Michael Dell: On SDNs and networking for the masses

The man who popularized consumer computing sees an opportunity in 'making technology more affordable, more acceptable to hundreds of millions of customers'

Credit: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Dell is synonymous with home and business PCs, and data center servers. Yet Dell also has an ambitious software-defined networking activity underway called the Open Networking Initiative, where it partners with SDN software companies like Cumulus Networks and Big Switch Networks to bundle operating systems and applications on Dell switches. The Big Switch deal was announced last week, and Dell Founder and CEO Michael Dell found time to provide Network World Managing Editor Jim Duffy with some perspective on that partnership, and on Dell's overall networking and Open Networking Initiative.

Can you provide an overview of your Open Networking Initiative in light of the Big Switch deal?

We obviously have been participating in this market for some time; with the acquisition of Force10 we upped our participation. Force10 gave us a very significant capability with the larger data centers, the 9500 (switch) and the density space, that’s an area where we’ve built momentum. A large number of the big service providers are combining open networking, open servers, open storage with software-defined. And certainly with our strength in servers, increasingly we’re combining these architecturally. We’ve had a lot of success with blade architectures, putting networking in converged platforms, building next-generation hyper-converged systems with 40G backplanes. And of course the move toward virtual and software-defined is accelerating the whole hyper-converged space. We see more and more  network functions gravitating toward the compute engine. So obviously having a core networking capability … every time we acquire a firm we significantly increase the R&D. That’s what we did with our networking team.

Has your networking portfolio led to follow on sales of servers, and vice versa?

It’s actually both, we have had network lead other Dell technologies. Let’s not forget about network security as well, we acquired SonicWALL. That’s a significant asset. Customers believe networking and network security go together. It’s really working both ways.

Is networking an important component of Dell’s future?

Absolutely. When you look at the data center you’ve got the compute, the networking, the storage. We absolutely believe you have to have all three core technologies in depth to win. We come from a historical position of strength in compute and servers. We acquired significant assets in storage and networking. If you look at the challenges and opportunities that customers have, I don’t think the answer is in silos. I think the answer is in extrapolating the problem up to a higher level: automating workloads. What you hear from these customers is that with that trapped capacity in silos, they overprovision, it takes too long, it’s complicated. So all the work we’re doing is to converge and bring this to a workload with a focus on users, quality of service, applications, and the rest of this is done automatically. We think that’s absolutely the right direction, and the only way to do it is if you have all of the core technologies yourself.

Why did you acquire Force10 out of the several switch vendors out there?

We looked at them all. I know all the rest pretty well. I don’t want to go into the difficulties with any of them but, we definitely liked the approach – 40G and beyond. It was exactly what we need and wanted. Some of the others had a whole bunch of other stuff that we were just not particularly interested in or relevant, or present a high value add.

What’s Dell’s networking differentiator?

If you look at the server market 20 years ago, it was a tightly wound appliance of OSS, BSS, and was a very expensive thing, proprietary. X86 blew that open, lowered the cost dramatically, opened it up. I would argue that Dell was among the major catalysts that caused that to happen. Now if you jump over into the networking space it actually looks a lot like the server market did, with a tight coupling of OSS and BSS, it’s expensive and a high margin business for a lot of folks in the industry. We’re all about making technology more affordable, more acceptable to hundreds of millions of customers out there in the world. We have a big opportunity here to change the way the data center is installed, and it’s absolutely in our DNA. It’s why we were the first to embrace Linux, it’s why we were the first to embrace OpenStack, it’s why we’re jumping into the open networking space very rapidly. Any time something comes along that’s good for customers, ultimately standing in the way of it is never a good idea. I was talking with a large customer in the financial sector, they’re pretty enamored by the idea of open networking. We work extensively with those customers, we certainly work with the big med tech companies, we’re seeing it jump a bit into pharmaceuticals. Of course the real opportunity is, beyond that, how do you take this into the (mass) market, all the enormous numbers of small and medium sized companies – huge opportunity for Dell obviously to use the strong base that we have in end user computing and servers. That’s a great position of strength to work from as the market goes to more converged, more software-defined [infrastructures].

Doesn’t hardware/software disaggregation marginalize or commoditize or devalue your hardware?

I certainly don’t enter a battle if you can’t win the war. This is the kind of war we know how to win. In commercial PCs and x86 servers, we lived that and we know how to run our supply chain and drive quite a profitable business. The market’s consolidating, we’ve been gaining share. If and when that happens we’re certainly quite prepared to be the provider of choice. Dell has unparalleled scale in our supply chain and cost structure to be able to win in that kind of world.

What is your view of the OpenDaylight SDN project spearheaded by Cisco and IBM?

We stay actively involved in all of the standards groups, while I’ll tell you that not all of them have the customer in mind. We always take the side of the customer and the approach of, how do we make this a win for customers? We’re not seeing that behavior from all of the participants.

When you jump into Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Salesforce.com, Alibaba, all of whom are our customers, there’s no Cisco. This is where we live. We see the world changing here, we’re definitely embracing it, and we have the cost structure, the DNA. Dell’s a company that invests a billion and a half dollars in R&D, has incredible partners behind it. This year we’ll file more patents than any year in our history. We’ve got 6,000 patents issued and applied for so, we’re serious about this and committing significant resources.

Wouldn’t all of these open initiatives undercut your hardware business? Wouldn’t the Open Compute Project, for example, devalue Dell hardware? Wouldn’t adding Cumulus to your switches devalue your FTOS operating system software?

The same question could have been asked about Unix or any other large open initiative. Windows on servers, that was a huge change back in the mid-1990s. It was disruptive, it caused all kinds of challenges for the incumbents, yet the net effect was a sea change in the affordability of these kinds of systems. I look at the underlying ingredients here and there’s a big opportunity here to change this market and bring the technology to many, many more customers all over the world.

Jim Duffy has been covering technology for over 28 years, 23 at Network World. He also writes The Cisco Connection blog and can be reached on Twitter @Jim_Duffy.

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