Rhonda Gass, VP of Storage Systems Development, Dell

"I like to tell our server team that servers are becoming a peripheral. Storage is the center."

January 9, 2003

9 Min Read
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It's been just over one year since Dell Computer Corp. (Nasdaq: DELL) hitched its storage wagon to EMC Corp.'s (NYSE: EMC) star, with a five-year distribution deal (see EMC and Dell Double-Down and Dell and EMC Do a Deal).

In that time, the two companies have tag-teamed to win 1,500 new storage customers. And the Dell partnership in part – helped EMC funnel in an unexpected $200 million in extra sales for the fourth quarter of 2002. Not bad, dudes! (See EMC Shares Surge and Dell Plugs Cox Into EMC.)

Rhonda Gass (a chatty lass), in Dell's storage systems development group, says Dell sees no reason to change course anytime soon. In fact, she must have told us at least four times how "satisfied" Dell is with the EMC partnership. The deal may also someday extend to EMC's NAS systems to augment Dell's own Microsoft-based NAS offerings.

But Dell isn't putting its entire storage future in the hands of the Good Ship Hopkinton. One of its undercover development projects revolves around iSCSI, an IP-based technology that promises to deliver the benefit of SANs without the cost and complexity of Fibre Channel. In other words, it's right up the alley of Dell's target market: small and midsized enterprises.

So far, iSCSI has failed to materialize in real products. As overall IT spending continues to languish into 2003, so will new technologies like iSCSI. But Gass is still upbeat on the promise of IP storage and says Dell is currently scoping out specific requirements for this market. (For more on this topic, see our report, iSCSI's Big Bang?.)Longer term, Gass believes servers will become more like "a peripheral" that connects to storage: "You'll begin to see slimmed-down servers, with the heart of the infrastructure containing your storage devices." This, mind you, is from an executive at one of the industry's top server makers.

And to answer another burning question right up front: No, Steven the Dell Dude won't be put into service selling SANs.

Read on, as Gass talks with US Editor Todd Spangler about:

Byte and Switch: How would you characterize Dell's relationship with EMC?

Rhonda Gass: We've been very satisfied with our relationship with EMC. It's expanded our reach and broadened our storage portfolio, particularly in the Fibre Channel SAN marketplace, and our ability to extend our reach into Linux and Unix markets.Byte and Switch: What alternatives has Dell explored for what happens after the EMC agreement expires [in 2006]?

Gass: [Brief silence] Again, I think we're very satisfied with the agreement we currently have. That's our current course and speed.

Byte and Switch: Some observers point to a potential conflict between Dell and EMC – Dell's trying to drive the cost as low as possible, whereas EMC's trying to protect its margins and legacy business. For example, the CX600 is priced differently depending on whether you buy it from Dell or EMC. This is a dicey issue, isn't it?

Gass: We see cost and price as always part of the requirement equation. I don't look at price as independent of product or features. I think it's a collaborative effort to get the right mix of features at the right price for both Dell and EMC to be successful. It's a constant in the requirement equation.

Byte and Switch: OK, but playing devil's advocate, at some point Dell's and EMC's interests diverge, right? For Dell, storage is just one part of the environment. For EMC, they're on the storage side looking out. Doesn't that result in a different set of priorities?Gass: Well, I think Dell has been very happy with the relationship and what we've been able to accomplish through the relationship and delivering what our customers need. I think we've brought EMC into new accounts where they hadn't played in the past – primarily in SMB [small and midsized business] – and they're allowing us to get into accounts where we haven't traditionally had relationships. I really see this as more synergistic than confrontational... The fact that we've acquired 1,500 new customers between us speaks to the complementary nature of our businesses.

Byte and Switch: So those 1,500 new customers – who have you been replacing?

Gass: The usual suspects we go up against in our server business. [Ed. note: That would be IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) and Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ).] We're definitely capitalizing on where we have server sales, so it's where we have already established enterprise relationships with customers in servers.

NEXT: 'EMC Is Not Our Entire Storage Business'

Byte and Switch: Will Dell start reselling EMC's higher-end Symmetrix arrays?Rhonda Gass: On a case-by-case basis, we have sold Symmetrix as part of an overall deal. We definitely work with the customer to get them the right solution. But the bulk of our sales have been in the CX200, CX400, and CX600.

Byte and Switch: How much did Dell work with EMC to develop the new Clariion line, in particular the CX200 [which Dell is manufacturing]?

Gass: Our collaboration is more in requirements, from our customer base. Given our direct relationship with our customers, we get pretty direct feedback on what they would like to see in the Fibre [Channel] arrays. It's more a collaboration on requirements and architecture.

