Dell Simplifies Virtualization

The hardware giant's strategy may be straightforward, but that's just what some in IT need.

Dell Inc. is not the most complex company in the world. Its PCs and laptops run industry-standard operating systems on industry-standard hardware and focus on overall value. It's the same story with servers.

While it may take a while to untangle the rich and complex virtualization strategies of Sun Microsystems Inc., IBM Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co., Dell's approach is shockingly simple. Could it be that simple is better? Dell thinks so.

Not surprisingly, Dell's overall theme in all of this is to "Simplify IT," an initiative announced last year that focuses on easing the expansion of data center assets, taking more advantage of assets you already have and dealing with a mobile workforce. Virtualization plays a huge role in the Simplify IT plan. "We think there's an opportunity to move beyond just hypervisors and consolidation to more advanced end-to-end usages and benefits, like disaster recovery, high availability and dynamic provisioning. We think there's an opportunity to take the complexity out of the data center by simplifying lifecycle management," says Rick Becker, Dell's vice president of the Enterprise Software Group.

In fact, the first product set announced under the Simplify IT umbrella was all about virtualization. On-Demand Desktop Streaming is a Citrix-based thin client setup using PowerEdge servers on the back-end, standard as well as diskless PCs for application access, a PowerConnect Switch for networking, with storage handled by a PowerEdge 2900 storage server. Streaming is provided by the Citrix Provisioning Server for Desktops software. Dell claims that 100 desktops can be driven off a single Dell server.

Dell and Partners
While Sun, IBM, and even HP develop home-grown tools, Dell prefers to work with software partners and supports their tools. This still gives the server giant a full range of offerings. On the hypervisor or platform side, Dell has formal deals with VMware Inc., Microsoft and Citrix Systems Inc., plus Novell Inc. and Red Hat Inc. Dell also supports CommVault, Double-Take Software Inc., PlateSpin Ltd., Platform Computing Corp., Vizioncore Inc., Symantec Corp. and Altiris (recently acquired by Symantec), which has application virtualization and management.

While Dell focuses mostly on VMware on the server, and Citrix for desktop virtualization, the company also works with Sun. Under a deal struck last fall, Dell offers Sun's Solaris, which includes the Xen hypervisor, on Dell servers. Dell is also moving toward Microsoft. "As Hyper-V becomes available from Microsoft, we'll offer that," says Becker. And as for Sun's own hypervisor, xVM Server? "We're looking at Sun right now. We're certifying Solaris on select environments, and we're trying to figure out what the right virtualization strategy with Sun is," Becker explains. Meanwhile, Dell pushes Xen, especially in high-end environments where I/O performance is a big concern.

Wolf on Dell

Until recently, Dell has been playing catch-up with both IBM and HP. From a management perspective, I think Dell still has a little more work to do, but the company is definitely closing the gap. Partnering with Egenera was a good move, and was necessary to compete with HP. Dell is well-poised to aggressively go after the mid-market.

Dell was expected to begin shipping VMware's embedded hypervisor, ESX 3i, on PowerEdge servers by the end of April 2008. Also, the EqualLogic acquisition gives Dell a very good iSCSI storage solution, and will allow it to provide a solid, cost-effective shared storage infrastructure for virtual environments to the mid-market.

Many small to midsize businesses have held off on virtualization due to the cost of implementing a shared storage infrastructure, which is required for high availability in a virtual environment. Dell's new solution set will help to further drive down costs for new virtualization deployments and ultimately will positively impact virtualization.

I don't place Dell on par with HP or IBM because it doesn't have as robust a virtualization offering. For example, Dell relies exclusively on third-party virtualization solutions, while HP, IBM and Sun have their own hardware-partitioning solutions that are needed for virtualizing applications that require the full compute power of the bare metal.


Working with partners means that Dell has fewer of its own technologies, such as hypervisors and large management stacks. "We think our competition is driving to captive complexity, whereas ours is a simplified enablement strategy," argues Sally Stevens, director of Dell's PowerEdge Servers group. Stevens points to HP in particular, which promotes the HP Insight Manager. "They want to take all these different management tools that are out there and pull them into the suite of [HP] Insight Manager," she argues. Meanwhile, Dell "wants to partner with best of breed [providers] to give customers options and a simplified and best-of-class solution."

Analysts see this as a key difference for Dell. "Among HP, IBM, Dell and Sun, all except Dell have a strong software development focus. These three companies have been involved in virtualization technology and have products at every layer [of the virtualization model we use]. So there's a clear distinction between Dell-which takes advantage of the software that's written by Microsoft, Red Hat, Novell and others -- and the other three," says Dan Kusnetzky, president of the Kusnetzky Group.

