Dell moves to the mobile beat

As the PC maker heads into smartphones and more deeply into IT services, CEO Michael Dell talks about what businesses want from a notebook and the importance of the network

As desktop sales continue to fall in Europe, PC maker Dell has said it will launch its first smartphone in China. In addition, the company is looking to strengthen the services side of its business by buying Perot. ZDNet UK caught up with chief executive Michael Dell at the FireGlobal conference in Seattle last week to talk about how he sees the impact of mobility on business PCs and networks.

Q: Dell's first smartphone is for China; when will you have something for the western market?
A: There's a big change happening, with the internet in your pocket and platforms to deliver it. There are a lot of telcos in the world, but the largest cellular provider is China Mobile. We have a very good relationship with them; over half the netbooks they sell today are Dells. OMS is their Android derivative, and we've developed an OMS smartphone that's kind of a starting point for us.

You'll probably see some products in the US next year that will be family members. They won't run OMS, but they will be Android. There could even be other platforms, as we're seeing open platforms emerging that are very similar to how other businesses we participate in work.

You've said the netbook experience can be disappointing for a business user, but beyond the bigger screen size, what really matters for notebooks in business terms?
Mobility is absolutely the theme. But let's not forget that if you want the least expensive computer, you buy a desktop. If you want the most powerful computer, you would also buy a desktop. I think the desktop market continues to get cannibalised by mobile — in particular as we go to LTE and 4G. You'll want to take your data with you anywhere you go.

There are businesses with 150,000 people, and you've got all these Ethernet ports — you've got to have all these ports all over the building, so people can plug in. And then there's Wi-Fi, then you've got the phones on a separate network, maybe you're doing VoIP, maybe starting to do video conferencing or using unified communications...

So with these new networks, you've got your notebook and it's got this high-speed connection from the mobile network, and it's got a high-definition camera. You don't need any Ethernet ports, you don't need the network, you don't need the phone. It's even got GPS. You can work anywhere.

There's one customer, a huge humongous bank: 50 percent of its employees don't have physical offices. They work from their home, they go to an office, and sometimes they share spaces. It's the whole idea of being connected anywhere.

What you say to the IT guy is that your job is a whole lot simpler. It's not a product; it's a service you subscribe to. If the notebook breaks, you get another one, and all the data is backed up in the cloud.

We're in the process of buying Perot Systems to take our solution capability further. We're seeing some interesting things...

...happening on the client side, in terms of how different technologies evolve; in how people collaborate and use information.

What's happening with servers and storage?
There are a couple of things happening. Virtualisation and multi-tenant systems are really going strong. Then there's the leap in performance with the new [Intel] Nehalem architecture — a nine-times improvement in memory bandwidth. We're coming out with servers that support up to 1TB of DRAM. That's incredible performance — you can put your whole database in RAM, or virtualise 20 servers.

We're seeing it accelerating the refresh of server infrastructure, and also accelerating migration from legacy Unix platforms. Virtualisation has the ability to attach many of these servers together to get performance you couldn't get before. It used to be that virtualisation was fine, but you couldn't do this, you couldn't do that. Now there are things you can't do if you're not using virtualisation. There's a lot of headroom in virtualisation.

Storage really goes with the virtualisation trend — we saw this couple of years ago. If a customer had five or 10 servers, they were using virtualisation with no problem. But then they started to virtualise 100, 1,000, 100,000. How do you handle provisioning, snapshotting or volume recovery? We found this company, EqualLogic, that could virtualise pools of storage. Since then we've added over 10,000 new customers, and it's a ginormous business for us, growing very fast.

We're just at the beginning of moving that storage to 10Gb Ethernet. There's a lot of discussion about switching fabrics, and it looked to me that there was a trend where power was getting sucked out of the computer and into these really smart switches. I'm seeing it go the other way now. Switching is getting put into the computer, into the blade chassis. The switch is getting virtualised.

We're putting 10Gb on the motherboards of the next generation of servers, too. We have the greatest solution: it's Ethernet over Ethernet — great competition for Fibre over Ethernet. Just go talk to datacentre folks. They don't like the network within a network, where they have to deal with all this legacy stuff.

What about servers for the cloud?
We went to the largest web companies in the world — Azure, Bing, Yahoo, Baidu — and said, "What do you need?" We used to bring them general-purpose servers that were really nice, but they said they've got all these features that they don't need those. So we went out and built custom servers for these businesses.

When you look at what we built in the Chicago datacentre for Microsoft and Facebook, we sold them hundreds of servers. It's nothing like the most expensive servers in the world, like one of my competitors is advocating. The switching architecture is a lot simpler. It's back to the old Dell play of saving our customers money using open standards.

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