Dell's cloud strategy: Do-it-yourself private clouds

Dell is walking a tightrope between the world of cloud platform startups and the enterprise IT market. Can it wrestle a place in the cloud with HP and IBM in play?

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Dell is carving out a place for itself in the cloud computing market by pitching a variety of infrastructure products, including new Hyper-V Clouds and the Dell Virtual Infrastructure System (VIS) that the company says will work with any standard x86 server, be it HP, IBM or any of Dell's competitors.

Announced at Microsoft's TechEd conference in Germany this week, Hyper-V Clouds are preconfigured server and storage systems that include Hyper-V licensing and Microsoft System Center Virtual Machine Manager (SCVMM) Self Service Portal 2.0. HDS, IBM, NEC, HP and Fujitsu are also offering Windows-based cloud packages.

You can go at your own pace, and these are things that make enterprises cozier with the idea [of cloud].

Kirshnan Subramanian, IT analyst, in regards to giving enterprises options

Dell seems to have the idea of automated IT in its DNA. Its e-commerce website has long allowed individuals to customize and buy computers without ever picking up the phone; it now allows the casual buyer to look at exactly what constitutes cloud-in-a-box in some detail. The entry point is a single PowerEdge R510 that runs 10 virtual machines (VMs) with 12 GB of RAM and 1.5 TB of storage for $9,722. The high end: 14 blade servers and 4 EMC CX4-DAE4P Fibre Channel storage arrays start at around $446,041.

Eric Endebrock, product manager at Dell, said that the idea was to offer a range of products that were both a step up from existing infrastructure tools but not so wild as to require complete upheaval in the IT shop. He said the truth was that most of Dell's customers were simply trying to have a better day, and that the true impact of cloud was preferably a small step, not a giant leap.

"The reality is if you're a big customer with a [for example] BMC site license, you can do a lot of these things," he said, like provision VMs on demand, monitor system health and so on. These customers aren't seeing a bright line between data center management and private clouds, since they have already made the investment in hardware and software. "It's pretty blurry; most of these things are just moving up from the pain point," he said.

According to Endebrock, private cloud comes into play either in brand-new infrastructure rollouts -- so-called "green field" projects -- or in the gradual, long-term shift within the enterprise to virtualization. Endebrock said he saw far more of the latter, looking to make sense out of increasing pools of virtualized and centralized resources.

Dell's cloud plans explained
Dell's plan for the do-it-yourself IT pros is to offer three basic building blocks for a self-service, automated IT environment. First is the Dell Advanced Infrastructure Manager, which is Scalent's technology, acquired by Dell in early June. It's a virtualization and network manager that works on VMware, Hyper-V and Xen and gives admins a single point of control. Scalent lets users create preconfigured "personas" or preconfigured server roles. In most aspects, it is a variation on the cloud platform offered by many others, including Eucalyptus, Abiquo, Enomaly and Cloud.com.

Dell is partnering with DynamicOps for the user end of the private cloud; its Self Service Creator allows authorized users to create and manage their own VMs and app stacks. DynamicOps comes with an interesting pedigree; it was a virtualization infrastructure pet project at a multinational bank, Credit Suisse, before being spun out as a separate business. The creators of DynamicOps say it started with the premise that IT services had to be subject to policy and governance, so the company built in a lot ways to keep users under control.

The VIS Director is coming next year. Endebrock said that part will provide a top-down view of virtual infrastructure and allow analysis of usage patterns and performance. Endebrock said throughout Dell's experiences in building out large virtual environments, the ability to analyze can get lost at the top end. He cited Facebook, one of the largest server operations in the world, as a Dell customer that experienced legendary growth in traffic and data center use, often simply making it up as they went along.

Why is Dell's offering so open?
All of these tools work on pretty much any combination of hardware, according to Dell. Anything that will run VMware will run this software. Dell is a leading server manufacturer and capable of matching the offerings of all the major brands, so why is it playing nice? Cisco's UCS is a locked box, as is IBM's CloudBurst appliance. Those companies are making money keeping other brands out.

"They're seeing how EMC, HP and IBM are gaining traction at the enterprise level and they cannot beat them at that level on hardware, so they are taking an open view," said Seattle-based IT analyst Krishnan Subramanian.

Dell made a string of acquisitions in software -- not its expertise -- and essentially came around to an open-platform view of the cloud that's shared by many others, Subramanian said. "They're trying to use the commodity solution to cloud and protect themselves," he added.

The reality is if you're a big customer with a [for example] BMC site licesne, you can do a lot of these things.

Eric Endebrock, Dell product manager

Dell's worry is getting lost in the shuffle as IT reorganizes itself over the next decade. Subramanian said it was a future-oriented strategy and not necessarily a bad ploy, since the reality of cloud computing within the enterprise is that change will happen quite slowly. Giving enterprises options was probably wise.

"You can go at your own pace, and these are things that make enterprises cozier with the idea [of cloud]," he said. Dell itself is quite candid about that reality; in addition to its own platform and Hyper-V as a solution, it's also partnered with (and invested in) cloud provider Joyent to resell its internal cloud platform, which is oriented toward running applications for the internet; if you liked their approach, Dell will sell it to you.

Building the bridge to SaaS and cloud
Dell also just acquired Boomi, a data integration services company that it hopes will help the bridge from traditional IT to newer, Software as a Service (SaaS) providers for customers who don't want to build their own apps. All of these cloud products are completely independent of Dell's core server and desktop line, and Dell will cheerfully run them on any hardware you like.

The move is strongly reminiscent of IBM's purchase of Cast Iron, which does essentially the same thing as Boomi. Likewise, Dell's acquisition of Perot Systems came close on the heels of HP buying EDS, both IT services firms. Dell lost a much-publicized fight for storage firm 3Par to HP this summer, which highlighted the scale of Dell's influence in the big enterprise market.

This may mean bad news for the startups and established vendors jostling for position in the new IT market. The cloud infrastructure space now has a competitor that dwarfs them all, including Novell, the latest vendor to launch a cloud platform software package.

Carl Brooks is the Technology Writer at SearchCloudComputing.com. Contact him at cbrooks@techtarget.com.

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