For much of its existence, Dell was not known for its research-and-development prowess. Instead it was content with being a fast follower, letting other vendors set the industry’s direction and then leveraging its direct sales model to quickly gain ground on its rivals.
However, that’s been changing over the past several years as the world’s third-largest PC vendor has worked to evolve from a box maker into an enterprise IT solutions and services vendor. CEO Michael Dell and other executives are now looking for the company to be among the leaders in everything from cloud computing and big data to mobility, security and next-generation networking. That requires a greater emphasis on R&D.
Dell over the past few years has steadily increased its R&D efforts, spending almost $1.1 billion in the last fiscal year before it become a private company in 2013 and increasing the percentage of revenue for R&D to 1.9 percent.
Though it had been in the works for more than six months, Dell at its Dell World 2013 show last year formally introduced the Dell Research unit. During this year’s Dell World event earlier this month, Michael Dell and other executives boasted of the some of the group’s accomplishments. In an interview with eWEEK at the show in Austin, Texas, Jai Menon, vice president and head of Dell Research and the company’s chief research officer, said the group had accomplished a lot over the past 18 months, but that there was still much to do.
The research unit is charged taking a long-term view—five to 10 years down the road—of trends in the industry and decide which ones to act on based on what makes sense for customers and for Dell. The company focuses on “the intersection of what the technology enables and what the customers’ pain points are.”
For Dell Research, that includes such trends as big data, mobility, security, cloud computing and next-generation infrastructure. There also is a focus on the infrastructure for telecommunications vendors, who are under pressure to deliver services more quickly to customers and are turning to network-functions virtualization (NFV).
During his keynote at the show, Michael Dell touted a proof-of-concept created by Dell Research called High Velocity Cloud, which he said optimizes standard Dell servers, networking gear and adapters to create an environment that can support all of the mobile device traffic of cities the size of Austin using a quarter of a rack of Dell equipment. In the High Velocity Cloud, virtual machines have 20 times the capabilities to handle network-intensive workloads, enabling service providers and enterprises to much more quickly spin out services to their customers and employees.
At any of Dell’s 15 solution centers around the world, “you can see how our High Velocity Cloud can move 8 million packets a second, allowing a single server to easily manage the voice traffic of a medium-size city,” the CEO said.
He also talked about research being done that enables compute resources to instantly scale the workload increases, and the management software that automatically spins out a new virtual machine to meet the demand. Michael Dell also spoke about the shift from software-defined data centers to what he called software-based data centers, “where the only thing different between compute, networking and storage is the software running on the box.”
Menon said Dell is pushing hard on its NFV strategy to develop products that telecoms and service providers can bring into their data center environments. It’s important to give these organizations a path for evolving their environments, he said.
“Telcos won’t overnight switch from one [infrastructure] to another,” Menon said.
Dell was one of the founding vendors of the industry consortium Open Platform for NFV (OPNFV) project, which launched in September with a goal of creating an open-source reference platform that will accelerate the adoption of NFV. A month later, the company unveiled its own open NFV platform, part of its larger Open Networking initiative around network virtualization and software-defined networking (SDN).
Dell Research Works at Intersection of Technology, Customer Needs
Menon also pointed to the work Dell Research is doing to grow the company’s Enterprise Mobility Management portfolio, which is designed to offer seamless manage a broad array of endpoints—from smartphones and tablets to notebooks and desktop PCs—as well as apps and content to help businesses deal with the challenges presented by an increasingly mobile workforce and bring-your-own-device (BYOD). Organizations can leverage a single portal for managing their entire mobile environment.
As part of the mobility management effort, the group is working on technology that will automatically switch users from WiFi to broadband when needed without any interruption to the reception or app being used. At the same time, the technology will be able to take multiple connections and automate all of them, Menon said. Users need to be able to stay connected, “no matter where you are,” he said.
Another project Dell Research is working on revolves around security and continuous authentication. The Dell Research team is looking at developing algorithms and leveraging machine learning to create technology that will enable devices to authenticate a user based on a range of characteristics that are particular to the user.
“We don’t type the same way,” Menon said. “The way one person swipes [on the computer screen] is different from the way someone else swipes. The force of the typing is different.”
Using the technology being developed by Dell researchers, a device could learn how a particular person types, how hard they hit the keys and how they swipe their fingers across the screen as a way of authenticating the user, he said.
The research work at Dell is being drawn from a number of sources, Menon said. Dell Research has a dedicated group of researchers—he won’t say how many—that touches on each of the company’s businesses units. In addition, research teams within each business unit also contribute to the work being done by the research team. Dell also is going outside of the company, working with universities on various research projects. It all creates a broad research environment, and one that is supported throughout the company, he said.
“We’ve got the people we need,” Menon said when asked about Dell’s commitment to research. “If I wanted to grow, no one would tell me not to grow.”