with external storage."

When asked whether that means Dell will be partnering with high-performance Flash memory vendors like Fusion-io, George said the company will be able to offer customers choices for the technology.

George said converging different types of data protection technologies including backups, replication, and archiving is also a big opportunity for Dell in 2012, but in this area he was less specific in terms of actual plans.

"Customers today have many, many multiple copies of their data thanks to backups, replications, and snapshots," he said. "That means big opportunities to converge replication, backup, and archiving into one giant pool. This won't be a single product. But customers will know they don't have to spread their data out as much as it was in the past."

Next: Unifying License Costs Across Dell Storage

Dell's plans for 2012 include storage innovation beyond the technology. The company is also in the process of unifying the pricing methods and services programs it inherited with some of its acquisitions.

"Dell sees the opportunity to change the way people buy storage just like Dell did with servers," George said.

With its acquisitions of EqualLogic and Compellent, Dell inherited two unique software licensing models, each of which has strong adherents among Dell's solution providers.

With EqualLogic, the purchase of a software license includes every feature available. And, as new features become available, they are automatically included in the license as long as the contract is maintained.

Compellent, on the other hand, offers perpetual licensing of software so that, if a customer upgrades the hardware, there is no requirement that a new software license be purchased.

Dell is currently exploring the possibility of converging the two licensing models, George said. "We are looking at consolidating them into a new Dell software license for storage," he said. "We want to take the best features of both models for a common license that would work across the products lines. There still are a million things to solve, but we're working on it. And we're already seeing our customers fear the changes and starting to market against it."

George said Dell's motive is not to squeeze more revenue from customers. "It's to benefit the customers," he said. "If the customers don't see the benefits, we won't do it."

Such a new license would probably not be available for Dell's PowerVault line, George said. "PowerVault only has two licensable features," he said.

Both the Compellent and the EqualLogic licensing programs are very good, Winslow said. "With Compellent, customers say it's the only vendor that offers declining software costs over time," he said. "After 96 disks, there is no additional charge. And EqualLogic customers like how they are not nickled and dimed to death with new license costs for additional features. If Dell can combine the best of both, customers would love it."

Legacy Compellent customers love their pricing system, Mulvee said. "But if Dell makes it more like the EqualLogic pricing, I'm not sure how customers would react."

A big issue when adjusting licensing is the perceived impact by customers looking at how it affects their overall cost of storage, Mulvee said.

"It pains me when we work on a customer opportunity and they make the technology decision based on price without considering the value of the license," he said. "They will get some software, but not necessarily get the full value of the software."

With EqualLogic, customers like getting all the software features in a single license, but that license is tied to the hardware, Mulvee said. "We've had enterprise customers who wrote a check for the software but then leased the hardware," he said. "They want to leverage the software for a long time, and just replace the hardware every three to five years."

Mulvee said he will be closely watching how Dell handles the unification of its licensing. "At the end of the day, we want happy customers," he said. "I don't know which model works best. But we want happy customers."

Dell is also looking at how to expand its Copilot service program, which came as part of the Compellent acquisition, to its EqualLogic line.

Next: Expanding Copilot Services And Integrating The Cloud

With Copilot, a customer has an assigned service rep focused on ensuring the customer is happy with the Compellent storage, George said. "They'll sit on the phone for four hours to solve a problem, or talk you through something you are doing for the first time," he said.

Expanding Copilot to EqualLogic would be a big investment in automated systems, proactive monitoring, and training of personnel, George said.

"This is a completely different model for services," he said. "We'll get it to all our storage product lines as quickly as we can."

Bringing EqualLogic under the Copilot service program is a great way to make the EqualLogic product line a more valuable one, as long as the move doesn't water down the value of the program, Mulvee said.

Copilot was one of the drivers of the growth of Compellent," he said. "As Compellent was deployed, we taught customers how to get the most value out of their arrays. We also set them up with Copilot, helped them with reporting. And we told customers, 'Here's Copilot. It's your best friend.'"

When Dell originally moved to acquire Compellent, the question of what it would do with Copilot was top of mind, Winslow said.

"But not only has Dell kept Copilot, they're expanding it," he said. "They've added a lot of resources, and bringing EqualLogic under Copilot is a big move. Copilot was one of the key reasons customers purchased Compellent. With Copilot, instead of waiting for someone to call back about service, they get an engineer on the line right away."

Dell is also moving to add cloud capability to all its storage lines. George said Dell has already said it will build multiple clouds around the world, with one function to be to provide storage as a service to businesses and enterprises.

"We don't see the cloud as competing with storage products," he said. "We see the cloud as an extension to storage. So Dell storage products will start to have seamless ties to the clouds. And for our partners who are MSPs, they will be able to plug our storage to their clouds."

Storage functions including backups and archiving are being tied to the cloud, George said. "Eventually, we'll see storage products automatically ask customers if they want to tie to the cloud. That will make the cloud just another storage tier."

This won't happen all at once, George said. The first step is to offer seamless replication of data to Dell's first VMware-certified cloud, which was introduced late last year, and to other clouds. "I would like to see us build in backup to the cloud as well," he said. "The capability is there."