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Uncovering Dell EMC’s Strategy in the CI, HCI, and Reference Architecture Spaces

As the Converged Infrastructure (CI) and Hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) practice lead at AHEAD, I spend a significant portion of my time evaluating and designing solutions that include Dell EMC components. When you combine the tremendous amount of activity in the HCI space, the Dell EMC merger, and the rate of change within Dell EMC’s related product lines, the result is an action-packed 2017. Following the creation of the post-merger Dell EMC organization, we have seen marketplace and vendor confusion when it comes to evaluating Dell EMC’s market positions. My goal with this introductory post (and subsequent posts to come) is to shed some light on our understanding and opinions of the 2017 Dell EMC CI/HCI strategy and its go-to-market strategy.

Dell EMC’s Key HCI Products

Dell EMC’s primary HCI product is called VxRail, which has come a long way from its inception as VSPEX BLUE, an original member of the EVO:RAIL partnership with VMware. VMware’s attempt to launch an appliance-based approach for VSAN was not successful. Following the EVO:RAIL experience, EMC and VMware joined forces to develop a better solution with VxRail. Although VxRail was a late entrant to the HCI market in February of 2016, it is clear that it will not “fizzle out” in the same way that VSPEX BLUE did. The product is not as mature as Nutanix or Simplivity, but it is gaining a tremendous amount of traction and one of the reasons has been its focus on storage capacity and density (at a very competitive price) within its flash tier.

Dell EMC’s “legacy” product in the CI space is also the market creator and leader. Vblock (more commonly known as VxBlock (*I will describe the differences and story behind VxBlock and Vblock in a subsequent post)) customer adoption and footprint continues to grow, even in light of the rise of HCI. And as the HCI market continues to mature and grow, we expect more customers to move less critical workloads into a product like VxRail. That said, we expect VxBlock and the general premise of converged infrastructure solutions to continue to be popular for workloads that require high performance and uptime, massive “traditional” scale, and/or other features that are not supported by today’s HCI solutions.

Dell EMC’s VxRack product attempts to own the full landscape of infrastructure responsibility for HCI that VxBlock has been successful at doing for CI by combining the successful tenets of CI (racks, PDUs, cables, networking, single vendor support, RCMs, etc.) with HCI nodes in a cohesive solution. The Dell EMC approach to VxRack leverages both vSAN (VxRack SDDC) and ScaleIO (VxRack FLEX) software-defined storage options. The ScaleIO option has more flexibility than vSAN and opens the possibility to serious scale in an HCI footprint. The HCI market does need products like this, and as a testament to the VxRack approach to SDS, you can see that Cisco HyperFlex, which attempts to do some of this, is also gaining traction for this very reason. The current VxRack VSAN release has not yet been widely adopted, but we know that the Dell CSPD team is actively working to make the solution more enterprise ready.  I look forward to Dell EMC continuing to develop the VxRack product.

Challenges Ahead

While Dell EMC continues to develop and expand on the traditional “Block, Rack, Appliance” approach from the EMC days, it has also been working through the marketing and technology complexity due to the process of merging into a single privately held company. Because nothing is easy, they also must dance carefully while competing at new levels with Cisco, who continues to be its biggest external partner in the VxBlock line. The complexity of the Dell EMC / Cisco VxBlock partnership is apparent in the rapidly evolving world of HCI. The HCI space itself continues to change; Cisco’s team is charging ahead with HyperFlex, Nutanix IPO last year (and its continued partnership with Dell with the PowerEdge-based DellXC Nutanix platform), and the impending acquisition of Simplivity by HPE are examples of the turmoil and change in the industry. Although Dell EMC is currently well-positioned in both the CI and HCI space, the next 12 months will be critically important, and somehow it must continue to innovate its primary product lines or risk being overtaken by Cisco HyperFlex, Nutanix, or perhaps a yet-to-be-identified disruptor. To add fuel to the fire, the original EMC messaging of Blocks, Rails, and Racks conflicts with the original Dell EMC messaging of “Do It Yourself”, validated designs, and reference architecture:


Chad Sakac’s new CSPD (Converged System Platform Division) inside of Dell EMC is set to tackle the challenges of this space, and we very much appreciate our continued partnership with Dell EMC and enjoy being included in ongoing discussions with Chad and team around direction and evaluation of the future.

This challenge is not trivial, but so far, they have done a good job aligning the “legacy” Dell and EMC sales teams on a consistent, if not broad, message around the continuum of DIY, RefArch, CI, HCI and ScaleOut HCI. Dell EMC’s newfound approval of Reference Architecture will likely increase competition and discussions between Dell’s product lines especially when compared to Cisco/Pure and Cisco/NetApp with FlashStack and FlexPod.

Confused yet? Don’t be! My next few posts will be focused on each of the three “original VCE” pillars (Rails, Blocks, and Racks) to track their evolution and market placement, while comparing and contrasting them to the Dell product line and respective market segment.

To learn more about CI and HCI products and strategies, contact us today to meet with our experts one-on-one and for more information on our current offerings and solutions.

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