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Dell VP on virtualization, EMC and support

DARREN THOMAS, Dell's VP and general manager, enterprise storage, spoke to us about dealing with the complexities of virtualized storage, the future of Fibre Channel and Gigabit Ethernet, his company's relationship with EMC, and why some users say they're disappointed with Dell's storage product support. (Note: This interview took place before Dell announced its acquisition of EqualLogic.)

Q: How do you manage the additional complexity that virtualization brings to the storage environment?

Thomas: It's hard. Virtualization just means you can create abstraction layers above the hardware and set divisions not limited by sheet metal. But by creating one big storage pool out of a bunch of different vendor products that all have different capabilities--one can replicate, another can't, one has a limited number of snapshots--being able to keep track of all this convolution is hard. Now you get down to having to manage things by their capabilities.

We had the ability to virtualize storage a long, long time ago. We could add and subtract LUNs--something that servers are just learning how to do--but the way we did it was to virtualize islands with different types of storage capabilities. This island had this capability and that island had another capability, and now we're saying we're virtualizing across islands and the complexity has grown immeasurably. It's very hard to manage such a storage environment. There must be boundaries to your virtualization enthusiasm.

No customer I've ever met says they're going to put everything into a big applesauce pool. Instead, customers will take, for example, their CRM system and build a very manageable, scalable virtual storage environment. And no one would mix a Symmetrix and one of my JBOD boxes in the same virtualized storage pool and turn off all of their million-dollar Symm features. Instead, they would create virtualized islands to support applications requiring different performance and protection levels.

Virtualization of the server is a slam dunk. Customers are lowering their power and cooling bills; they're saving on licenses and consolidating storage. VMware is making it possible for small- to medium-sized companies to move to a SAN and consolidate their storage. On the other end of the spectrum, Microsoft has rewritten Exchange so big companies can use dumb storage to run it--mission-critical on a JBOD. If you're as old as I am, you've seen everything three times.

Q: What's your opinion on the future of Fibre Channel (FC) and Gigabit Ethernet?

Thomas: You've got an arms race. Ethernet offers great performance and there's an awful lot of Ethernet out there, a lot more than Fibre Channel. At some point you've got to believe that customers will want to unify their fabrics and the two [Ethernet and FC] will have to come together. I think it's inevitable.

Q: Considering your close relationship with EMC, there's an impression that Dell isn't doing much innovating and is just reselling EMC storage technology. Is that true?

Thomas: We're constantly fighting the assumption that the Dell PowerVault MD3000 comes from someone else and I just slapped the Dell nameplate on it. My team designed almost all of the MD3000's components; the only thing we bought from someone else is the array controller.

Q: According to several of our product surveys, users haven't given high marks to the technical competence of the Dell sales force. How would you respond?

Thomas: It's a bit of a frustration. Our sales force is not a specialized sales force. For example, we have ISRs [internal sales reps], basically phone reps that know very little about the products they are selling. On the other side of the continuum are TSRs [technical sales reps] and consultants that make up our Advanced Sales Group [ASG], and they know our storage very well. I'd put them close to EMC's sales reps.

One reason why I think we get a bad rap is that Dell has a different [sales] model [from other storage vendors] and we've got thousands and thousands of sales persons. The ISRs sell everything from laptops to big-screen TVs; when a customer is buying a bunch of laptops, he may ask the ISR a technical question about one of our storage devices and the phone rep can't answer him.

Even though our ASGs are top notch, I acknowledge that our entire sales force needs more training. It's a corporate balance sheet issue.

--Rich Friedman

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