Dell was in San Francisco last week to host its Enterprise Strategy Update, staking its claim to the x86 top spot with the announcement of its big converged infrastructure platform, the Active System 800.
Three years ago, Dell was just another PC/server maker fighting for market share in a commodity market. The ultra-lean manufacturing processes that had previously allowed it a significant price advantage over its competitors had been eroded as other manufacturers emulated Dell’s approach, leaving it with little to differentiate it from its competitors other than memories of past advertising campaigns. While its reputation for poor support and burning batteries was behind it, my personal perception of Dell, strongly colored by the large number of Dell laptops that expired at my hands, was not good.
However, in the last two years my view of Dell has been slowly changing. A new focus on data center technologies, a string of successful acquisitions and some fresh blood in key leadership positions has revitalized the company, forcing me to reassess Dell’s position in the enterprise technology ecosystem. Suffice to say, this is not the Dell I used to know.
I must share at this point, that’s Dell did provide hotel accommodation the night before the event and took a few of us out for dinner, which, while very enjoyable, didn’t really make up for the years of abuse that owning a series of Latitude D310 laptops inflicts.
Starting with Perot Systems in late 2009, Dell has opened its wallet to the tune of $10 billion, buying up no fewer than 15 companies, while at the same time pulling in some top talent from its biggest competitors. As a result, Dell can now deliver enterprise storage (Exanet, Ocarina Networks, Compellent); data center networking (RNA Networks and Force10); data center management (KACE Networks, Scalent, AppAssure, and Quest Software); and services (Perot Systems, Make Technologies, and Celerity Solutions), to match any of its competitors.
Dell took its first steps down the converged infrastructure road with the announcement of its vStart 100 and vStart 200 preconfigured hardware stacks in April 2011 (which are nominally rated as being able to support approximately 100 and 200 VMs respectively; your mileage will vary). Dell’s vStart systems sit side-by-side with the likes of the VCE Vblock and HP BladeSystem Matrix systems; prebuilt, white glove installation, balanced hardware packages complete with an engineer to plug it in and hand over the keys. For customers looking for alternative hosting solution, Dell will also offer hosting in one of its own data centers. After initially offering only midsize systems, Dell’s vStart systems has extended the range down to the vStart 50 and up as far as vStart 1000. The smaller vStart systems are all based on Dell PowerEdge R610 and R 710 rack servers, EqualLogic PS6000XV disk arrays, and PowerConnect 6248 Gb Ethernet switches. With the vStart 1000, Dell has replaced the rack servers with new PowerEdge 12 G blade servers, Compellent storage, and Force10 switches.
Purely from a technical specifications perspective, the Active System 800 fits the bill, positioning it right up against the competition (UCS from Cisco Systems, the CloudSystem and AppSystem from HP, the PureFlex systems from IBM, and Oracle’ s Exa-platforms).
2 PowerEdge R620 management servers with 128GB of memory
1-2 Dell 42U racks per Active System 800, including PDUs
iDRAC7 Enterprise for Blades with vFlash, 8Gb SD cards
The Dell Power Edge M620 half height blade has two sockets for Intel Xeon E5 – 2600 series processors, and can accommodate up to 768 GB of memory in 24 DIMM slots. Dell will also support Active System 800 machines with Xeon E5-based PowerEdge 12G M420 (quarter height) and M820 (full height) blades.
The PowerEdge M I/O Aggregator is a new device that is more than a fabric extender, less than a full network switch. It can link together up to 32 server nodes using 10 Gb Ethernet ports to a pair of QSFP+ ports providing combined total of 80 Gb (8×10 Gb Ethernet) to a top-of-rack switch. Dell does provide two Force10 switches in the standard Active System 800 configuration, but the PowerEdge M I/O Aggregator will work with any 10 Gb switch.
The Active System 800 also includes
Active System Manager
VMware vCenter 5.1 (trial license)
VMware ESXi 5.1 per host server
Dell Management Plug-in for VMware vCenter
EqualLogic Host Integration Tools
EqualLogic SAN HeadQuarters
Dell’s best opportunity lies with Active System Manager (ASM). So far, Dell has provided limited information on ASM, but it looks to be a next-generation of Dell Advanced Infrastructure Manager (AIM), something that would be by no means a bad thing. Dell AIM used to be known by another name, Scalent V/OE (Virtual Operating Environment), which Dell OEMed from Scalent in September 2009. Dell then went on to include Scalent in its acquisitions in mid-2010. AIM is an out-of-band physical and virtual server, storage, and network provisioning and management tool that has gained a lot of respect in the industry, especially for it largely vendor-neutral stance. Whereas HP and Cisco tend to focus on their own servers and switches, AIM, largely as a result of its independent heritage, can handle a wide variety of vendors’ kit, a fact that by itself will encourage adherents. Anyone with a heterogenous computing infrastructure combining multiple generations of hardware from multiple vendors (i.e. most of us) will find AIM more than up to the task of managing workloads effectively. The ability to take standard server images, or “personas” in AIM terminology, and deploy them as needed across multiple hypervisors, using multiple storage platforms and multiple vendors networking hardware regardless of platform, is a welcome change from single-vendor-centric solutions.
Dell describes ASM as being a template-based management platform. With individual configuration elements captured, two templates can then be applied across all infrastructure elements (compute, storage, and networking) from a single click. ASM supports automated failover from one physical infrastructure element to another in the event of hardware failure or scheduled maintenance activities. The whole thing is then wrapped in an intuitive GUI which provides both system topology and workflow layout capabilities. While the terminology is different, an ASM template sounds very much the same as an AIM persona. There is less emphasis on the ability to support heterogenous systems, but Dell has made it clear that using ASM will not, for example, prevent the customer from deploying Cisco or Juniper switches.
Dell makes some impressive claims for the Active System 800 and Active System Manager:
75% fewer steps from “power on to production”
45% better system performance per watt
2.3 times more compute nodes per rack
Without, of course, sharing which systems were used as the baseline.
Dell still has some way to go with Active System. The memory caching technology, which Dell got from its acquisition of RNA Networks last year, is not yet integrated into the Active System stack. Similarly, the EqualLogic blade arrays, which Dell announced in June, will not appear inside Active Systems until next year. Nevertheless, when it does come, the RNA Networks may turn out to be the key differentiator between Active System and its competitors. RNA Networks offers the opportunity of creating the inverse of server virtualization; instead of taking one physical server and partitioning it into multiple virtual servers, RNA Networks was developing a way to take multiple physical servers and bind their collective processors and memory into a single hyper scale virtual machine. Dell has not formally released its plans for RNA Networks tech, but in a whiteboarding session, Don Ferguson (Dell CTO Dell Software Group) and Jai Menon (Dell CTO Enterprise Solutions Group) shared how pooling server-side flash across multiple Active System nodes would speed performance of database and web apps. The overlap here between pooling flash memory across multiple servers and RNA Networks broader goal of pulling entire servers is obvious. There is a clear suggestion here that the first commercial implementation of RNA Networks tech will appear in Active System sometime next year.
Ferguson and Menon’s appearance at the Enterprise Strategy Update is an example of just how far Dell has come in strengthening its technical leadership. Both are IBM veterans–Menon had been with IBM for 25 years–and both are IBM Fellows. Exactly what enticements Dell offered the pair to leave IBM after so many years has not been shared.