Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The pieces are coming together for Dell Technologies – part 4

During its Dell EMC World conference last week in Las Vegas, the company provided a wide-ranging update on its networking activities. Dell has been a big believer in open networking. Some years ago, it took the bold step of decoupling its networking software from its hardware switching platforms, enabling customers to load an OS of their choice instead of the Dell version; last year Dell, in conjunction with Microsoft Azure and other industry leaders, made foundational contributions to the SONiC effort, which aims to open source all the components needed to build fully-functional networking software. SONiC is a collection of software packages/modules that can be installed on Linux on a network hardware switch which makes it a complete, functional router. Dell has successfully integrated its OS10 base software to serve as a foundational element for SONiC.

Open networking is a big theme, but the company does not disclose the percentage of switching customers that choose a third-party open networking OS over its own OS. There is a free version of the Dell networking OS and a new flagship OS10 Enterprise Edition option that incorporates design elements from the Open Compute Project. The OS10 Enterprise Edition package provides Layer 2 and 3 networking functionality. Open networking partners include Cumulus Networks and Big Switch, although other stacks, such as Pica8, could also be loaded using ONIE.

At the recent Dell EMC World, there were several networking hardware announcements, including:

•   A new S5100-ON series 25 Gigabit Ethernet Open Networking switch, designed to support the new Dell EMC PowerEdge 14th generation servers, which will ship with native 25 Gigabit Ethernet support and 100 Gigabit Ethernet uplinks.

•   A new S4100-ON series of top-of-rack data centre Open Networking switches optimised for high densities of 10 GBE fibre/copper or Fibre Channel 8/16/32 server and converged LAN and SAN within racks, with 100 GBE uplink ports. Included in this family is the S4148U, a new unified switch for both Ethernet and Fibre Channel traffic. It supports 32 Gbit/s Fibre Channel.

•   New Dell EMC N1100-ON series of campus switches, which include several fanless switches in half- and full-width options, Power over Ethernet (POE/POE+) and non-POE versions, and port configurations from 10/100/1000 Mbit/s to 1/10 GBE. The N1100-ON series switches are designed to pair with Aerohive's HiveManager NG, a next-generation cloud-based management solution that simplifies end-user wired and wireless access.

Opening the door to switching silicon competition

The new 25 Gbit/s switch is powered by Cavium's Xpliant switching silicon. This represents a significant win for Cavium and an opening at Dell to a wider silicon supply chain. Like its competitors, Dell's switching portfolio previously has been entirely powered by Broadcom. This relationship continues, but there are likely to be more silicon suppliers for Dell networking products going forward.

Networking scale and speculation

While other Dell Technologies' units are typically No. 1, 2 or 3 in their respective market categories, it is interesting to note that the Dell networking group has not attained this level of industry prominence. The big networking equipment vendors have found opportunities to position their solutions at the centre of major IT deployments. One typically hears marketing slogan about how 'the business runs on the network', 'the network is the business', etc., so one would think the networking group would be fundamental to Dell Technologies' ambition to be the No.1 IT vendor. Yet at the Dell EMC World event, the networking exhibit was relegated to a relatively small section that could easily be missed – small potatoes compared to the prominent displays for storage and servers.

With the new cross-company momentum inside the Dell Technologies' group, it is possible and even likely that the networking group will grow faster than its industry peers. Its open networking strategy has been in-step with latest network architecture trends. Dell does substantial business in partnership with other networking players, including Arista, Cisco, Nutanix and others, but it must differentiate itself if it is to attain a leadership position in the industry.

One needs to ask whether a major acquisition would be a faster and better way to grow its market share to reach parity with the other Dell units. If so, what are the possibilities? Private equity investors have been willing to buy out public companies. Dell Technologies' current investors, perhaps joined by others, conceivably could raise the funding to buy out even a mid-sized player. Presumably, the purpose of the exercise would be to gain a strong networking position in Fortune 500 accounts, which is Cisco's stronghold. The networking vendor that has been cannibalising these Cisco accounts is Arista Networks. To add to this speculation, it is interesting that Andy Bechtolsheim, founder and CTO of Arista, was a speaker at Dell EMC World in Las Vegas. One would not expect to see an Arista executive appear at Cisco Live!, but now we know that Dell and Arista are on friendly terms.

As noted earlier in this series, David Goulden said that as a private company Dell Technologies now has more leeway to make strategic investments. This week brings news that VMware has acquired Apteligent, a start-up based in San Francisco, providing a mobile analytics platform. VMware plans to integrate Apteligent’s mobile performance management with its own Digital Workspace Platform for enterprises building and delivering mobile applications. This is a strategic acquisition, and one should expect more such deal making on the networking side.

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