Dell wants your business business

Dell has struggled to be seen as much more than a supplier of low-cost PCs and other gear but Jay Parker, director of worldwide marketing for servers, has been charged with shifting perceptions
Written by Colin Barker, Contributor on

Dell is a supplier of PCs and some related consumer items (PDAs, photo-printers and so on) and some "business" products (printers, presentation systems, etc) and that is about it. Or so goes the conventional wisdom.

Three years ago, Dell launched its first major line of servers and ever since, the company has been desperate to be taken seriously as a supplier of major business systems. It wants to compete with industry heavyweights like IBM and HP when it comes to persuading the largest business users — banks, consumer goods manufacturers, governments, etc — to part with very large amounts of money, rather than the £1,000 here and there that Dell is used to.

Last week, Dell organised its latest event to help promote its enterprise role Dell can and is playing in business today along with the launch of three new Dell servers.

So what is the place for Dell in the enterprise market. ZDNet UK spoke to Jay Parker, director of Dell's worldwide marketing for servers, to find out about this and Dell's thoughts on Linux, virtualisation and the knotty question of how to get power savings out from today's power-guzzling machines.

Your top server is a four way that retails at just over £1,500. Do you see any demand to push Dell servers further at the top end? Beyond two and four-way servers?
We don’t see customers demanding that. At one point we did see an eight way server, but as part of our scale-out and scalable enterprise strategy, we find that customers would rather scale in small increments and then have the server environment scale with their needs. They don't want to purchase the highest-end system that they can and increase utilisation over time. That is something different that we are seeing.

The important trend that is going on now is that as multi-core technology comes on line —  in the next six to nine months you will see quad-core and then eight-core — the need to buy anything with more processors than four is really minimal. If you look at the sales data today, eight-way machines are a tiny niche — essentially ninety percent is four-way on x86.

How do you compete against, say, HP when it is selling its bigger boxes? Do you compete solely on price/performance?
IBM and HP are in interesting positions because they need to talk about scale-out technology. That is the way the industry is going, but at the same time they have a big dependence on Unix and RISC.

The first thing we talk to customers about is purely the advantages they can get from scale-out. Once you explain it to them at some level of detail, most customers will start to understand the benefits associated with it. Then you have to overcome the customer’s fear of change in the core of their datacenter. Now price/performance is part of the equation, but if it is about mission critical applications, that will not make the sale. So the question they ask us is: how can you help me manage through this?

So a lot of our service offerings have to do with, say, Unix to Linux migration. As part of Dell Service we have managed over 500 Unix to Linux migrations. We see that growing, not shrinking, over time. As we have watched those systems progress — and by the way, one of them was Dell — and we show those success stories.

So Linux is a large part of your business?
It is a very large part of our business. I know for a fact that it is over a quarter of what we sell. It is a high percentage of our customers.

What do you put your success in the Linux market down to?
Well, we have been successful in helping customers convert from Unix. What those customers feel most comfortable with is what they view as an open source version of Unix. We were one of the earliest and one of the biggest, Ref Hat customers, in terms of selling their product on our servers. Now we are in the process of approving Novell/SUSE Linux as a "Tier 1" offering. What that means is we go through a tremendous amount of testing, validation and certification for Red Hat and SUSE, as well as offering first and second level support for customers on the hardware and the operating system.

So the overwhelming majority of calls that come in on Red Hat today, we actually solve as a Dell organization and don’t pass them off to Red Hat to resolve their issues. What that means for the customer is they have one point of accountability, and it is easier to get their issues resolved.

How is the relationship with VMware? Are you getting a lot of interest in virtualisation?
Are we hearing a lot [about virtualisation]? Yes. Are customers deploying? Yes. It has been one of those technologies where the reality has, in some cases, even outweighed the hype associated with it. In terms of Dell's role: number one, we provide virtualisation and it is a growing part of our services business. So with us it will means supporting the hardware virtualisation technologies through out BIOS and drivers, etc.

How do you charge customers for that service?
Well what we offer is very specific advice which we can give them through looking at what sort of environment they are going to run, what sort of workloads they are going to be under, what they want to accomplish and so on. So based on that we can generate a report for them that says the should be considering the following server hardware platforms, they should expect the following number of virtual machines per physical server, we would expect a certain amount of savings from them over time and then our recommendations on how they should go and implement that. And then we can go and do some of the implementation for them.

My favourite quote on virtualisation is that it is a technology that can mean virtually anything to virtually anybody.

You are claiming to get power savings from the new servers. How are you achieving that?
A large part of it is down to what Intel has done with their new architecture on the 5100 series, Woodcrest as it has been known. The wattage on the CPUs themselves is 65 watts on the majority of SKUs, down from somewhere around 130 watts. That is a big component of the power saving.

Then you look for a server vendor to complement that with technology and innovations around the box. Two or three years ago, power supply efficiency in general was at about 55 percent at 100 percent utilisation and now it is at 75 percent.

Then fans and cooling in general can be one of the biggest power draws. In systems of the past, fans just run and run and run. We have what we call the "low flow initiative" which you can think of as throttling the fan dynamically, depending on the workload and the thermal environment.

These are areas that we are investing heavily in. We are part of the Green Grid and other initiatives. We have built the thermal dynamics lab in Austin, where we can experiment with cooling and all kings of environments - - hot aisles, cold aisles, hoods, specific cooling units, and so on. Again, that has been one of the most popular visits to Dell.

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