Dell executives are now signaling that once the merger with EMC is completed later this year, the cornerstone of the company’s strategy will be software-defined infrastructure encompassing compute, storage, and networking services on industry-standard x86 servers.
In much the same way that x86 servers wound up constraining demand for mainframes, Dell executives believe that in the long term, demand for proprietary networking and storage architectures will decline as software-defined technologies running on x86 servers become more robust.
“In the networking space this change is now inevitable,” says Tom Burns, vice president and general manager for the Dell Networking Business Unit. “The biggest challenge now is really the people.”
Naturally, change of this scale will not happen overnight. But Dell expects that demand for proprietary frameworks such as Cisco’s Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) or EMC Symmetrix architectures will be impeded as IT organizations increasingly opt for more open alternatives running on lower-cost x86 infrastructure.
Initially, Dell sees that economic model playing out in the form of lower manufacturing costs. At the end of the x86 server manufacturing process, Dell will load a machine with either a traditional operating system or a network or storage operating system. In some cases many of those functions will manifest themselves on converged infrastructure.
Longer term, however, it’s apparent that as software-defined approaches to IT infrastructure mature, many of these functions will be subsumed into a common architecture that makes use of multiple cores on the same x86 server to deliver highly integrated compute, storage, and networking services.
In the meantime, Burns says IT organizations will continue to enjoy both lower costs of acquisition for IT infrastructure as well as reduced IT operational overhead. In fact, Burns says this dynamic is already playing out in networking environments. In a five-year span, IT customers spend roughly $5 billion on networking infrastructure and $45 billion to manage it. IT organizations need to come to terms with the fact that those economics are not sustainable.
While all that may be inevitable to one degree or another, Charles King, principal analyst for Pund-IT, notes that the timetable for all this convergence will be at best extended.
“In the high end of the enterprise market, proprietary technologies tend to have a longer lifecycle than most anyone would expect,” King says. “But it’s also true that Dell has enjoyed a lot of success over the years by staying close to Intel.”
The challenge for IT organizations next will be figuring out exactly when and where they want to participate on a Moore’s Law curve that is increasingly becoming equally defined by both advances in hardware and in software.