Dell’s introduction in August of its Scalable Solutions business that builds customized systems for scale-out organizations is the latest illustration of the company’s evolution from a PC box maker to an enterprise IT solutions provider.
Dell a decade ago was better known as a company that could build a PC from industry-standard parts and leverage its supply chain expertise to get those systems quickly and cheaply to the end users. It was a fast follower, a company that jumped onto trends rather than set them.
That narrative began to change when Michael Dell returned as CEO in 2007 and began to transform his company, spending more than $15 billion dollars to buy more than 30 companies with capabilities in everything from networking and storage to software, security and the cloud (and hopes to add to that with its proposed $67 billion acquisition of EMC). At the same time, Dell began investing more money in R&D and launching businesses aimed at making the company a preferred IT provider to everyone from small businesses to the largest cloud-based organizations.
Eight years ago, Dell opened the doors to its Data Center Solutions (DCS) business, a unit that delivers customized and optimized solutions to the handful of organizations that make up the hyperscale computing market, including Google, Facebook, and a few Chinese companies, such as Baidu and Alibaba. More recently, Dell has been among the leaders in the trend toward open networking, offering branded switches that can run not only its own network operating system but software from such third-party vendors as Cumulus Networks, Pica8 and Pluribus Networks.
The Dell Scalable Solutions (DSS) group is targeting those large companies that are smaller than the top-tier hyperscale cloud providers—think telecommunications service providers and oil and gas firms—that have the same needs as their larger brethren but fewer financial and engineering resources. They also buy a lot of servers and are looking for systems optimized to run their workloads.
These types of enterprise efforts will be among the topics talked about during the Dell World 2015 show that runs Oct. 20 through 22 in Austin, Texas. They also help Dell burnish its growing capabilities as an innovator and dispel lingering images of the company as little more than a box maker. It was in that light that Dell earlier in the summer opened up some of its various labs in Austin and Round Rock, Texas, according to Jyeh Gan, director of product management and strategy with DCS.
“We had never let journalists into those labs before,” Gan told eWEEK during the Intel Developer Forum (IDF) in August.
The daylong labs tour during the company’s Enterprise Innovation Day event touched on an array of areas, from the way systems are designed and solutions optimized for particular workloads to ongoing work on making products more quiet and new ways to keep them cool.
During the days when Dell primarily made PCs and x86 servers, design was not a consistent feature, according to Ken Musgrave, executive director of the Enterprise Industrial Design unit. Logos were placed in different places depending on the product, and there was no consistent look and feel, Musgrave said.
“The feedback from customers then was that we were a PC company dabbling in the enterprise space,” he said.
That has changed, according to Musgrave and Ken Lauffer, director of Enterprise Industrial Design. The design unit now is brought in three years before a product is launched, and looks at a product from multiple angles, including the placement of components and how it looks to the user. Colors are considered, and how they work with other Dell devices is debated.
“When you look at a data center, we want you to be able to tell that it is a Dell data center,” Musgrave said.
It also means a more consistent user experience: if a customer has used an 11th generation system, they should be able to use a 13th generation solution.
“If you know how to use one Dell product, you can use all of them,” said Tom Deelman, director of user experience for the Enterprise Experience Design Group.
Dell Looks to Highlight Role as IT Innovator
Dell also showed off a couple of labs that work with large customers to help craft systems that are best optimized for their workloads. Gan and Shane Kavanaugh, senior principal engineer for data center solutions architecture, talked about the work of the DCS with the hyperscale players. DCS now works with four of the top five search engines in the world and four of the five largest cloud providers. Dell’s Evergreen Lab was launched in conjunction with a hyperscale customer, eBay.
“A lot of these guys are buying tens of thousands—if not hundreds of thousands—of systems from us,” Gan said, adding that such customers are looking for systems to run their specific applications.
Dell engineers meet with vendors 18 months before the products are shipped to understand their needs, from the chips to storage to networking. Proof-of-concept units are built, input from the customers is taken and recommendations put into the system. The Scalable Solutions group now does similar work for the tier of customers just below the hyperscale organizations in terms of size. It’s still a sizable space: where the hyperscale players account for about $5 billion of the annual $40 billion server market, the next tier is about $6.2 billion, Gan said.
The work in areas such as the DCS has increased since Dell went private in 2013 following the $25 billion buyout by Michael Dell and Silver Lake Partners, according to Dell officials.
In Dell’s Engineered Solutions labs, engineers work with systems handling workloads such as databases, cloud computing and high-performance computing and running such software as Oracle databases. Among the demonstrations being run at the time was SAP HANA in-memory databases, according to Ibrahim Fashho, director of global solutions engineering for engineered solutions and cloud at Dell.
Enterprise workloads are getting so complex that organizations no longer want to have to cobble the systems together themselves, Fashho said. They’re looking for vendors like Dell to build tightly integrated solutions that have the necessary components—from servers and storage to networking and software—and that are optimized for the particular applications they’re running.
Dell engineers also showed off work they’re doing in the area of cooling—both air and liquid, such as a tank in which servers and storage can be submerged in liquid chemicals that draw heat away from the machine. The company also does extensive work in determining how the acoustics of a system impact the user experience.