There may also be a downside to this simplicity. "Dell has only one architecture that they play in and they don't necessarily have the ability to reach either as high in scalability, or as low- in the case of some embedded systems- as the other players can. So if you were looking for something that went from the desktop to the biggest of the big data centers, we're looking at HP, IBM and Sun. However, if we spoke to people in Japan, they would also bring up Hitachi and NEC and in Europe, there would be Siemens," Kusnetzky concludes.

Reference Architectures
To keep installations simple, Dell has Reference Architectures to make sure all this software runs properly and suits customer needs.

One of the most developed reference architectures, as one might imagine, involves VMware. Dell has VMware reference architectures and pre-test configurations that include servers, HBAs, NICs and storage component such as RAID arrays.

The architectures address three3 levels of IT:.

  • Small is aimed at small shops with one or two servers, direct-attached storage, with no ability to move virtual machines (VMs) around. Here Dell promotes VMware or XenServer with Dell PowerVault storage.

  • Medium addresses shops with eight to 16 servers, uses network-attached storage, exploits VMotion to move VMs around, and uses VMware Virtual Center for management. Here Dell suggests EqualLogic storage and VMware plus Site Recovery Manager to maximize uptime.

  • Large is for shops with more than 16 servers, using Fibre Channel storage-area network or iSCSI network-attached storage, as well as VMotion and Virtual Center.

    On the high end, Dell also has a partnership with Egenera -- its software is designed to automate the entire data center, creating large virtual pools of processing called a Processor Area Network, or PAN. Dell is bundling together EMC storage, XenServer, and PowerEdge servers equipped with Egnera software as the Dell PAN System.

    "We're finding out that for a small business customer, they're looking for an ease of application deployment. Our midrange business customers are looking at how they can move their hard drives out of their servers and onto their networks, and how they can manage their physical/virtual environments more simply. Our biggest enterprise customers are looking at how they can virtualize and automate their entire environment," says Becker.

    Analysts applaud the Dell PAN System move. "Licensing the Egenera technology was a very good move for Dell," says Judith Hurwitz, President, Hurwitz and Associates.

    Dell Services
    Dell has servers, bundles and deals with the major hypervisor makers. So what else does Dell bring to the party? Expertise. Its Services group offers assessment, planning, installation and training.

    And despite support for Microsoft, Citrix/Xen and others, Dell consultants today focus almost 100 percent on VMware, offering what Dell calls "a direct, uncomplicated approach that simplifies, speeding time to productivity" and a "standards-based virtualization strategy." Dell claims that its virtualization installations, on average, lower TCO by about 25 percent.

    While Dell remains a huge VMware fan, its services plan is to be hypervisor-agnostic. "We've been providing VMware services for some time. We're expanding those services. We will also be providing a complete set of services around the XenServer set of products. And we are already working with Microsoft on their upcoming release of Hyper-V and will have complete end-to-end services for that product as well," says Tim Webb, Dell's director of Services.

    Besides building new virtual environments, Dell Services can optimize existing shops. Dell's Assessment services include tools that discover the servers and levels of utilization. This helps guide which servers and apps are ripe for consolidation.

    Next Dell can design a plan, which typically calls for Dell servers, VMware ESX, VMware's Virtual Center, VMotion, and a combination of Dell and EMC SAN storage.

    What that plan won't typically entail is a raft of Dell management tools that could lock the customer in. "As virtualization takes hold we have an opportunity to break the proprietary lock holds of systems management. We have OpenManage, which is integrated with VMware and Citrix and it's a great solution for our customers that want to do a one-to-one or one-to-many. But it shouldn't be about what the vendor wants, it should be about what the customer wants," says Webb.

    Storage: EMC vs. EqualLogic
    Dell's storage strategy is two-pronged. The company has a long-standing relationship with EMC Corp., where Dell sells and even manufactures EMC gear. The EMC line has an array of virtual features, and Dell sells these AX and CX boxes to a largely high-end audience.

    This February, Dell bought EqualLogic for $1.4 billion, and in the process gained a line of iSCSI SAN storage devices that boast some virtualization features such as thin provisioning.

    Dell Mini Case Study: N'Awlins

    Right before Hurricane Katrina, the City of New Orleans was devising an IT strategy and already contracted with systems integrator CIBER to help design and build the new system. The city wasn't happy with its combination of IBM mainframe and arrays of servers from multiple vendors, many installed by departments themselves. New Orleans wanted a simpler, more scalable approach.

    It was ready to move on the new infrastructure when the hurricane hit. Then New Orleans had to do something.

