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Enterprise giant Dell climbs in bed with upstart Nutanix: But what does it MEAN?

An important moment for storage... but let's be realistic

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Sysadmin blog So mega-corp Dell and converged storage software startup Nutanix are now buddies.

If you spend any time reading the internet's virtualisation bloggers, you can expect everything from a hearty "attaboy, Nutanix" to the casting of vehement aspersions and prognostications of various flavours of doom. It's an important moment for the storage industry, but we need to get some real perspective on what it does – and doesn't – mean.

To start off with, a Dell partnership doesn't mean that Dell is going to buy Nutanix. Nutanix closed $101m in series D funding earlier this year, a deal which valued Nutanix at around a billion dollars. To contrast, Dell has a market cap of somewhere around $25bn.

Given the money recently expended taking Dell private, I don't think Dell has the money to splurge on a company 1/25th their size, unless there is a hell of a good reason. What's more, Nutanix has designs on an IPO. If anyone wants to buy it, it'll play hardball, and that is grief Dell just doesn't need.

What Dell gets

By partnering with Nutanix, Dell gets to put the startup to work building and championing the idea of server SAN-based converged systems. Dell gets access to all of Nutanix's IP for cheap, and they get a longer-term strategic partnership wherein Dell's IP (backup, WAN acceleration, management integration, storage array integration and so forth) will eventually worm its way into Nutanix's offerings.

All Dell has to give up for access to a potentially industry-changing storage play is to agree to play nice, and not poach Nutanix's sales. Nutanix, in turn, will also stay off Dell's turf.

If there's a culture clash, or the two companies can't keep off each other's toes at the sales end, Dell can always buy Maxta for a fraction of the price of Nutanix. Maxta is small enough that they're mostly engineers at this point. The little firm's a quickly digestible morsel, and the work put into prototyping and validating Nutanix servers is like-for-like translatable to Maxta's offering. If it'll run Nutanix, it'll run Maxta just fine.

Dell gets handed a market in which it wasn't able to compete on a silver platter for zero risk to Dell itself and a minimal investment. If the partnership proves fruitful, there's no reason to change the arrangement. Everyone's happy, everyone makes a profit, life is good. The worst case scenario if it all goes south is that after some work figuring out how to get Nutanix to sell Dell software as part of their converged stack, some bad blood develops and Nutanix looks elsewhere. Oh well.

What Nutanix gets

You're going to read a lot of people – many from Nutanix itself – saying that the biggest win for Nutanix from the Dell deal is validation of the server SAN model. They're wrong.

VMware's duplication of the Nutanix server SAN model – first through the creation of VSAN and then by MARVIN - is more than enough validation. Indeed, Nutanix didn't need any validation. They're doing just fine, thank you very much, as are SimpliVity, ScaleIO and Maxta.

What the Dell partnership does bring to the table is money, and it is money that Nutanix needs most. Dell have access to a massive channel, and that means the ability to ship in volume. Even if Nutanix is only making a bent pittance per node shipped, combine many a pittance and you'll eventually have a fortune.

Nutanix's goal is self-sufficiency. It is to hit that IPO. More than the money, the talents behind the company want to see their hard work vindicated by proving their ideas were sound. There's pride at stake here – big egos are involved.

Nutanix as a whole, but especially the people in charge of it, have taken a lot of crap from people that used to be colleagues, friends, and deeply respected industry personalities. The better Nutanix does, the more bridges seem to get burned by everyone involved and the greater the drive becomes within Nutanix to make it.

If the Dell partnership works out, Nutanix gets the money it needs to graduate the school of hard knocks. While any validation from a major vendor is welcome, the real value of the Dell partnership is that it lets Nutanix say they made it to IPO entirely on their own. Cold hard cash is what's required for that last sprint across the finish line.

The why

Dell's Nutanix partnership isn't some cynical demonstration that there a few bent coppers to be milked out of server SANs over the next few quarters. This partnership means that Dell believes Nutanix is here for the long haul, that Nutanix's offering will help Dell build long-term customer trust and loyalty.

Dell is readying itself to deal with the needs of its customers…whatever those needs might be. Nutanix is part of that, but only a part. This deal isn't Nutanix taking over the world. It isn't the death of VSAN or some grandiose shot across some competitor's bow.

This deal is about Dell looking at the market and saying "one size doesn't fit all". There are billions of businesses out there. Those businesses have a diversity of needs. Nutanix is now one more tool in the Dell toolbox to meet those needs.

The rest is handwaving, politics, damned lies and statistics. Expect a lot of it. ®

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