Dell's designs on cloud computing

Standing 52 stories in the air at San Francisco's upscale Carnelian Room, executives from Dell, Facebook, and Salesforce.com discussed the meaning and use of the latest technology buzzword, cloud computing.

Dan Farber
4 min read

SAN FRANCISCO--Standing 52 stories in the air at the upscale Carnelian Room in the Bank of America building here, executives from Dell, Facebook, and Salesforce.com discussed the meaning and use of the latest technology buzzword, cloud computing.

The sky was blue and cloudless, but it didn't adversely impact the atmosphere of what turned out to be a Dell marketing event. It was pitched as an announcement about a partnership that involves "the next generation of cloud computing."

You might recall that Dell is the company that owns the URL Cloudcomputing.com, and made a failed attempt to trademark the phrase. Earlier this month, the United States Patent and Trademark Office rejected the company's application. Dell marketing head Andy Rhodes wasn't willing to comment on whether Dell would appeal the USPTO decision.

Despite the cloudless sky, the speakers offered genuine insights into cloud computing, an umbrella term for "hyperscale" computing that covers everything from delivering compute services like a power utility delivers electricity, to simply hosting applications off-premises (see also software-as-a-service and on-demand computing).


Event host Forrest Norrod, vice president and general manager of data center solutions at Dell, defined cloud computing as an economic enabler for applications, not just for single applications but for platforms-as-a-service, such as Salesforce.com. He emphasized the economies of scale advantage that cloud computing has over client/server and previous generations of infrastructure deployment.

Forrest Norrod, Dell's cloud computing chief Dan Farber

Dell is currently a cloud computing arms supplier to companies such as Facebook and Salesforce.com. "Dell is focused on early adopters and large customers, about 50 worldwide, to provide optimized servers, storage, and data center infrastructure," he said. "Cloud computing is still an emerging market, with standards across the framework and software stack still emerging. We are trying to promote an ecosystem to build the software stack on top of the infrastructure. You will gradually and judiciously see us add capabilities up and down the stack.

Norrod pointed to recent Dell acquisitions--Message One, Silverback Technologies, and Everdream--as examples of Dell's focus on software, not just the hardware piece. Increasingly, both Dell and HP are building out their software stacks to compete with Sun and IBM for providing highly automated data centers running commodity hardware optimized for cloud computing.

Jonathan Heiliger, Facebook's vice president of technical operations, had some praise for Dell. "Dell is doing the most aggressive things possible to optimize for cloud computing," he said. "We think Dell is perhaps the furthest along and we see them as a thought leader." Facebook has more than 10,000 servers, Heiliger said, and it's safe to assume any of them come from Dell.

He noted the price of hardware is not the biggest issue. Vendors can even sell hardware at a loss or at a fixed margin cost to get the initial business. "What we have seen in the landscape is that most server providers are trying to provide Lexus quality products at a Toyota price. We are looking for Scion products at a Scion price," Heiliger explained. "(Vendors) have to be creative around power and airflow optimization. The cost of operating the hardware is key; you have to take down the operating cost, not just the server cost."

For Heiliger that means bare-bones servers. "We don't need fancy graphics chips and PCI cards," he said. We need one USB port and optimized power and airflow. Give me one CPU, a little memory and one power supply. If it fails, I don't care. We are solving the redundancy problem in software." Blade servers are not ideal, he said, because of the higher cost and proprietary lock-in that come with the lack of a standard chassis.

Check out the video interview I conducted with Heiliger about managing infrastructure hypergrowth as Facebook adds 250,000 users per day.

Claus Moldt, vice president of technical operations at Salesforce.com, offered similar comments to the previous speakers. The company is phasing out Sun equipment and standardizing on Dell servers (Dell is a customer of Salesforce.com). Salesforce.com has two data centers in the U.S. and one due to go online in Singapore later this year. Moldt said his biggest challenge is capacity planning, making sure that as customer usage patterns change, the Salesforce infrastructure can adapt instantly.

Dell is betting big on cloud computing to boost its enterprise footprint. At this point, Dell doesn't have plans to build its own cloud to provide hosting for external applications, Norrod said. But, there may come a time when being an arms supplier won't be enough for Dell to be competitive. In addition, selling bare-bones servers can't be much of a high margin business, which is why Dell is moving more into software and services. Norrod said Dell's cloud computing efforts have been a large component of Dell's recent market share growth. Dell's second quarter earnings due tomorrow should give a more precise indication of the impact of the cloud on company's business.