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Dell tweaks EqualLogic disk arrays

Dell launches new SATA disk array shortly after acquiring EqualLogic, but many questions remain about its post-acquisition strategy.

NASHUA, N.H. -- One week after closing its $1.4 billion acquisition of EqualLogic Corp., Dell, Inc. today launched a new SATA disk array and took the first step toward clarifying how it will position its new platform of iSCSI products.

However, it will take more than one media event and a week to answer all the questions surrounding the acquisition. It remains to be seen how Dell plans to develop its iSCSI products beyond slapping the Dell label on EqualLogic systems, how it will position the different platforms in its iSCSI portfolio, how it will remain a close partner to EMC Corp. while competing with the storage giant, or whether or not it can successfully balance its direct sales force and the channel.

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Dell executives demonstrated a new EqualLogic disk array model, dubbed the Dell EqualLogic PS5000 series at a live press event and webcast held simultaneously at EqualLogic headquarters in Nashua, N.H., and Dell offices in San Francisco and London.

The PS5000 series is a 3U, 16-bay SATA array that supports 1 TB drives for up to 16 TB raw capacity in a single enclosure. The new array allows EqualLogic storage pools to be expanded to 192 TB. The PS5000 is a shift from EqualLogic's previous 14-drive form factor meant to bring EqualLogic's SATA offerings in line with its 16-drive SAS arrays. Other than that, not much changed from previous EqualLogic systems.

"It's the first example of the economies of scale we're going to see from Dell manufacturing," said John Joseph, former EqualLogic executive and now Dell vice president of marketing.

Those economies of scale are already giving customers a pricing break, Joseph added. The PS5000 series starts at $19,000 for a chassis populated with 2 TB. The previous PS3000 series models started at $22,500 for 1.75 TB. Otherwise, the software interface remains the same and the system is the same as previous EqualLogic offerings.

One analyst predicted the EqualLogic products will eventually evolve more under the Dell banner.

"There's lots more synergies and product features Dell could bring to the table," said Andrew Reichman, Forrester Research senior analyst. "I wouldn't be surprised to see another chassis design, at least within the next year."

Dell executives also clarified how they intend to position the EqualLogic product line against the new AX4-5 Dell plans to resell from EMC. Dell has a deal to resell all of EMC's midrange Clariion systems.

Brad Anderson, senior vice president and general manager in Dell's business product group, said Dell will sell the AX4-5 to organizations that use mostly Fibre Channel storage but want to "take the first iSCSI step" via AX4-5's multiprotocol options. But EMC estimates that most of its AX4-5 customers, as well as most new Clariion deployments going forward, will be iSCSI-only, which would bring them into direct competition with EqualLogic arrays.

According to Reichman, it's more likely the AX4-5 will be sold to Clariion accounts looking for a ROBO disk array or data replication target. "That's a good strategy for the short term, since Dell and EMC do a huge volume together right now -- why rock the boat?" he asked. "But long term, I have to believe Dell will go in the direction of the IP they own."

Integration roadmap, channel strategy remain unclear

EqualLogic customers have questioned how Dell plans to blend the EqualLogic IP with other Dell products, including the MD1000 and MD3000 entry-level iSCSI SANs. Dell executives left the roadmap a question mark for now. "We're going to be kicking off some fairly sizeable product development sessions over the next 30 to 90 days," Joseph said. "No decisions have been made yet."

"What I'd like to see is for Dell to come up with a comprehensive platform that will address a wide range of customer needs," Reichman said. He suggested that a "PS Lite" software module for the MD series would be a good avenue for Dell to explore. Reichman added that EqualLogic might take advantage of Dell's relationships with application vendors to add application-specific interfaces to its product, the way it already does with a snapshot module for Microsoft SQL Server.

Dell executives will hold a conference call with channel partners tomorrow, but addressed the channel during the event in Nashua. "EqualLogic's channel programs have been left clean, in place and brought into Dell's value chain," Joseph said. "It's being pulled in, accepted and scaled by Dell."

But analysts said it remains unclear how Dell will negotiate between direct sales and channel sales in competitive situations, and how it will use the channel to attach server sales to EqualLogic storage products. "I'm more curious to see how EqualLogic will align with Dell's server business," said David Reine, Clipper Group analyst. "They're going to have to do something to get back $1.4 billion."

Dell founder and chairman Michael Dell did not attend today's event, but appeared in a short pretaped video presentation on the PS5000 series. EqualLogic CEO Don Bulens wasn't there either, although Anderson said Bulens is staying on as a consultant for at least three months. Bulens' role will be to help Dell develop its channel and customer retention strategies.

Dell executives confirmed former Enterprise Strategy Group analyst Tony Asaro has left the company less than a month after becoming its director of product marketing. But, they were mum about the reasons for the abrupt split.

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