    Building anew, the city worked with Dell to build a virtual server infrastructure. The new system includes 20 Dell PowerEdge 1855 Blade servers, tied to a Dell/EMC CX7000 SAN and a Dell PowerVault 136t Tape Library. Tying it all together is VMware ESX Server, VMotion and VMware's P2V (Physical to Virtual) Assistant.

    The 20 Dell servers act as 67 separate servers through virtual machines.

    "Dell, with its acquisition of EqualLogic, now has a storage virtualization strategy. EqualLogic's arrays are consolidated under a single management system. The acquisition is a great boon for small and midsize businesses and departments within larger enterprises who want to embrace virtualization," explains Deni Connor, principal analyst for Storage Strategies Now, a storage-focused research and consulting firm.

    Many thought the EqualLogic acquisition would spell the end of the EMC deal, which runs through at least 2011. Instead, Dell aims the EqualLogic gear at small to midsize businesses and EMC at larger enterprises.

    Maybe a bigger issue is protocols. EqualLogic is iSCSI only, while EMC talks both Fibre Channel and iSCSI. As a storage veteran, EMC also has a broader selection of tools than EqualLogic, which was still a startup when Dell bought it.

    In a recent white paper, Dell argues that when it comes to storage virtualization, iSCSI tools such as EqualLogic are far superior to Fibre Channel, which is largely what EMC offers. That's because Fibre Channel SANs are hard-coded as each port has its own World Wide Name embedded in the physical device.

    Because it's based on TCP/IP, iSCSI SANs use DNS and therefore the addresses themselves are virtual.

    Dell argues that the EqualLogic tools have several advantages, including fast setup time. Praveen Asthana, director of Storage for Dell, argues that an EqualLogic SAN can be set up in as little as 20 minutes, far faster than Fibre Channel SAN.

    Asthana also argues the iSCSI-based EqualLogic boxes are more flexible. "When you implement a virtualized environment, you're talking about a lot of unpredictable movement of virtual machines, which has unpredictable demands on storage. To actually move VMs around you'll need to dynamically reallocate your storage. With all of the current arrays, it's very difficult to do."

    EqualLogic PS Series array storage virtualization features include:

    • Can virtualize volumes across disks and controllers
    • Virtualizes storage I/O
    • Thin provisioning

    Dell also claims that its storage line works with virtual environments, backing up applications and handling file-level backup and restore on VMs. The strategy of working with virtualization has a decided VMware bent. Dell can back up and restore VMware files, known as .VMDKs which helps restore an existing virtual machine. Dell storage also works with VMware Consolidated Backup.

    Dell and the Virtual Appliance
    While a server equipped with VMware or Microsoft Virtual Server seems pretty simple, an appliance is even more basic. And Dell has a ton of them, including software-only appliances or VMs and hardware appliances pre-loaded with specific applications.

    Software appliances, which are often designed for easy evaluation rather than deployment, include:

    • Symantec Mail Security
    • Red Hat Appliance Stack
    • SuSE Linux Enterprise Server
    • Ubuntu 7.10 JeOS with VMware Tools
    • BlueLane VirtualShield
    • Enterasys Secure Networks Dragon Enterprise Security Suite

    You can even download Windows Server 2008 or Exchange as a VM to give it a whirl.

    The Buying Process
    Dell is also trying to make it simpler to buy servers and virtualization software. Under the new Web site,, customers can buy everything online. "It will streamline the path for customers to upgrade to full VI 3 enterprise licensing," explains Sally Stevens, director of PowerEdge Servers. Two of Dell's newest servers, the PowerEdge R805 and R905, come with either VMware ESX 3.5 or XenServer Express. These machines can handle up to 60 VMs each, Dell claims.

    The Customer View
    One customer is looking forward to exploiting what Dell has to offer in hardware and software, but probably won't need Dell Services. "As far as what Dell and others are doing, my opinion is they're beating a much bigger drum than we need or can dance to. Not saying what they're doing isn't good, because it is. I just feel like we've got the know-how to get it done in-house and on our own terms. I do use their online resources to help/advise me on what our next move should be," says Nick Clark, an MCSE and IT pro with Kerber, Eck & Braeckel LLP in Springfield, Ill. "We've got a couple Dell PowerEdge servers right now that we plan to roll into virtual servers. I'd like to set up as many as three virtual servers to each of these two servers, which would likely drop our total existing system by 50 percent. The scary part is that a couple of these servers will be servicing public extranet information and I don't know if I'm going to jump off that cliff yet."

  • About the Author

    Doug Barney is editor in chief of Redmond magazine and the VP, editorial director of Redmond Media Group.