Dell Exec: A Year Later, Force10 Networks Deal Fulfilling Promise

Dell is leveraging the acquisition to expand its networking capabilities, build out its VNA strategy and ready its SDN play, according to a company official.

Dell for the last couple of years has been looking to transform from a box maker into an enterprise IT solutions provider, supplementing its strong server history with enhanced management software and storage capabilities, thanks to acquisitions of such vendors as EqualLogic and Compellent.

Just over a year ago, Dell officials began adding a crucial element of its data center solutions ambitions to the mix-networking technology-with its purchase of Force10 Networks. According to Dell executives, the Force10 acquisition has done what they hoped-given the company a solid networking story to complement what the company had with its PowerConnect offerings that can build upon the other data center solutions Dell already has in place.

"We have a global scale and portfolio" in networking, Arpit Joshipura, vice president of networking product management and marketing for Dell Networking, said in a recent interview with eWEEK, adding that, as with other product lines, Dell is investing in its networking portfolio. "Clearly we're cranking out more innovation, we're cranking out more products, and we're cranking out more strategy."

Analysts generally applauded when Dell officials announced in July 2011 that they were buying Force10. It was assumed that Dell was on the hunt for a networking company to buy. The company's PowerConnect networking offerings were aimed at the midmarket, but Dell was looking for a company that would give it enterprise networking capabilities. Dell had been partnering with the likes of Juniper Networks and Brocade.

Enter Force10, which Dell used to fill a hole in its larger enterprise IT solutions and services push.

"This is Dell filling out its enterprise portfolio," Roger Kay, principal analyst at Endpoint Technologies Associates, told eWEEK at the time of the acquisition. "Dell has been building out its strength in storage, and it's always had servers. … Now this is networking."

It was a necessary move as top-tier data center players look to build up their portfolios, from Cisco's expansion beyond its networking heritage to offer servers as part of its Unified Computing Systems to Hewlett-Packard's buying of 3Par for storage and 3Com for networking. If Dell was to compete with these players, it would need to build up its networking capabilities, and Force10 has let it do that, according to Joshipura, who came to Dell via the Force10 acquisition.

Since buying Force10, Dell's investment in networking R&D-in both Force10 and PowerConnect products-has grown by 1.5 times, and the company has almost doubled the number of data center customers, he said. In addition, the addition of Force10 has given Dell a better end-to-end data center portfolio, and has impacted the company's bottom line, Joshipura said-Dell saw a 94 percent increase in networking revenue in the second quarter over the same period last year, and Dell's own networking products now account for more than half of the vendor's revenues. The networking business also has seen seven consecutive quarters of growth.

Joshipura also said that Dell is the third largest 10/40 Gigabit Ethernet vendor-an indication of its growing presence in the high end of the data center space. In addition, the number of networking employees has grown from 400 to more than 600, he said.

"2012 is the year of 10G," he said.

Analyst firms are seeing the same results, with Infonetics Research noting Dell's double-digit Ethernet switch growth in the second quarter.

Dell at the Interop 2012 show in April had its first 40GbE switch on display, leveraging the expertise it acquired via Force10. That announcement came a month after Dell unveiled its Virtual Network Architecture (VNA) open networking platform. Dell officials said VNA will encompass both traditional hardware-based infrastructures and newer virtualized networking environments, and will feature the company's Dell Distributed Core initiative. That strategy gives enterprises an alternative to larger deployments of expensive networking products from the likes of Cisco, offering smaller, more cost-effective switches.

Joshipura also sees Dell's VNA as a way for Dell to address the growing software-defined network (SDN) trend. SDNs essentially decouple workloads from the physical network, moving intelligence in the network-such as directing traffic and minimizing latency to security-from switches and routers to a software-based controller. SDNs reduce the need for expensive, complex switches and routers, and instead let enterprises buy simpler and less expensive networking equipment. In addition, networks become more dynamic and easier to manage.

It will take as many as three to five years before that switchover from expensive switches to commoditized products, Joshipura said, adding that VNA will help enable the SDN trend by acting as a "bridge [to the] gap between the virtual and physical world." But that change will happen, as cloud services firms and Web-based businesses such as Google and Facebook, with their massive data centers, look to make their infrastructures very fast and very energy efficient. Virtualized servers and storage have helped in this pursuit; virtualized networks and SDNs are the next logical extension.

The goal for Dell will be to remain hypervisor-agnostic in that virtualized world, enabling businesses to embrace any virtualization technology-from VMware to Microsoft's Hyper-V-and the OpenStack open-source offerings while still using Dell networking technology, he said.

While building out the Force10 offerings, Joshipura said the company will continue enhancing its PowerConnect products. Most recently, Dell in August rolled out the PowerConnect 8100 switch family designed to help midmarket companies and enterprises' campuses with scaling, performance and flexibility to handle such trends as desktop virtualization, unified communications, video conferencing and bring-your-own-device (BYOD).