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Dell adopts storage competitors' recipe

The computer maker's storage group embraces its competitors' strategy in an effort to keep up with the fast-changing storage landscape.

Dell Computer's storage group has embraced its competitors' strategy as the computer company strives to keep up with the fast-changing storage landscape.

The Round Rock, Texas, company announced Monday that its high-end storage products now work with the Windows servers from IBM, Compaq Computer and Hewlett-Packard. The expansion follows in the footsteps of companies such as IBM and HP that are trying to wean their storage products from dependence on their server lines.

"This is an important beachhead for Dell," said Aberdeen Group analyst Dan Tanner. Its focus on higher-end products and services--though no refuge from today's technology business pains--has ensured it a better future than once-similar competitors Gateway and Micron Technology.

But Dell's storage expansion still excludes Unix servers and other vast tracts of the computing universe, and the storage landscape is changing more quickly than Dell's gradual buildup of storage products.

The Dell announcement comes on the first day of the Storage Networking World show in Palm Desert, Calif., a show that will exhibit both the profusion of storage start-ups and new initiatives from established companies. Among the show's most anticipated events will be the arrival of networking giant Cisco Systems into the market for connecting storage devices to servers and each other.

Storage systems--arrays of hard disks powered by sophisticated software and connected with special-purpose networking gear--are coming out of the shadows of the computing landscape. In earlier days, powerful computers called servers dominated corporate networks, storage systems increasingly are independent systems instead of just some hard disks attached a server.

Storage-specific companies such as EMC and Network Appliance have profited from this heightened emphasis on independent storage products. IBM, HP, Sun Microsystems and Dell are trying to reproduce this strategy internally, elevating storage divisions to give them greater freedom.

Wise move
"EMC and NetApp have been successful saying if you're having heart surgery, go to a heart surgeon. If you have a storage problem, go to a storage company," said Yankee Group analyst William Hurley. Server companies essentially have been creating storage start-ups within their own business, he said.

Dell's move to attach its storage products to competitors' servers is wise, Hurley said. "It's certainly important for Dell, and it puts the rest of the server-centric storage companies on notice that they need to focus on storage as a different beast," he said.

Compare that with Sun, whose Chief Executive, Scott McNealy, still argues storage is a mere extension of the server, though its newest products work with Windows, Linux and Unix computers from Sun competitors.

"Sun stands by their statement that storage is a feature of the server, and that's flatly inaccurate," Hurley said. "Sun has good storage (products), not great, but as long as they continue to have this discussion, they're going to be a loser."

Dell has acknowledged that its servers will run alongside its competitors and that its storage must accommodate that reality. "We completely understand that many of our customers don't only have Dell servers, which we don't like, but that's the facts of the world," said Bruce Kornfeld, director of worldwide marketing for Dell's PowerVault storage product line.

Dell's product is a SAN (storage area network), which consists of its own disk array tethered to a Brocade Communications Systems networking switch that in turn connects to QLogic cards that plug into the servers.

SANs are notoriously complicated and expensive to install and run, but Dell argues that its models are easy to use and not as expensive. It's another example of the company's high-end strategy to attack markets where prefabricated collections of products work well enough.

"Our customers do have investments in other server technology. We felt it was important not to force them to have a Dell-only SAN," Korfeld said. However, that doesn't include Unix servers, he said, because mixing in such a different type of system means a vastly more complicated SAN.

But that exclusion shuts Dell out of major markets. "Microsoft operating systems are finding new homes in a lot of places, but for now and the foreseeable future, the heavy lifting is going to be done" by Unix systems, Hurley said.

Dell's SANs cost $53,000 for a low-end configuration with 250GB of storage and two switches or $95,000 for a more typical system with 800GB of storage, two switches, and the capacity to connect to six servers.

Although SANs still are expensive and complicated, Dell has an obsessive interest in keeping products as simple as possible so that it doesn't have fritter away energy supporting products that already have been sold, Tanner said. That fact means Dell usually isn't the first to enter a new market.

Big changes on the horizon
But Dell has mammoth competition.

"They do have a tough mission cut out. EMC is very attuned to the changes in this space and people trust EMC," Hurley said.

One of the biggest changes coming is the arrival of storage systems using the IP (Internet Protocol), the communication standard that underlies communications across the Internet.

SANs use the Fibre Channel communication standard, but the storage world is shifting to the better known IP. The chief disadvantages of IP now are slower data transfer speeds and the need for more of the server CPU's energy to encode data for transfer with IP than with Fibre Channel. But speed improvements are coming with 1 gigabit-per-second and later 10-gigabit-per-second Ethernet standards, and companies that are producing chips that will handle IP encoding so the CPU won't have to.

The arrival of IP storage networking has resulted in a host of new standards, such as a version of Fibre Channel or the SCSI communications standards that piggyback within IP networks. Standards exist for both of these hybrids, called FCIP and iSCSI, respectively.

Cisco, with years of experience in IP networking, is expected to announce Monday products that can take advantage of the FCIP and iSCSI standards. The company also is expected to unveil a partnership with Brocade, the leading seller of Fibre Channel switches.

"The show will be an early coming-out party for the IP-storage-based technologies," Hurley said.