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Dell data center biz invaded by California hippies

'Cisco makes refrigerators. We open your mind'

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Dell has reinvented itself as a California hippie.

In recent months, the famously-Texan hardware maker has acquired three separate Silicon Valley outfits, and it's loudly preaching what you might call data center free love. Its new attitude is best embodied by the Palo Alto-based Scalent, the data center management outfit that joined the Dell fold in July. Scalent believes in an "open" approach to data management, and it has no intention of losing its West Coast vibe as it helps Dell battle Cisco and other "refrigerator" makers.

Just after its Scalent buy, Dell scooped up San Jose-based deduplication outfit Ocarina Networks, and in February, it nabbed Mountain View-based systems management appliance maker KACE. That's three Silicon Valley buys in six months, and there may soon be a fourth: 3Par, the storage outfit Dell and HP are fighting over, is based in Fremont, California.

"There is a bit of pattern developing here," says former Scalent CEO and new Dell man Ben Linder. "Dell is investing — and investing heavily — in intellectual property around software and data center management and the management of virtualization and the creation of cloud infrastructures. And we are doing that in the Bay Area, which is, of course, a core of innovation in these fields."

Speaking Friday morning to reporters at an event in San Francisco, Linder said that Dell is allowing Scalent to continue operating largely as an independent outfit — and this largely independent outfit will continue to breath the California air. "It's not like we're being sucked into a big machine," he said. "There is a recognition that the software discipline is fundamentally different than the kinds of disciplines that Dell has been really excellent at [in the past]. We're getting the ability to do that here and to do that in a Silicon Valley way, to be able to attract the right kinds of people."

Scalent was a forty-person company when it was acquired, and Linder says that the outfit now has the resources to expand "in a major way [with] some very serious hiring in the Bay Area."

Linder's company is part of Dell's vision for the "data center of the future" — a vision that's decidely different from that espoused by, say, Cisco. Whereas Cisco's UCS (Unified Computing System) is designed to unify networking, computing, storage, and virtualization tools in a single product from a single vendor, Dell's approach embraces hardware and software and services from myriad third parties.

"Many of the competitors in this field of 'converged computing' like to deliver a refrigerator that does everything and it's got some beautiful blinking lights on it," Linder says. "That's not how data centers work. We have customers...with thousands of servers they bought over the last four years. What are they going to do with those? Are they going to just junk them and put them on eBay and put new infrastructure in place? I don't think so.

"A lot of network vendors want to do that because they want to turn that crank to ten gigabit and force that transition. But it's important to accommodate the legacy."

He also says it's important to accommodate the future. "We don't want to force our customers into a proprietary architecture, because innovation in networking, in storage, in servers is happening way too fast to adopt refrigerators."

He didn't mention Cisco by name. But he didn't have to.

The seven-year-old Scalent offers software for managing server, network, and storage resources across your private data centers. "[We've built] a software layer that creates this notion of managing an infrastructure of servers, storage, and networking as common pools of resources that can be allocated very dynamically to different business needs," Linder says.

Naturally, the outfit has now latched onto the ubiquitous "private cloud" moniker. But this isn't the sort of like-Amazon-EC2-only-behind-the-firewall setup offered by, say, Eucalyptus or Nimbula or Cloud.com. It's a way for the IT organization to better manage its infrastructure — not a means of giving non-IT staff access to on-demand compute power.

But unlike similar software solutions from the likes of Cisco and HP, Linder says, Scalent is — yes — "open." In this case, open means it works with disparate hardware from disparate vendors, including servers and switches and storage.

But you might say there's one thing it doesn't run: a refrigerator with beautiful blinking lights. ®

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