Dell Inc. this week joined with other vendors, including Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM and Intel Corp., to create a working group within the Distributed Management Task Force that will help create standard server management software interfaces. The group will evolve the DMTFs Common Information Model—or CIM—specification that will enable customers to manage their heterogeneous environments using software from any vendor. The group also will address various architectures, including blade servers and virtual environments. Neil Hand, director of worldwide product marketing for Dell, of Round Rock, Texas, spoke with eWEEK Senior Editor Jeffrey Burt about the need for more standardization of management software.
Dell has said that standards in management software are very important to the company going forward. Can you talk about this?
Theyre important to us because in the end weve heard very succinctly from our customers and many of our prospective customers that its one of the fundamentals that they need to manage their business, and the fundamental is being able to use servers and storage. But in the end, we think that we as an industry have done a pretty poor job of delivering against that customer fundamental.
The reason we keep hearing that its a fundamental from customers is, they want choice and they want competition to exist in the marketplace. The challenge to them is that they want to be able to have competition inside of their IT space. They have to choose to invest in multiple proprietary vertically integrated management stacks from each of the vendors for their hardware in parallel to the management theyre using to manage their operating system and application deployment. That increases their costs of managing the environment. If they dont do that, then ultimately they are locked into one or, if theyre lucky, two vendors, and have to live with the decisions that vendor makes, which wont always be optimized to the business problem that theyre trying to solve inside their industry.
We [in the high-tech industry] have tried to out-innovate each other, but ultimately that has driven up the cost of ownership for customers.
When I talk with HP and IBM about issues around Tivoli and OpenView, they say that their management software can manage other peoples hardware. Where exactly is the lack of standards becoming a problem?
Thats where we think that things should end up, which is either somewhere between the operating system and the ISV-enabled management stack—be they IBM with Tivoli, HP with OpenView, [Computer Associates International Inc.] with Unicenter or anybody else—that the management tools that were essentially put in place to manage the framework, the enterprise, the general capability, are actually used to manage all the way down to the hardware deployment.
The reality is today very, very few customers get to go off and do that. Plus, [while] you may have heard that OpenView or Tivoli can do that, its not well-deployed like that, and there isnt a common set of interfaces to be able to go off and do that. So customers actually dont use that. Generally theyre using the Dell OpenManage, HP Insight Manager, IBM Director to do the hardware management. Whats happening is that 75 percent of their resources are spent using Tivoli, OpenView and Unicenter to manage the apps and operating systems and the rest of the infrastructure management, and 20 or 25 percent of their resources and time are spent managing the hardware. Those today, for almost all customers, are two separate processes, with two separate views of the systems that theyre running, theyre generally different people, and certainly different tools to go off and do that.
We actually see that integration of the hardware management inside of the standard enterprise management tools would actually benefit the customer by allowing them to be able to get a single, unified view of their environment [and] a single set of processes to be able to go off and do that.
Is that the direction the industry is moving in now, or is it going along a more fragmented path?
We still think its very fragmented. We see that the writing is very strongly on the wall from customers that companies that adopt that methodology and drive to that are the ones that they prefer going forward. Let me give you an example: We recently announced a high degree of integration of our OpenManage tool kits within Microsoft [Corp.s] SMS [Systems Management Software] 2003 management suite. A lot of customers have been moving to using SMS for their apps deployment. To be honest with you, we saw that as a small step forward in this. But the degree of customer and industry interest we got in that far surprised me, because in what one way seems to be a small step forward, a customer with that SMS 2003 just gets a complete view of the hardware, operating systems and software.
That actually answers the problem, “How can I actually start going forward to reduce redundancy in the management environment that Im using, both people and tools?” So we see it as a trend. We believe now, with the feedback weve gotten, its the time to push that trend aggressively to happen. Many people are talking about it. We are putting out development activities behind that trend.
What needs to be done to further this trend, and what is Dell doing in this area?
There are two sets of things. I want to be practical for a second in standards. If you want to manage a Dell server vs. an HP server vs. an IBM server vs. Sun or anybody else, its your management tool kit interfacing to that system. Today, to do simple, over-the-network management things like reboot server, download BIOS, anything else, each one of those things is unique in implementation to each of the vendors. So two sets of things need to happen. One, practically and pragmatically, weve increased our development spend to increase the number of tool kits that we provide that integrate within the enterprise management suite. For example, we took our development team and had them write the code that allows our hardware to be interrogated and managed by SMS 2003. Microsoft then took that code and integrated it within SMS 03 to manage our systems. Weve taken that same code and weve developed it so that it actually works with many of the other ISV-based tools out there from Altiris [Inc.], OpenView, CA Unicenter and others so that with how tightly integrated it is with Microsoft allows those management suites to interrogate our systems.
We did that because we understand our hardware well and can end up providing that as a free tool kit either to the management tool vendors or directly to our customers so that they can get that single view.
Longer term, we think the development of standard interfaces like the IPMI [Intelligent Platform Management Interface] and others can actually define a set of standards core to a system that can be implemented in the same way across all hardware vendors so that the fundamentals … can be achieved. That doesnt stop innovation. Theres still plenty of room for innovation out there. But what it takes away is a lot of the redundancy in both industry development and customer development and deployment so that we can actually start reinvesting that in future innovations [and] solve problems that are real. Its so obvious that every customer in the IT world needs to manage their hardware. …
Our efforts are ensuring that were providing through our own development or partnerships with the ISVs tool kits to manage our hardware from the ISV-based management tool kits and, secondly, increase investment in driving the standardization committees and ensuring that our platforms are fully compliant with those standards. In the future, you can expect as I introduce new servers, they will all be completely compliant with the latest version of, for example, the IPMI specification so that any ISV can write and be able to manage a Dell server. Were clearly encouraging the industry to move along that path as well because we think its very clear that customers would want to be able to have that competition look at other areas of innovation, be they in product or business model, to make those decisions.
