Dell fills data center technology stack with Force10

Force 10 will build Dell's networking stack, but the company will still rely on Brocade for Fibre Channel technology

Dell's acquisition of Force10 Networks will fill a critical networking hole as the company buys its way into building an integrated technology stack for data centers, analysts said on Wednesday.

System vendors such as Hewlett-Packard, Cisco and IBM have been rounding out hardware to deliver a more end-to-end data center package, and Dell is moving in that direction, analysts said. Dell offers servers, storage and services, and acquiring Force10 Networks would provide it with networking technology that could help the company offer an integrated hardware stack to automate the deployment of systems in data centers.

Dell has acquired multiple companies to build out more end-to-end products, analysts said. Among the dozens of companies acquired in recent years, the key acquisitions include services company Perot Systems, storage companies EqualLogic and Compellent and security company SecureWorks. The company is already building data centers in multiple countries to host cloud applications and is also opening research centers for cloud reference architectures.

"Dell has clearly said they want to have some intellectual property on the internal side," said Cindy Borovick, research vice president for IDC's enterprise communications and data center networks. "The question is: Do you build versus buy?"

By integrating the hardware stack, Dell wants to automate deployment and configuration of systems in data centers, said Dario Zamarian, vice president and general manager of networking at Dell, during a conference call. Automation will help customers build data centers quicker and reduce manual processes in maintaining data centers.

Dell already offers networking products through its PowerConnect line, and Force10's switches and routers would be complementary, Zamarian said. Force10 also brings product design capabilities and an open operating system that could help Dell improve its networking products.

Dell also offers networking products such as switches from partners like Brocade and Cisco, and there may be product overlap in some cases, Zamarian said. The company will continue its relationship with Brocade though the nature of the relationship may "change in some dimensions," Zamarian said.

One advantage with Force10 is its open architecture, and its FTOS OS used in Force10 products can be easily customized, IDC's Borovick said. Dell can quickly adapt FTOS to deliver prepacked products to customers, who can then further customize the OS depending on their system and network configurations.

Dell will have to maintain a relationship with Brocade for Fibre Channel networking technology, for which Dell doesn't yet have its own intellectual property, Borovick said. Dell may be done acquiring networking companies for now, though it could look into buying application intelligence or security companies to boost the networking portfolio.

Force10 is a relatively small company and had just a 2 percent share in the data center market in the first half of 2011, behind Cisco, HP, Brocade and Juniper, according to IDC.

Force10 provides Dell ammunition to go after midmarket companies, but also fills out data center pieces as it moves upstream to get larger and richer services deals, said Greg Richardson, an analyst at Technology Business Research. By showcasing technologies through midmarket contracts, Dell is warming up to larger services contracts in enterprises.

"Force 10 brings in the artillery to go after [more deals]," Richardson said. Dell has said it is looking to offer cloud and security services, and also is increasing its focus on managing data movement between the cloud and storage systems.

But Dell will have to contend with heavyweights like HP and IBM, which started integrating servers, storage and networking technologies years ahead of Dell. HP last year filled its networking portfolio when it acquired 3Com in April for US$2.7 billion.

Dell is playing on a smaller scale compared to HP, said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT. But at some point, the competitors will butt heads when seeking customers.

"HP is being aggressive with converged solutions. The challenge is for Dell to make an effective pitch," King said.

HP works mostly with proprietary technology, and Dell is trying to provide open technology so its products work with multiple brands, which provides customers with flexibility, King said. But Dell's integrated products may become a priority, which could affect relationships with partners such as Brocade and Cisco.

However, compared to HP, Dell is paying a lesser price for acquiring competitive technology, King said. Dell and HP went on a bidding war last year for storage company 3PAR, which HP ultimately bought for $2.35 billion. Dell earlier this year paid $800 million to buy storage company Compellent, which was once a 3PAR competitor.

"Dell's been extremely savvy acquiring companies at very competitive prices," King said. "That's another difference in what Dell and HP are doing."

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