Byte and Switch: Dell has developed all of its NAS products using Microsoft Corp.'s [Nasdaq: MSFT] Windows Server Appliance Kit. Why aren't EMC's NAS offerings part of the Dell storage lineup?

Gass: Well, we look at our business from a portfolio point of view. EMC is not our entire storage business. When you look at the storage portfolio, we feel that our Microsoft SAK-based systems are in the sweet spot... Now, we continue to evaluate that space. The [EMC] NS600 is optimized for traditional Unix and NFS environments, whereas the Microsoft SAK is optimized for CIFS environments. As our customers' needs push more into NFS, I can see where we might want to go with the NS600.Byte and Switch: Are you evaluating the Cisco Systems Inc. [Nasdaq: CSCO] Fibre Channel switches? Is that something Dell would resell?

Gass: We would collaborate with EMC on something like that. However, we're not going to discuss things we're working on. We are currently working with the current qualified switch providers from EMC. The usual suspects there are Brocade Communications Systems Inc. [Nasdaq: BRCD] and McData Corp. [Nasdaq: MCDTA].

NEXT: IP SANs on Hold

Byte and Switch: What are your general impressions of IP storage and iSCSI?

Rhonda Gass: I think the market in general has developed slower than the entire industry may have thought a year ago. The standards are finally being ratified. I think we're going to be seeing some advancements there. But I think a contributor to the slowness was the general economic environment. We're starting to see that come around.Byte and Switch: How big is iSCSI for Dell? Why is iSCSI an interesting technology?

Gass: It's interesting because it is a standard. It's also interesting because it capitalizes on the existing infrastructure. So it presents an opportunity to bring products to market that improve the price/performance ratio.

Byte and Switch: Do you expect to add iSCSI to your NAS products, or will you work with EMC to add iSCSI capabilities to the Clariion line?

Gass: Yes and yes. Now that iSCSI is a standard, products are being developed based on customer demand and customer needs. But I don't think there's a reason to put iSCSI in just the NAS camp or just the SAN camp. I think it has a play in both areas.

Byte and Switch: How essential are TCP Offload Engines for iSCSI?Gass: That's a question we're trying to quantify right now. I don't have anything definitive to share. But we are looking at where TOEs bring an end-user benefit, and again, it's a price/performance benefit. There may be areas where TOEs are not required.

Byte and Switch: So you may have different versions for different iSCSI products? One with TOEs and one that's TOE-less?

Gass: Yeah, and one with fingers. Well, maybe you would need a TOE to shrink your backup window, for example. It's very much scenario- and application-driven.

Byte and Switch: IBM is using a TCP-acceleration card from Alacritech Inc. in its midrange NAS box. Is that something Dell may do? [See IBM Turns NAS Crank.]

Gass: This is very similar to the TOE discussion. I have to tell you, our evaluations are underway right now. And again, it's application oriented. Is it TCP-intensive or not? And will the performance you can expect be worth the additional cost?Byte and Switch: What's an example of a TCP-intensive application?

Gass: One that's file-intensive, requiring network traffic, instead of block intensive. A Web server may be more TCP-intensive than a database. But again, we're trying to quantify all of that and when it makes sense to use a TOE and when it doesn't.

NEXT: Blades 'n' Things

Byte and Switch: How do blade servers change what you need to offer vis-à-vis storage?

Rhonda Gass: Well, I like to tell our server team that servers are becoming a peripheral. Storage is the center. I think with blade server technologies, we might come to realize that statement. You'll begin to see slimmed-down servers, with the heart of the infrastructure containing your storage devices. Blade servers are very powerful and can also begin to serve as storage controllers.Byte and Switch: What is Dell's thinking on the trend of disk-based backup systems? [See Avamar Kicks It to Disk, EVault Intros Software, StorageTek to Punch Into Disk Backup, EMC Has Eyes for Huge Archives, NetApp's Backup Plan, and Quantum Slips Disks Into Backup.]

Gass: We see that as a very real trend. There's a lot of interesting things going on with the advent of Serial ATA and the price paradigms they're going to bring to the industry. They also bring performance, potentially, to decrease the backup window and to really be able to make hierarchical storage management come to bear.

Byte and Switch: Will we see cost per megabyte of storage continue to drop? Or has that stabilized?

Gass: I think it will continue to come down... But the way we approach this is through a total cost-of-ownership proposition. Networked storage is going to allow us to approach total cost of ownership and return on investment in a way that's going to drive your overall cost-per-megabyte down. It's not going to be raw capacity price, per se, but the way you bring the various technologies to bear on a particular problem that's going to give you better TCO and ROI.

Byte and Switch: One last question: Are you going to get Steven the Dell Dude to start selling SANs?Gass: We're going to stick with Dave the Enterprise Guy. I think he actually wears a tie.

— Todd Spangler, US Editor, Byte and Switch

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