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Dell cloud strategy points to AppAssure, Bob and vCloud

Defining a Dell cloud strategy isn’t an easy thing to do. But one key executive says AppAssure is central to a forthcoming strategy.

BOSTON -- Amid all the talk about PCI Express (PCIe) solid-state storage cards, integrated storage stacks and 64-bit architectures, one aspect of cutting-edge technology barely showed up at last week’s Dell Storage Forum 2012. The conference was noticeable for its lack of round, sky-blue puffy chairs, cloud t-shirts and cloud keynotes, in sharp contrast to, say, EMC World 2012.

“I was pleasantly surprised that I hardly heard the word ‘cloud’ here,” said Howard Marks, chief scientist at analyst firm Deep Storage LLC, when asked about the Dell cloud strategy. Infrastructure companies, Marks said, should be careful when positioning themselves as providers of a cloud strategy, which is more about processes than products, he noted.

Marks and other storage analysts at the show said they had yet to hear about Dell’s cloud strategy.

“They don’t have one,” Marks said. “I don’t think they're ready for one.”

We do already actually have vCloud, although it doesn’t seem like most people know about it, and those two things [vCloud and AppAssure] actually go in hand.

Carter George, Dell's director of strategy and business development

Clifford Russell, a customer at the show who's a fan of the cloud and Dell, said he sees no obvious Dell cloud strategy.

Russell, chief information officer at Landover, Md.-based HeiTech Services Inc., said he likes cloud backup and recommends Rackspace to his peers. He also uses Dell storage, and runs two Dell EqualLogic storage systems in two data centers. But when it comes to Dell and the cloud, Russell said he “didn’t know they actually had a cloud solution” except for MessageOne, a SaaS offering for email.

Dell does plan to announce an AppAssure cloud by the end of the year, according to one executive. AppAssure, acquired by Dell in February, was described as “key to our cloud strategy” by Carter George, formerly vice president of products at Ocarina and now director of strategy and business development at Dell.

Dell’s main cloud offering is based on VMware’s vCloud Datacenter Service.

“We do already actually have vCloud, although it doesn’t seem like most people know about it, and those two things [vCloud and AppAssure] actually go in hand,” George said.

“Because if you use AppAssure to protect your data in the cloud, the way AppAssure works, what you end up with is a sequence of snapshots of your whole environment in the cloud and you can restore those back to your site,” George said. “You can also mount them onto your vCloud and bring up your whole environment, lickety-split, as a virtual environment in our cloud.”

For small or midmarket companies, George said, AppAssure has the potential to provide disaster recovery (DR) and data warehouse strategies that would otherwise be out of reach.

Aside from DR, there “are other reasons why you might want to be able to bring up your whole environment in the cloud,” George said. “So if I have operational databases, [Oracle, SQL], I back that up to the cloud -- well, I could bring up those operational machines and then extract them -- and do a data warehouse, which a midmarket customer probably can’t afford to do themselves.”

Cloud messaging murky

Still, George agreed, the company’s cloud message remains “murky.”

He and other Dell executives talked a lot about the power of object storage, a fundamental building block of cloud-based technology. An ongoing project (code-named Bob) is focused on integrating an object storage layer within the company’s EqualLogic and Compellent storage arrays with the specific goal of facilitating cloud technology.

Dell’s DX Object Storage, which relies on Caringo software, is billed as a “cloud-ready archive solution” that lets users store data and associated metadata together as single objects. In that system, HTTP is used as the primary interface to clustered storage on standard server hardware.

This week Caringo announced three new products for its CAStor object-based software, and company officials said they expect Dell to resell the cloud storage software. The Caringo announcement highlighted advancements in the company's existing technology, including erasure codes and multi-tenancy, key features for large enterprises looking to build private clouds.

Andrew Reichman, a principal analyst at Forrester Research, believes Dell should break form and aggressively distinguish itself from competitors such as Hewlett-Packard and IBM in the category of cloud storage.

If Dell chooses to “jump in with both feet,” Reichman said, it could turn Caringo’s object-based technology and AppAssure into an important cloud offering. But he acknowledged that he’s suggesting an expensive proposition whereby Dell builds data centers for infrastructure customers who want to ship their data off site. Amazon has already staked its claim to that market.

“Amazon is getting pretty close to unstoppable,” Reichman said, and getting closer to an enterprise-class offering. “If Dell really jumped into it in a big way, like Amazon did, they could really define it.”

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