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Hard-Core Hardware: Dell Acquisition May Shake Up Server Marketplace

By Drew Robb (Send Email)
Posted Jul 17, 2008


Drew Robb
Dell's recent purchase of EqualLogic is already paying off. The company can now claim a position of dominance in the iSCSI market with 28.1 percent, according to Gartner. That's more than EMC, NetApp and HP combined — and they make up positions two through four, respectively. Further, IDC numbers show Dell leading the open systems (Windows/Linux) external worldwide disk array storage market with $422 million in revenue (20.4 percent) for the first quarter. That's a gain of 21 percent year-over-year. Through a marriage of server and storage virtualization, Dell could be positioned for serious progress in server revenue.

While those stats alone appear to justify the acquisition, what might not be realized is that Dell is now well-positioned to boost its server sales significantly through the marriage of server and storage virtualization. Storage virtualization has been lagging behind its server cousin for quite some time. With virtual machines (VMs) springing up everywhere, and just about every organization buying a ticket for the VMware Express, it was only a matter of time before the lack of comparable storage virtualization flexibility became an issue.

The use of Fibre Channel (FC) in a highly virtualized server environment, for example, means making and breaking individual connections on a manual basis. Sure, the storage vendors are working on that, but why bother if you can avoid it via iSCSI?

iSCSI uses plain old IP to run a SAN, bypassing the need for expensive FC networking gear. As server administrators are familiar with IP, it makes sense for Dell to make a big play in the iSCSI game to entice server customers to buy more Dell storage. With EqualLogic, that argument becomes especially persuasive due to the advantages of hooking virtualized Dell servers and blades up with a Dell EqualLogic PS disk array backbone.

These PS arrays enable intelligent storage management and automation. Load balancing, for instance, is done without human intervention. Storage devices are dynamically reconfigured as virtual workloads heat up iSCSI connections to near saturation rates. That eliminates an awful lot of storage plumbing.

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John Joseph, vice president of Dell Storage says that this combo is a big hit. He reports that 98 percent of EqualLogic customers recommend the product to others, and 85 percent of customers are either using it in conjunction with VMware or planning to do so shortly. Why? It makes it easier to hook up VMs to a virtual storage pool and provides further fluidity within the infrastructure.

Dell has been smart enough to leave the EqualLogic engineering team alone to continue product development, preferring to back it up with more marketing clout and provide it with a larger customer base. That's a sensible approach when you bear in mind that 10 Gb Ethernet is on the horizon. Scheduled for prime time in the next year or so, that leap in speed will act as a major accelerant away from FC SANs toward IP SANs.

Now factor in Dell's overall range of storage. As well as the EqualLogic PS line, it has a successful partnership with EMC for high-end FC arrays and its own PowerVault line to cover more modest storage needs.

PowerVault doesn't have the same virtualization capabilities as the PS, and it is targeted at organizations that don't expect an explosion in storage — as such it can be expanded in capacity only as high as you daisy chain three chassis. It is positioned on the Dell site as a disk backup or Direct Attached Storage solution.

EqualLogic PS, on the other hand, is positioned as networked storage. It scales from 2 TB to nearly 200 TB. And at the top of the line comes Dell/EMC FC offerings.

This all puts Dell on a better footing with regard to its traditional server vendor foes — IBM, Sun and HP are all fully established as storage luminaries. Dell can now confidently tout its storage portfolio as being competitive while forging ahead with its advantage in the iSCSI sector.

Thus, Dell is readying itself for some serious progress in the server standings by reducing the cost and complexity of uniting VMs with a large pool of virtual storage. It has large upsell potential, too, as certain server models play better with EqualLogic — instead of buying that cheap 1P box, for a few dollars more you gain servers that can be hooked into the world of virtual storage.

So unless Sun does something major and soon, it is quite possible that Dell could finally win that long-standing battle for the third spot in the server marketplace behind IBM and HP.

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