Dell challenges HP, IBM with new offerings

Trying to shed its reputation as an inexpensive hardware vendor, Dell is taking steps to sharpen its enterprise offerings so it can compete more effectively with rivals IBM and Hewlett-Packard.

On Wednesday, the company launched new server, storage and system management products that it says will ease configuration and management of data centers. The new products will form the basis of virtualized environments and could help customers reduce energy, hardware acquisition and system maintenance costs.

The products come at a time when vendors are focusing on integrating storage and server infrastructures as customers tighten IT budgets. Cisco last week launched its Unified Computing System, which includes virtualization technology, services and blade servers to help enterprises develop and manage server installations in data centers. HP and IBM are the established competitors in this arena.

Dell is looking to expand its portfolio and become an end-to-end provider of hardware, services and management software, said Brad Anderson, senior vice president of large enterprise at Dell. The company wants to provide consulting services that help customers put together computing resources to realize cost savings.

Unlike IBM and HP, Dell isn't known as a software powerhouse, so the company's announcement of a systems management platform is a significant departure, said John Spooner, senior analyst at market research firm Technology Business Research.

The software platform announced on Wednesday, called Dell Management Console (DMC), brings all device and task management controls under a single application and console. The software, developed with Symantec, makes it easier for enterprises to manage hardware and software resources across virtualized environments.

"Dell's been working for some time to develop a management platform for servers, and this is it. It's an effort to increase customer satisfaction and in so doing improve Dell's ability to win business from competitors such as HP," Spooner said.

Customers so far have had to rely on third-party system management software on Dell servers, and with DMC, Dell has a response to HP's OpenView and IBM's Tivoli offerings, said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT. However, Dell still has a number of steps to take before becoming a real threat to IBM and HP, which offer big-iron products such as Unix servers and more expansive integrated offerings.

Relying solely on x86 platforms will ultimately limit Dell's ability to effectively compete with HP and IBM in the high-end server and mainframe arena, King said. Dell might fill that product hole through acquisitions of smaller vendors, but that is unlikely to happen. Dell may be feeling pressure to jump into the high-end space, but it won't neglect its base in midrange and low-end servers, King said.

To that effect, the company on Wednesday introduced new PowerEdge servers, which will use Intel’s next-generation Xeon processors, designed to increase system speed and performance per watt of power consumed. The servers will also put system management and diagnostic capabilities into embedded chips. Servers usually ship with installation software on CDs, but the software will now go on the chip instead.

Dell is the second-largest low-end and midrange server vendor worldwide, behind HP, according to IDC. The new servers could help Dell gain market share if it can beat both IBM and HP on price, King said. IT budgets are flattening due to the recession, and Dell can deliver value to customers with the price advantage it already has, he said.

"A mixture of price and performance shows they know how to skin six cents out of a nickel on the manufacturing side, but they have developed a more valuable view of the enterprise than ever before," King said.

The offerings play into Dell's traditional strength in direct sales, which has led to direct relationships with large customers. That is an advantage that could help it compete with Cisco in the integrated server platform space, analysts said.

"Dell can bundle all these items -- new servers, new management tools -- with its storage systems and services, and top it off with software and any other items customers need, and wrap it up with a bow. This is what Dell very much wants to do," Spooner said.

Dell has consistently reorganized its product lines in an effort to gain a larger server market share since Michael Dell rejoined the company as CEO in early 2007. The company reshaped its server business and acquired companies such as EqualLogic and MessageOne to boost its storage and services offerings. However, Dell's server revenue unit shipments declined 18 percent during the fourth quarter of 2009, with server revenue down 16 percent year-over-year during the quarter.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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