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Dell rides after Cisco with Brocade, Scalent posse

Deputizes partners for unified computing

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Like other server makers, Dell has a lot to lose if Cisco Systems succeeds in its efforts to convince IT shops to buy its "California" Unified Computing System, which sports blade and rack servers with converged storage and network switches.

Dell can't afford to start a switching business of its own (or to buy one) to compete in Cisco's space, but it can do the next best thing: resell non-Cisco networking gear and get some server and storage virtualisation management tools to cobble together a Texas-style unified computing getup of its own.

Dell's unified computing posse now includes long-time storage partner Brocade Communications, which Dell has tapped for its Fibre Channel SAN adapters and other storage products for the past decade. It also features Scalent, which has created a set of physical and virtual infrastructure management tools called the Virtual Operating Environment. Inexplicably, that's V/OE for short.

Praveen Asthana, enterprise storage and networking veep, says Dell will be peddling a complete lineup of Brocade Ethernet and FCoE switches with related host bus adapters, host channel adapters, and converged network adapters, including mezzanine cards for blade servers.

Specifically, Dell will be selling Brocade 8000 10 Gigabit FCoE switches and DCX -4S unified fabric chassis, as well as NetIron MLX and BigIron RX layer 2 and 3 core switches, the ServerIron layer 4 through 7 aggregation switches, and the TurboIron top-of-rack access switches. All of these products run at 10 Gigabit Ethernet speeds, but the access switches are also available at the lower Gigabit Ethernet speed.

Dell already resells rebranded Brocade Fibre Channel switches inside its PowerEdge blade servers. Dell will be rebranding the Brocade products as part of the OEM deal, but unlike its storage partnership with EMC, Dell will not be manufacturing the Brocade products itself.

Dell expects the rebranded products to start rolling out in December, and it will be packaging up racks of iron that compete head-to-head with Cisco's California blade and rack setups. Taking the pod approach to selling iron has worked for the supercomputing market, and this seems to be the way that server makers want to peddle their server and storage wares to big customers these days. One stack of stuff, one price, one invoice, one sales call, one down and many more to go.

Dell already sells host bus adapters from QLogic and Emulex, and it will continue to do so. In January, Dell renewed its partnership with Cisco, saying it would sell the Nexus 5020 converged switch. In early February, it also tapped upstart Xsigo Systems for its in-band I/O Director virtualisation appliance, which offers yet another path to network and storage convergence.

Asthana was quick to point out that while Dell is going to be fronting with the Brocade products for unified computing, Dell's approach would be inclusive, not exclusive, unlike Cisco's. "We realize that servers, networking, and storage are converging, as we do not have a monopoly on the idea," he says.

So if customers want to substitute Cisco switches for Brocade boxes, Dell is cool with that. If they want to use storage other than the EqualLogic PS4000 iSCSi or Dell-EMC CX4 arrays, then that's fine too. But what is pretty obvious to anyone watching the unified computing dance among the server makers is that an OEM agreement is stronger than a reseller agreement (and presumably delivers more profits to Dell). Cisco is a threat to Dell while Brocade is not.

Dell and Brocade did not disclose the financial details of the OEM agreement. The two companies did not detail the engineering work they will do together on future unified computing products, but they did confirm that this would be a collaboration, much in the same way that Dell and EMC have worked together on the CX family of entry and midrange disk arrays.

So that is the converged hardware. But you still need something to manage it all and to mask the complexity for system and network administrators wrestling with physical and virtual boxes. That's where Scalent's V/OE comes in. Dell was already a reseller of the V/OE product, and now it has an OEM agreement that will allow Dell to more tightly couple it with its PowerEdge products.

Dell is stressing to customers that the V/OE product allows the company to continue to be open even as it picks an uber-management tool for virtualised environments. Using Scalent doesn't require customers to pick a single hypervisor, as the Cisco California boxes do since they are based solely on VMware's vSphere 4.0 stack and its ESX Server 4.0 hypervisor. (Cisco has mumbled a bit about supporting other hypervisors and tools.)

Dell fully expects that shops will pick a mix of Hyper-V, XenServer, and ESX Server hypervisors and will want to manage them through their tools of choice: Systems Center Virtual Machine Manager, XenManager, and vCenter, respectively. The Scalent V/OE tool works with any of these hypervisors, and it's used mainly to orchestrate the provisioning of physical and virtual machines and to convert back and forth between the two, as well as doing virtual-to-virtual and physical-to-physical conversions.

Dell hasn’t said yet how it will integrate V/OE with its Dell Management Console (formerly known as OpenManage), but the company says it will talk details before the end of the year. ®

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