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Analyst Perspective: Is Dell the new Blade Runner in converged IT?


 This is a guest post written by Simon Robinson, analyst at 451 Research.

Storage – primarily driven by acquisition – is playing a key role in Dell’s transformation into a broader provider of enterprise IT products and services. Executing against an acquisition strategy is never easy, especially when it is placed at the vanguard of an attempt to break into a new market sector, as is the case with Dell storage. One aspect that we as an analyst firm pay particular attention is the extent to which an acquired company and technology is integrated into the buying company’s overall strategy. If there’s a high degree of cross-pollination then this is a good indication that there are real points of integration, leverage and even innovation, which a great way of delivering new value to customers.

Dell hosted its second annual Storage Forum in Boston this month, and the company made a number of announcements that indicate it is making real progress here. In this post I’ll comment on a couple of these in particular: first, in how Dell is leveraging its multiple storage assets within the storage group itself as part of its Fluid Data strategy, and second; how it is also now starting to leverage storage innovations in other parts of its enterprise business, especially the hot new trend around converged infrastructure.

First to Fluid Data, Dell’s over-arching strategy that aims to offer an end-to-end storage architecture capable of handling customer data and information in the most optimal manner, spanning both file and block interfaces. Dell has been a strong player in the block storage space for a number of years, but has only recently started moving directly into the file arena with an approach its calls the Fluid File System, a scalable file system based on technology it acquired from Exanet. File support is important not only because customers are struggling with file data growth and storage, but because customers increasingly demand storage systems that can speak both block and file.

Dell began integrating the Fluid File System into its portfolio last year, in the process creating its first ‘unified’ storage systems on the PowerVault and EqualLogic platforms. It’s now taking this a step further by integrating the Fluid File System with its two additional primary storage platforms; its mid-range Compellent systems and its PowerVault NAS platforms. Adding native distributed file system capabilities to Compellent – in the form of the Dell Compellent FS8600 NAS — is an important move for Dell, and a great one for customers looking to unify their storage environment with all of the high-end features they expect, such as snapshots, replication and automated tiering.

And note that the Dell folks have been busy; this was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of DSF announcements. There’s also a new Compellent hardware array – the Dell Compellent SC8000 – based on the new 64-bit Compellent Storage Center 6.0 operating system that Dell announced earlier this year, featuring a more efficient 2U enclosure and act as a foundation for both file and block storage. And moving to another storage acquisition – though much more recent – Dell also announced the latest version of its AppAssure software; version 5 comes less than four months after it acquired the data protection specialist. New goodies here include a rearchitected back-end designed to support the backup of larger environments and Big Data applications.

So that’s the first piece covered, but there’s more. Also at DSF, Dell is announced bladed versions of its EqualLogic storage systems. A decade ago the concept of the blade server first started to emerge; though the idea took a while to take off, the explosion of server virtualization over the last half-decade has proved to be the catalyst for a sea-change in the way many datacenters deploy their server environments, leading to new levels of power efficiency, vastly simplified cabling and easier management.

One curious element of the blade server concept – i.e. stripping down a regular commodity server to essential components, and packaging multiple of these into a smaller, more efficient and in some ways smarter form factor – is that until now the idea has not yet fully translated into the storage systems arena. The super-observant among you will have already picked up that the key words in the last sentence were ‘until now,’ because that changed with Dell’s announcement of the Dell EqualLogic Blade Array.

As the name would suggest, this new offering provides the functionality of an EqualLogic storage array that makes it such as strong low- to mid-range storage system – especially the peer-scaling of performance and capacity, advanced data protection and management simplicity – in a highly streamlined blade form factor. Dell says multiple arrays can be configured in under an hour, while the arrays offer almost twice the usable capacity of competitive arrays. There are four EqualLogic PS-M4110 Blade Arrays to choose from, storing up to 14TB per array, and up to 28TB per array group inside a M1000e blade chassis, with up to 56TB across two groups per chassis. The Blade Array can also scale outside of the chassis through connection to external storage pool of up to 2PB.

That is exciting on its own, but what is really important here is how this fits into Dell’s overall blade and convergence strategy, especially for smaller and mid-sized businesses looking to get the most of their virtualized infrastructure. Therefore, Dell also announced its first pre-tested and certified Dell Converged Blade Data Center Solution, which combines the new blade arrays with Dell’s latest 12G M420 blade servers and Force10 MXL switches. To my mind, that is testament to how far Dell has come in recent years, in that it is able to offer such a system that is based on key components built from its own IP, and should really help convey the breadth of Dell’s enterprise portfolio.

In our opinion the new Blade Center Solution could be a game changer, not just in the blade market, but in the broader move around converged infrastructure. Just as with blade servers a decade ago, the converged infrastructure market has been relatively slow to take off. Indeed, our own research shows that while up to 40% of large enterprises are planning to deployed converged systems in their datacenters in the coming year, as little as 17% of mid-sized businesses have such a charter.

We believe that this will begin to change as smaller organizations become more comfortable with the idea of convergence. After all, specialist IT skills are at much more of a premium among smaller businesses, so the converged model is actually just as viable – if not more viable – among mid-sized shops as it is their larger brethren.

The Blade Array provides Dell with more sizzle as it continues to develop its convergence strategy; indeed, one of our observations from following this market is that it is often the storage environment that can benefit the most from convergence; server virtualization leads to consolidation, which leaves the often under-utilized storage system even more exposed as the most inefficient part of the infrastructure. Space, power and overhead efficient innovations such as the Blade Array therefore potentially offer significant savings for customers.

Again, in this post I have focused on just a couple of innovations that Dell delivered in the DSF salvo of announcements. But I believe that these additions are indicative of the level of effort that Dell is expending to become not just another player in enterprise storage, but a true innovator in storage and beyond. 

About the AuthorSimon Robinson leads the Storage and Information Management practice at 451 Research, where he manages a team of analysts that help 451 Research clients understand the impact of information growth and management on organizations; also, identify the emerging trends and technologies that are helping organizations optimize and take advantage of their data and information, as well as meet ever-evolving governance requirements.

Based in London, Simon joined 451 Research in 2000, and has played an instrumental role in developing the firm's storage industry practice, as well as pioneering research efforts in areas such as storage virtualization, data de-duplication technologies and cloud storage.

Prior to joining 451 Research, Simon was a senior reporter and editor at UK tech publications house VNU, and also worked on the City Desk at the UK's Press Association. He has a degree in Economics.


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