Waiting on Standards
It seems that Dell is putting itself into a position of having to wait for new standards before coming out with new servers. For example, in the past when talking with Dell about blade servers, while HP and IBM are expanding their line of blade servers, Dell has stayed somewhat pat with the [PowerEdge] 1655MC. Is Dell falling behind the development of its hardware while waiting for these new standards in software?
It is an important question. We are not going to allow the slowness of definition of software standards to stop us from continuing to innovate on the hardware and the software side. It is important to repeat one of the ideas I talked about earlier, which is, in the absence of a standard, like IPMI or something from the Distributed Management Task Force or whomever, we are going to make our development investments to ensure that our hardware solutions actually integrate with the ISV-based models. Thats why we actually have developed the OpenManage tool kits that allow those things to plug in.
The choice for us in standards is that a customer can choose from multiple vendors or from a single vendor to manage multiple vendors with the software or hardware to be able to go off and do that. We believe on the modular side that customer adoption has been slowed not because of the software management interface but as much because of standardization of some of the hardware pieces.
On the management side, well provide those interfaces so that a customer can be able to manage us and our solutions effectively while those standards are developed and complied by our competitors as well as us. So we dont think they get in the way of driving this approach. Ill be honest with you, we dont think weve been as effective in the past as we could have been in driving that because we also hoped to try and develop many of our own capabilities and we recognize that that in one way it is slowing down adoption of new capabilities in the customer base. But weve refocused some of our activities in modular product development to ensure that we can do a better job of that going forward.
Where is the push for standardization going to be coming from the most, vendors or standardization committees?
I think youre going to see both of those actually occurring in the marketplace. Our value in a lot of this is really understanding what the customers here care about, being practical and pragmatic about how we approach it, [and] being very strong and vociferous in the marketplace about why customers see that as important. If you look at a lot of things that have been talked about over the last year in this industry, that started from a proprietary “well deliver to you a completely integrated vertical stack”—that sounds a little like the mainframe days of 25 years ago—to one of, “We will provide tools that integrate well and well do a better job of integrating it.” Dell fully believes that we can do a better competitive job of integration. … We have to drive the standardization efforts.
We have substantially increased our efforts inside the company and outside working with many of the standards committees to actually start driving a lot more of that. One thing that we recognized internally is we have been a participant in many of those committees for a long time, but have not taken as strong a leadership in bringing that voice of the customer into the decisions that get made there, so weve been doing that a lot more over the last couple of quarters within the DMTF and others, and were actually starting to see traction in those committees, [theyre] starting to actually write specifications that are more customer valuable and customer deployable.
Standards ought to be able to help customers in the medium term, not the long, long term, so were actually beginning to see more cooperation between the industry giants, the industry leaders, in developing those core standards as we move forward over the coming quarters and years. Honestly, that will take years for us to actually get to the point of complete adoption across the industry, which is why weve also been practical in ensuring that our development activities marry to that long-term plan. The long-term plan is that as industry standards get rolled into operating systems and ISVs, that our development activities should be built along that plan.
So Dell made a conscious decision to become more active in the development of these standards?
Absolutely. We sat back in the early part of this year and looked at the value that we were providing and the value that the industry was providing in many of its pretty redundant developments in management tools and the efforts around standards and realized that our development activities in both how we deliver things as well as how we influence things could be developed out there. Part of that influence is because of our voice of the customer share-a-voice activity … us putting real development people around driving the standard committees and those kinds of areas. I think youll see over the coming months—youve started to see some of it and you saw some of the things we did with Microsoft and SMS and our other management tool kits that we rolled out about four weeks ago now—youll see more of that coming to fruition because we in the industry havent delivered against customer value as well as we should have done.
You talk about cooperation among the industry giants, but some of these also are competitors who have said that Dells insistence on standards is a way of masking deficiencies in its software offerings and its hardware offerings. How do you respond to that criticism?
We should be clear: It is not our intention as a company to go off and develop a complete stack of software management tools that will replace what customers are using today, like SMS or CA or HPs or IBMs ISV-like management tools. What we really are talking about is replacing the proprietary and reinvented solutions that we all are developing today.
Our OpenManage tool kit is as capable as IBMs Director—there are differences—of managing the hardware deployment management. … We think that is one of the management overheads that customers wish to move away from, so were actually trying to innovate the way that customers get to manage their environment than trying to replace something that we already have. We will continue to develop our OpenMange tool kit for those customers that are already using our integrated hardware management suite for several years to come. It doesnt take away from what were developing there, to start to move customers to a better paradigm in the future where they get to make a decision on the management stack that they will use to manage their business. And that management stack seamlessly manages Dell hardware and, we trust, in the longer term it manages our competitors hardware well.
How long in the future is this?
We have a line of sight that says that within the next year we can already do … real deployment with real customers of Dell hardware solutions, but I honestly cant tell you how long I think that might take for that same deployment on our competitors [hardware]. We see products that well be introducing next year that will be fully compliant with the best-of-breed standard interfaces like IPMI 2.0 next year. One thing weve been seeing as weve taken this approach out there into the marketplace is very clearly we have relationships with all the enterprise management tool vendors and all of them are very strongly interested in integrating more of this into their management suite, because in the end they see that as expanding the horizon of what their management suite is actually capable of and improving their customer value by extending beyond the 80 percent that they can do today in managing the OS, applications and basic infrastructure and take on that last 20 percent.
I think well see a continued development of that through next year so by the time you get into 05, the customer will be able to make that choice. Theyll actually be able to take an ISV management stack and manage a heterogeneous hardware environment.