Dell unleashes blades of fury
Rivals and readers perform dissection
Analysis When Dell last week issued a new blade chassis and servers, we knew a certain amount of competitive fury would hit the internet. There's something about blade systems that makes HP, IBM, Sun and Dell particularly hostile. Perhaps that's because blades are some of the more unique and more profitable systems in the x86 market or because there's a firm split between the Haves - HP and IBM - and the Have Nots - Sun and Dell.
With a few days passed since the Dell launch, we thought it might be useful to have a look at how rivals and our readers evaluated the Dell systems. Dell - through an analyst firm called Principled Technologies that, frankly, we've never heard of - made a number of provocative performance, energy efficiency and simplicity of packaging claims against HP and IBM.
Now we've been peppered with e-mails from readers and rivals, charging that Dell stacked these performance, performance per watt and packaging tests in its favor. You can always rig a benchmark, even one like SPECjbb2005 that's standard and used by a lot of vendors. But we've dug through the data - and you can too here in PDF - only to find something that looks an awful lot like apples to apples comparisons on the performance and performance per watt fronts. All of the systems from Dell, HP and IBM run on the same Xeon chips, the same memory, the same disks and use equivalent numbers of power supplies. Under such conditions, Dell exhibits a relatively slight raw performance edge over HP and IBM and about a 25 per cent performance per watt edge, which is ground we've covered before and that Dell covers here in a PDF report.
So, let's turn to some more debatable areas.
As we see it, Sun has a right to complain about the benchmarks because Dell failed to measure itself against Sun's comparable Sun Blade 6000 chassis, which holds 10 blades in a 10U unit. (Dell's M1000e chassis currently holds 16, dual-socket half-height blades in a 10U chassis.)
Sun executive Marc Hamilton stepped in to do the dirty work for Dell on a blog post.
"Dell's new blade does have half the memory, half the CPUs, half the disks that the SunBlade 6000 can pack in the same 10 RU of space, but that is not all it's missing, it also comes up short with no RAID5/6, no SAS backplane and no storage blade," Hamilton wrote. "Of course just for fun, I went ahead and configured one of Dell's new blades on their web site, and received an estimated ship date of March 10.
"Can't wait until March 10th to get your blade, don't despair, you can get a SunBlade 6000 shipped to you in a few days."
Hamilton does catch Dell on a couple of issues, although he's not exactly doing apples to apples comparisons. The "half the CPUs" crack relies on Sun comparing its four-socket blades against Dell's two-socket blades. And, we, we're pretty sure Sun has yet to ship the four-socket blades in volume. In fact, the four-socket units fail to show up as options if you try and configure a Sun Blade 6000 chassis.
Bricks? Kettles? Glass houses? Pots?
On we go.
A number of readers went at Dell's claims of a packaging edge over IBM and HP. Order the rivals' blades, and you end up with about 26 boxes worth of stuff versus just one box of stuff from Dell.
One anonymous coward of a reader noted, "Also interesting whitepaper on out of box experience comparing a Dell blade solution integrated from the factory vs an IBM and HP solution ordered al-a-carte. HP and IBM can integrate from the factory also, Dell just didn't order them that way."
Jonathan Kaiser chipped in with, "HP (in EMEA) now offer full factory integration on ALL Proliant servers from regular tower models through to Blades. Not only is this open to their direct enterprise customer base but it is also accessible by any channel reseller via an HP distributor (HP Top Config). The pick and mix option approach is great for next day availability but rarely are 100% of the parts in the channel which means a back order on the vendor (10 day wait anyway!). So you might as well just order it in one box and have everything turn up in one go!"
And Matt Bryant said, "HP and IBM offer either factory built or 'bunch of boxes' type deliveries. The latter offers their channel partners the chance to make some revenue by offering build services, or their customers with the skills to save some cash by self-assembly. It will be interesting to see if Dell's new-found love for the channel translates into the same type of setup, otherwise their channel partners may just stick to pushing HP and IBM (or any of the other brands that allow build services)."
We're pretty sure that Bryant is correct there, noting that HP and IBM will charge for the pre-packaged gear whereas Dell offers that as standard. Apparently, this can be a good or a bad thing, depending on your perspective.
A friend who works at HP chastised us for failing to highlight one of the major things missing from Dell's systems - an equivalent copy of HP's Virtual Connect technology. Customers can use HP's Virtual Connect system to create abstract ties between thousands of virtual and physical servers and their associated storage. (In short, Virtual Connect ties Ethernet Media Access Control (MAC) addresses and Fibre Channel Worldwide Names (WWNs) to server bays.)
In Nov., IBM fought back against HP's Virtual Connect by unveiling Open Fabric Manager - a very similar set of technology.
According to a source, Dell hoped to copy Virtual Connect via a deal with Brocade. Dell and Brocade aimed to make their technology easier to use. We have no idea if the Brocade arrangement is still in place, although we can confirm that Dell plans to make an announcement around expanding its virtualization technology very soon, likely within the next month.
Ultimately, it seems tough to argue against Dell's play with the M1000e. Unlike Sun, Dell is never going to make three or four different blade chassis to serve various markets - HPC, business and general purpose. Instead, Dell needs a basic unit that competes well in the core of the server market on price, performance and performance per watt. We think Dell has accomplished that goal.
In addition, Dell has chucked in some solid, basic features, including easy to use management interfaces (LCD and remote module) and an upgradeable networking unit that competes favorably against rivals.
Dell may have rushed the unit out the door missing a few features in order to make management happy, but, all in all, it issued a solid reentry into the blade game. ®