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Dell dabbles in storage networks

The direct PC seller introduced its first SAN product today, a 900GB product for the voracious corporate sector.

REDWOOD CITY, California--Dell Computer launched its first bundle of "storage area network" products for the voracious corporate sector.

The new products, mostly other companies' offerings badged with the Dell logo, are the Round Rock, Texas, company's first effort in a relatively new approach to storage called storage area networks (SANs).

So far, Dell offers only the smallest of SANs, allowing customers to attach up to four Windows NT-based servers to a single storage system. But the company plans to expand rapidly, executives said today.

In a SAN, disk drives and tape libraries are housed in a central area separate from the servers, making it easier and cheaper to manage or expand the storage system. Fibre Channel interconnection technology, a fast connection scheme that can tie together devices several miles apart, provides a way to connect each server to the SAN without clogging the existing network.

With modifications to Windows NT, the Dell SAN launched today can connect up to four Windows NT servers to 900GB (gigabytes) of disk storage as well as a digital tape library for backup. Programmers from Dell joined Microsoft in writing the extensions, which allow NT machines to share disk drives with other NT machines instead of trying to seize control of the entire array.

The extensions will be folded into the upcoming Windows 2000, said Microsoft's Brian Ball, who attended today's rollout.

Dell isn't first to the SAN market: Rivals include Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, EMC, and IBM. To make its SAN products stand out from the crowd, Dell plans to rely on its traditional method of beating competitors' prices, according to Michael Lambert, senior vice president of Dell's Enterprise Systems Group.

For example, Dell will offer a Fibre Channel switch at about the price of competitors' lower-speed Fibre Channel hubs, and offer a dual-switch package at about the price of a single switch, Lambert said.

By the second quarter of 1999, Dell will modify its Windows NT SAN product so more servers can plug in, while beginning to offer SANs that accommodate Unix systems, Lambert said. Unix support will come with the use of Network Appliance "filers," dedicated storage systems that can talk to both Unix and Windows systems.

Both NT and Unix Dell SANs are intended to work with servers not made by Dell, Lambert said, although the Fibre Channel technology that underlies them hasn't ripened as much as SAN advocates would hope. Dell prefers to sell its SAN products as a package so the company can guarantee compatibility, Lambert noted.

Several initiatives are under way to advance industry standards. Dell is a member of the Storage Networking Industry Association and the Fibre Channel Association, said Kevin Reinis, director of Dell's storage product marketing. EMC and Sun Microsystems have embarked on separate efforts.

The Dell equipment will also be supported by several backup software makers, including Computer Associates, Legato, Seagate Software, Veritas, and Tivoli.

Dell to support Raw Iron
Separately, as previously reported, Dell will support Oracle's "Raw Iron" initiative to sell database servers that aim to eliminate customer worries about the underlying operating system.

Raw Iron systems will use Dell hardware (in addition to systems from HP and others, according to Oracle), but most of those systems will be sold through Oracle, Lambert said. "We are very on board with Oracle," he said, noting that Dell's database system runs on Oracle and that Oracle uses Dell servers for its NT product development.

Raw Iron bypasses Windows NT in several ways. It relies on Sun's Solaris operating system, and customers can upgrade their Raw Iron machines to get full Solaris features if they want, Sun has said.

Although Dell got its start selling Windows machines on Intel hardware, Lambert said Dell is comfortable selling Unix systems. Dell already sells lots of non-Microsoft operating systems through its Dell Plus customization shop, he noted.

Elsewhere today, Oracle announced that its upcoming Oracle 8i database will include directory services to keep track of users' computer configuration information, a system that will tie into Novell's Directory Services.