Dell Challenges Virtualization ‘Myths’

Dell built its business and, until recently, its reputation by keeping things simple.

The strategy worked for years with its direct-to-consumer PC model, and now it wants to bring that same cut-and-dried approach to the much more complex and comparatively mysterious world of server virtualization.

Dell , along with dozens of hardware, software and virtualization services vendors, will be front and center next week at the VMworld Conference in San Francisco, hoping to stake its claim to what’s suddenly become all the rage in datacenters from Fort Lauderdale to Bangalore.

Virtualization, which lets IT managers cram multiple computing environments onto one computer so that one physical server can perform the function of two or more machines, saves time, space, energy and money.

But getting an organization’s datacenter to the point where it can start realizing all that’s promised by virtualization isn’t as easy as it could or should be, according to Glenn Keels, a senior project manager in Dell’s PowerEdge server division.

“The industry, including Dell to a certain degree, is making consolidation and virtualization too complex,” Keels told “There are some myths and misconceptions out there that are confusing customers. We’ve had customers coming to us asking if it’s true that you need blades to virtualize.”

Keels said Dell doesn’t think it’s in customers’ best interests to be automatically steered to blade servers as part of their consolidation and virtualization efforts, even though they do take up considerably less physical space and consume less energy in the datacenter.

“We don’t want to drive virtualization into proprietary systems,” he said. “The customers receive the best price and performance by focusing on two- and four-socket systems. Let’s not just blade everything. By whole-heartedly adopting that, you can actually increase complexity. Blades should be an option—and we love blades—but not a mandate.”

Charles King, principal research analyst at the Hayward, Calif.-based research firm Pund-IT, said he generally agreed with Dell’s position that blades aren’t always the best or only option for enterprise customers looking to reduce their datacenter footprint.

“It’s a fair point,” he said. “An x86-based server running Wintel or Linux on AMD or Windows on AMD is fully capable of supporting virtualization capabilities. You can still get remarkably strong performance on rack servers. You just don’t create the highly condensed physical environment that you can get with blades.”

Dell’s proclivity to reject customers’ vendor-induced obsession with blade servers might also be motivated by the eventual debut—perhaps during next week’s VMworld conclave—of what it’s calling a virtualization-oriented server.

The two-socket server will purportedly deliver an embedded hypervisor  as well as significantly more memory, network capacity, storage and processing prowess to those inclined to jump on the virtualization bandwagon.

Keels said another issue plaguing the virtualization crowd is the legion of consultants large companies typically call upon for assistance with their large-scale virtualization projects.

“It’s actually an inhibitor to virtualization adoption,” he said. “We don’t deliver our services that way. We have virtualization services to access, plan, design and implement that are fixed in scope and repeatable around the world. It’s pragmatic. We execute and get out of there.”

Pund-IT’s King said the level of service support needed to virtualize a datacenter varies from company to company and smaller companies find it much more difficult to effectively manage and optimize their virtual environment once it’s up and running.

“But Dell has done a very good job with its services around virtualization,” he said. “They really help companies of any size get it up and running. But it’s still harder for smaller companies to get the level of optimization that larger companies achieve.”

Speaking of smaller companies, Dell also has a bone to pick with those who say virtualization only delivers significant value to enterprise customers with multiple datacenters running hundreds or thousands of servers.

“The third myth is that virtualization is only for large businesses,” Keels said. “Large customers already get it. But in smaller organizations, between 100 to 1,000 employees, we’re having customers come up to us and ask if virtualization means they ‘have to buy one of those SAN things.’ The industry has made it too complex.”

“Virtualization isn’t only about consolidation,” he added. “It’s about production. Even if you only have two or three servers you don’t want to have to take a server down for the next two days to move that application from one machine to another.”

While virtualization might be no-brainer for Fortune 500 or even Fortune 1000 firms, King said the idea that virtualization is for everyone may be pushing it a little bit.

“The real question is what is the break even point?” he said. “It depends on who you talk to. Some say the break even point is 18 to 20 servers. Others would say 28 to 35 servers. But it’s true that smaller companies can easily deploy virtualization.”

Large or small companies, blades or no blades, the name of the game remains the same for Dell, Microsoft , HP , IBM  and any other company selling into this virtualization-crazed climate: Sell as many servers as possible.

In March, research firm IDC lowered its server sales projections for the next three years, primarily because companies have and will continue to virtualize their datacenters. Between 2007 and 2010, IDC now expects x86-based server sales to slip about nine percent, from $36 billion to $33 billion, and predicts actual unit sales will fall about 18 percent to 8.7 million servers from the original forecast of 10.5 million servers.

Dell’s Keels disputes those projections, arguing that once IT managers complete their virtualization projects, they’ll be emancipated from the time- and budget-consuming task of managing what he calls the “crisis” taking place in their datacenters and will start buying new servers for projects long-delayed or ignored in the interim.

“We’re staying the course,” he said. “Our opinion is that virtualization will not have any material impact on overall server sales. That’s where we stand today and we’ve been doing this a while. Saying that, there are much bigger issues that can affect server sales in the future other than the consolidation ratio.”

According to an Aug. 23 IDC report, Dell’s server sales represented only 11.6 percent, or $1.5 billion, of the $13.1 billion in worldwide server sales recorded in the second quarter of this year, ranking it well behind IBM (31 percent), HP (28.2 percent) and Sun Microsystems  (13 percent) in the category.

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