Dell's Two-Part Plan: Merge Storage Platforms, Develop 'Blue Thunder' Software-Defined Storage

Alan Atkinson, VP and GM for Dell storage

Dell is in the midst of a huge overhaul of its storage business as it works toward unifying its two primary storage technologies and embarks on a software-defined storage strategy based heavily on partnering with some pretty significant technology providers.

For Dell, which before becoming a private company was best known as a provider of commodity PC and server hardware, the massive shift in its storage strategy is visible proof of its rebirth as a provider of enterprise IT solutions, said Alan Atkinson, vice president and general manager for Dell storage.

That shift stems, in part, from the fact that Dell already has one of the industry's top server lines on which to base much of its storage going forward, Atkinson told CRN.

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"We tell customers, 'You can come to a premier partner like Dell, which has an industry-leading server platform like PowerEdge, and get an end-to-end solution that mixes and matches with compatible solutions," he said.

Dell has been very open in its software strategy, a fact not lost on customers or the channel, said Scott Winslow, president of Winslow Technology Group, a Boston-based solution provider and long-term Dell storage channel partner.

"I give Dell an 'A' for transparency," Winslow told CRN. "I feel Dell is treating customers the way they want to be treated. Dell's open about combining EqualLogic and Compellent, primarily on the Compellent platform. It is important that Dell invests the needed resources and capital to combine them."

Dell is taking a two-pronged approach to developing its storage strategy going forward, Atkinson said.

The first is to bring its various storage technologies, which were acquired starting in 2008, into a common storage identity.

This includes iSCSI pioneer EqualLogic, enterprise storage developer Compellent, memory virtualization technology developer RNA Networks, storage compression technology developer Ocarina and clustered NAS developer Exanet.

Over time, all these will be brought together in a single storage identity," Atkinson said. "But no one will be left behind. It will be backwards-compatible with prior versions of the individual technologies."

The EqualLogic brand and its "PS" model name will be kept in play for now, he said. Dell plans for at least two more major EqualLogic releases, including one hardware refresh.

Dell already dropped the Compellent brand, referring instead to that line as the "Dell Storage SC series," starting with the introduction in June of the entry-level SC4020, which Dell partners referred to as "Baby Compellent" despite the name change.

NEXT: 'Blue Thunder' And Dell's Software-Defined Storage Strategy

"The SC and the PS lines will eventually merge into one platform," he said. "But that's a multiyear project. This is a statement of direction."

The second part of the two-pronged approach to future storage for Dell is to invest heavily in software-defined storage.

Dell already has an OEM relationship with, and an equity stake in, Santa Clara, Calif.-based software-defined storage developer Nexenta, and is planning to OEM hyper-converged infrastructure technology from Nutanix, San Jose, Calif.

Going forward, Dell's software-defined storage focus will be on Blue Thunder, a new project that brings together multiple software-defined storage technologies from several partners on Dell server hardware.

In addition to Nexenta ZFS and Nutanix, other partners in the Blue Thunder strategy include Red Hat for its OpenStack cloud and Ceph open source storage, Cloudera's Hadoop technology for big data, Microsoft and VMware, Atkinson said.

"The underlying message for customers is freedom of choice," he said. "The tagline is, 'Software Defined By You.' Dell will provide customers with a single SKU, including hardware and the software with full software support."

Atkinson admitted that these are not new partnerships.

"But we're bringing them together under Blue Thunder as part of a common platform," he said. "This is the first time for us to bring them together. We're offering customers freedom of choice on a common platform with a common management layer. It's appealing for customers to have a single source to get this in an integrated fashion."

The IT industry has been putting out a lot of messaging about things like converged infrastructure and software-defined, said Vince Lamb, vice president of professional services at Technology Integration Group (TIG), a San Diego-based solution provider and longtime Dell channel partner.

"I'm not sure there's been a lot of traction around that messaging," Lamb told CRN. "But that's good news for Dell. If the market's not there yet, Dell has a good chance to play. Not everyone has drank the software-defined Kool-Aid yet."

Dell has had a lot of success with its EqualLogic and Compellent platforms, both of which have significant customer bases and which serve both similar and different markets, said Paul Clifford, president of Davenport Group, a St. Paul, Minn.-based solution provider and longtime Dell partner.

While competitors like to say that EqualLogic is at its end-of-life, the line still has a lot of life left, Clifford told CRN.

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"Dell will add feature sets that will work with Compellent storage," Clifford said. "There are 65,000 EqualLogic customers. Dell will not walk away from that base. Dell will combine EqualLogic and Compellent, but those who want EqualLogic can still get EqualLogic."

Winslow said that Dell has said it will sell EqualLogic through 2018, and support it through 2024. "There's not a lot of storage companies that up-front," he said. That's a long time. Dell's protecting customers' investments."

Combining disparate storage product lines is a challenge for any large company, be it Dell, Hewlett-Packard or EMC, Winslow said. "Dell does a relatively good job of it," he said. "It's moving to a unified platform. It makes sense, especially when moving to a new product like the SC4020."

Clifford said that Dell is already moving in the direction of software-defined storage, citing the example of the SC4020, which consists of Compellent storage code running on Dell servers.

"Software-defined storage is truly the extrapolation of software from hardware, and letting the software run on anything. The Compellent software ran on one hardware platform before, and now runs on Dell server hardware. It has a smaller footprint than before, but all the features and a lower-cost entry point."

The fact that Dell's storage strategy is coming from Atkinson is itself important for the vendor, Clifford said.

"Alan's brain is on steroids," he said. "He's incredibly intelligent. He sees the technology, and knows what to do with it. When I see what Dell's engineers are able to do with storage, I'm wowed with Alan's engineering acumen. The vision of IT that Dell has is an ambitious and game-changing architecture. And Alan's ability to execute on the linchpin of that strategy--storage--is incredible."