Dell Technologies, the GE-like conglomerate spawned from the acquisition of EMC, which was itself a federation of other companies, notably VMware and Pivotal Software, used its annual event for customers, partners and tech watchers to expound, in the words of founder and CEO Michael Dell, a "vision of technology as the driver of human progress in every corner of the world."
Through video vignettes of seemingly inspiring case studies, Dell and his collection of execs emphasized a hopeful message of "technology solving our greatest challenges, and we’re making more progress more quickly than ever before."
While Mr. Dell’s optimism is natural for someone in the business of selling technology, the meat of the multi-day event is the barrage of product and roadmap announcements that demonstrate how Dell the company seeks competitive differentiation.
In total, Dell presented a soup-to-nuts portfolio that seeks to cover an organization’s IT needs across the gamut of client and IoT devices, edge computing systems, data center hardware and virtualization platforms and cloud system and network integration software. Like all such product miscellanies, Dell’s broad portfolio, only rivaled by HP in its breadth, appeals to those preferring a one-stop-shop that simplifies the shopping, purchasing and customer support experience.
Unlike other product emporiums, because Dell has built or acquired some of the best technology available, like EMC storage systems and VMware virtualization software, customers face fewer compromises when choosing to deal with a single vendor.
Unfortunately, conglomerates always sound better on paper than in practice, even when they’re built from, as executives love to say, “best of breed” components. GE found this out the hard way as its stock value has gone nowhere over the past 20 years, which triggered a massive restructuring and divestment strategy that the company continues to struggle through. With the advantage of having a portfolio defined by a single sector, namely the broader information technology market, it will be interesting to see if Dell can avoid a similar fate.
Product announcements galore, but AI in focus
A company as large and diversified as Dell is continually updating and refreshing products to exploit incremental advancements in component technology, so the items it chooses to emphasize before a world stage illustrate the strategic themes it has targeted for significant investment.
One such strategic cornerstone is a composite of business data acquisition and analysis aided by machine learning. Given the collective industry focus on AI and data analytics, it would be shocking if Dell didn't jump on the AI bandwagon and it obliged at Dell World by unveiling several new systems designed to tackle data-intensive applications requiring the fastest possible access to stored data that use GPUs to dramatically accelerate machine learning algorithms.
In a three-pronged announcement that was one part servers, one part storage and another part future technology, Dell unveiled a new generation of PowerEdge systems designed for machine/deep learning workloads, the PowerMax storage array built around the fastest NVMe memory modules and future NVMe fabrics and a composable infrastructure platform that is the foundation of forthcoming PowerEdge MX modular systems.
The PowerEdge R940xa and R840 aren't the first Dell systems to feature GPUs, but are the first to squarely target the AI market with four-sockets of the latest Xeon Scalable processors and, in the case of the high-end 940xa, four GPUs (presumably NVIDIA Tesla P- and V-series) or 8 FPGAs, along with up to 32 NVMe drives.
Indeed, the FPGA support is unique and a significant differentiator depending upon device and software support that has yet to be announced. While not the beast that NVIDIA recently unveiled in the DGX-2, these systems position Dell to better handle a variety of compute-intensive workloads including training and inferencing of deep learning models, real-time data analysis using machine learning and in-memory databases like SAP HANA. Dell also added support for older-generation NVIDIA P40 GPUs in its VxRail HCI appliance.
Although SSDs are now commonplace in modern data centers, most still use legacy, disk-based I/O interfaces and form factors. NVMe represents the first native solid-state storage interface, which is often paired with devices using compact form factors like M.2 cards not designed to accommodate a rotating disk, to yield storage systems of unprecedented performance and density.
NVMe has been incrementally introduced into servers and storage products for several years, but the PowerMax, whose development Dell inherited from EMC, represents the company’s first system designed top-to-bottom for the combination of NVMe, emergent DRAM-like Storage Class Memory (SCM) and NVMe over Fabrics.
The result is what Dell claims is the “world’s fastest storage array, delivering up to 10M IOPS and 50% better response times; 2x faster than the nearest competitor.” While no one can yet verify these claims, we expect all-flash specialists like Pure Storage, Tegile, Kaminario and others to shortly have responses with benchmark rebuttals.
