Dell Takes Aim at Cisco, HP in Data Center

With the release of the latest solutions for its converged data center strategy, Dell is taking aim at rivals Cisco and HP. Dell says their rivals' offerings are closed and proprietary, while Dell's is open and flexible. However, one analyst says that to a large extent, that is a matter of perceptions. Cisco and HP officials also have said that the tight integration of their products means greater benefits to their customers.

In the increasingly competitive world of converged data center solutions, Dell is trying to separate itself from Cisco Systems and Hewlett-Packard by being what officials are saying is the open alternative.

In rolling out new management and networking solutions at an event in San Francisco Dec. 10, Dell officials attacked the offerings of its competitors as "proprietary," saying they threaten enterprises with vendor lock-in while Dell offers options that can work with the customer's heterogeneous environments.

"Our competitors are trying to take short cuts by providing proprietary stacks that create lock in and really only benefit the vendor," Praveen Asthana, vice president of Dell Enterprise Storage and Networking, said in a statement accompanying the announcement. "Dell has a completely different vision."

That vision is one where Dell's components can be used within the customer's existing environments, or can be used together as the company suggests with its new Business Ready Configurations, which offer servers, storage and networking devices designed to work tightly together. However, businesses use whatever products they want-even those from outside vendors-to work within these suggested architectures, according to Dell.

In addition, Dells new Advanced Infrastructure Manager software can work in heterogeneous environments, the company said.

During the San Francisco event, where Dell launched not only the management software-which is based on technology from partner Scalent Systems-but also 10 Gigabit Ethernet networking products and the Business Ready Configurations, Asthana harshly criticized the offerings from Cisco and HP as proprietary.

Cisco is selling its UCS (Unified Computing System), an all-in-one solution that includes Cisco's own servers and networking, as well as storage from EMC and virtualization capabilities from VMware. In November, it also launched a joint venture called Acadia, in which bundles with products from those three vendors are sold.

HP also has an all-in-one offering, dubbed BladeSystem Matrix. It also is in the process of buying networking equipment vendor 3Com for $2.7 billion, which combined with HP's ProCurve networking business will be a key addition to the company's overall unified data center strategy.

Officials with both Cisco and HP have argued that rather than being proprietary, their tightly integrated solutions will enable businesses to more quickly realize the efficiencies and cost savings they are looking for from a more converged infrastructure.

Clay Ryder, an analyst with the Sageza Group, said the debate is one of perception.

"One guy's proprietary is another guy's value-add," Ryder said in an interview.

Dell's approach fits in line with the way the company has traditionally operated, he said.

"Dell is a company that historically has lived and died by margin," Ryder said. "Its approach is to be the most open, the most flexible. For Dell, it's really important [to be] on the open side of the card because it always works on a thin margin."

The more suppliers Dell has, the easier it is to get a better price by playing them off each other. That feeds into Dell's history of aggressively pricing its products and making them open.

However, both Cisco and HP have offerings that are widely used by enterprises worldwide, as do their various partners, so while they may not be the definition of "open standards," they are industry-standard products, Ryder said.

IBM also has taken a many-partner approach to its unified data center strategy, as illustrated by the announcement in July of expanded partnerships with networking vendors Cisco, Juniper Networks and Brocade Communications Systems. IBM officials at the time said that choice and flexibility were important to customers as they decide how to update their data centers.

The Sageza Group's Ryder said that particularly given the current economic realities, businesses are looking to ways to make their IT infrastructure more efficient.

"When you talk about convergence, simplicity, virtualization, improved utilization, cloud, all the words out there in the industry, they all go to the basic premise that every business understands: There's still a lot of inefficiency in technology," he said.

Businesses are interested in reducing that inefficiency, but it will be done in an incremental approach, rather than all at once. It also entails changing behaviors as much as improving technology, Ryder said.

Some IT professionals worry that such initiatives threaten their livelihoods, which will make it more important for businesses to carefully roll out their strategies, he said.