Dell looks for a bigger role in the virtual data center

Dell hopes to expand its role in data centers beyond that of a low-cost hardware provider by offering a set of products for managing a virtual infrastructure.

Through acquisitions, partnerships and some of its own development work, Dell has been assembling a set of software products called the Virtual Integrated System, which it says will make it easier for companies to provision and manage both physical and virtual servers, networks and storage.

It's a new area for Dell, and one that requires the company to compete with vendors that have more experience selling complex software. But the company is keen to reduce its dependence on commodity hardware and generate more money from software and services, which tend to yield higher profits.

Dell positions VIS as a competitor to Cisco Systems' Unified Computing System and Hewlett-Packard's Blade System Matrix. It first talked about VIS at an industry analyst event in March and is now marketing it more aggressively. On Wednesday it released some new and updated components.

VIS aims to help companies virtualize their data centers to create a pool of computing resources, in which workloads can be moved around to accommodate spikes in demand. VIS sits above the core virtualization platforms from VMware, Citrix and Microsoft, and is supposed to help customers manage their servers, networking and storage as a more cohesive whole.

At the core of VIS is Advanced Infrastructure Manager, or AIM, based on technology Dell acquired from Scalent Systems. AIM can provision an application onto a new server -- either virtual or physical -- when demand for that application increases. As each server is provisioned for the application, the software can also provision the required network and storage automatically.

A big differentiator for VIS is that it can provision equipment from other vendors as well as Dell's own gear, according to Eric Endebrock, a Dell enterprise marketing manager. It can provision servers from HP and IBM, among others, and networking gear from Cisco, Juniper and Brocade. For storage, it can provision only Dell's EqualLogic gear, but Endebrock said Dell plans to support other platforms in the future.

AIM was released earlier this year, and on Wednesday Dell said it had updated the product with a graphical interface that is easier to use. It also added support for 10 Gigabit Ethernet and Fibre Channel over Ethernet. It also released a plug-in for VMware's vCenter management software that provides access to AIM through the vCenter interface.

Dell also added a new VIS component, the Self-Service Creator, which is software from Dynamic Ops that Dell is reselling under its own brand. It has a portal interface that allows a developer or an IT manager to select and fire up the computing resources they need. It includes a chargeback mechanism and tools for tracking inactive or underutilized virtual machines.

AIM and Self-Service Creator start from $1,810 per socket and $1,495 per socket, respectively.

Dell will release a final VIS component, VIS Director, in the coming quarters, probably early next year, Endebrock said. It, too, will be based on a partner technology, and will provide monitoring and analytics capabilities to improve performance.

Mark Bowker, a senior analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group, said the market for products like VIS is still emerging. Dell could use its services business, formed when it bought Perot, to help sell the products, he said. It could put together a virtual desktop offering, he suggested, providing the back-end infrastructure and also the desktops and support.

One of Dell's biggest challenges will be overcoming a perception that it lacks the technology know-how to help manage complex virtual environments. "At the heart of this story is Dell groping to establish a new identity, as opposed to the de facto one the market assigned to it," said Forrester Research analyst Frank Gillett.

Some customers say they have more confidence in Dell today than they used to. Jim Journeay, an infrastructure technology specialist at Meridian Credit Union in St. Catherines, Ontario, said his company recently switched to Dell servers from IBM. It switched because Dell's servers were cheaper, but he has also been impressed with the attentiveness from Dell's Perot staff, he said.

"Dell has come a long way in the last couple of years. They weren't seen before as so much as a solid server platform," Journeay said. He's not using any of Dell's VIS software today, preferring VMware's management tools, but he said he would consider VIS in the future.

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