NVMe is undoubtedly the future storage foundation for performance-dependent applications meaning that Dell was guaranteed to embrace it at some point. Look for all-NVMe products to migrate throughout its storage and server product lines (as we’ve already seen with the aforementioned PowerEdge servers).
Dell's new management software, which is arguably more significant than the hardware, uses predictive analytics to automate and optimize system configuration and management. The ML platform takes parameters aggregated from 425 million data sets collected from existing all-flash Dell-EMC customers to feed models that automatically maximize efficiency and performance of mixed data storage workloads.
Such use of predictive and prescriptive analytics is something I’ve discussed many times and its use in the PowerMax should improve both system performance and IT efficiency. Dell previously released a similar feature for its workstations, the Precision Optimizer, that it claims can improve application performance by up to 4-fold. Expect to see similar system optimization features to permeate its server and storage product lines.
VMware stitching together the hybrid cloud
Dell’s close kin at VMware also used the event to update its vision of a unified Virtual Cloud Network based on the NSX network overlay. The system isolates physical network differences behind a patina of software abstractions to enable a single control system for network and security configuration and policy. First detailed last year at VMWorld (see my coverage here), the company announced several additions:
- The integration of VeloCloud SD-WAN technology, which the company acquired last year, into the growing NSX suite to extend virtual networks to remote offices.
- Support for Azure in its NSX Cloud product which extends the virtual enterprise networks into public cloud providers and was previously only available for AWS and native VMware cloud services like vCloud Air.
- The ability to include bare metal server instances and containers managed by Kubernetes such as clusters built with the Google-Pivotal PKS product.
By adding Azure support to AWS and VMware itself, NSX now covers the majority of on-premise and public cloud environments, making the platform the most elegant and comprehensive hybrid cloud network fabric. Indeed, were it not for its significant cost, both for software licenses and required VMware management infrastructure, NSX would be a no-brainer for any organization implementing a multi-cloud strategy.
While NSX has a lead, other multi-cloud networking products like Aviatrix, Nuage, and Weaveworks along with open source projects like Calico, Cilium, FIFO.cloud, OpenContrail, Romana and others are attacking the same problems. Multi-cloud networking will remain in a period of dynamic innovation that will likely disrupt some incumbent networking players much like SD-WAN has done to carriers, so prepare for rapid change and don't get locked into an expensive strategy too soon.
I’ve only covered the cloud and infrastructure highlights from Dell World, but rest assured, with a portfolio of unsurpassed breath the event also included a smattering of news for everyone including cloud-native developers (via its sibling Pivotal), thin clients, desktop workstations, client management and VR applications. Indeed, there was some interesting developments from Virtustream, its cloud platform for legacy, mission-critical applications that I hope to cover in a future column.
Dell has built an impressive IT product line rivaled in breadth only by the spawn of HP (HPE and HP Inc.), although due to the unusual ownership structure inherited from EMC, two of the software jewels, VMware and Pivotal (whose IPO I covered here) are arms-length relationships. Ironically, VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger might have rekindled the on-again-off-again speculation of a reverse merger between Dell and VMware when he stated in his keynote that, “There is no question that VMware and Dell are better together.” Nonetheless, with Dell, like other conglomerates before them, the product portfolio is seldom the problem, rather its the ability to innovate, deliver tangible business value and provide an excellent customer experience.
So far, Dell is clearing the innovation bar, albeit one that gets set higher every year. What's less clear is whether it can deliver business value to justify the cost of gold-plated products in the face of relentless competition from ODMs mixing commodity components with open source software. Here, Dell can't chase price wars or succumb to creeping featuritis but must focus on an area where it has a competitive advantage: the customer experience, since that's the attribute that drives most customers to choose a one-stop-shop over a collection of la carte competitors.
A complicating factor is that Dell's sales model means that experience is often outsourced to partners where it has far less control. There's a reason Apple opened retail stores to become one of the largest domestic retailers and it's not because its products weren't selling. Rather, it wanted better control over the entire sales and support experience. Dell also has a long direct-sales presence and it must use lessons learned from that history to become the company with both the broadest product line and the best sales, support and consulting experience.