Dell's Force10 acquisition spawns another data center network strategy

Dell's Force10 acquisition aims to create a converged infrastructure solution for the data center network with Dell's server and storage products.

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Server vendor Dell announced plans to acquire data center network specialist Force10 Networks and outlined a converged infrastructure strategy that will take on the likes of Cisco Systems and HP.

Although Dell has a line of low-cost PowerConnect switches and sells enterprise class switches through OEM agreements with Brocade and Juniper Networks, enterprises typically turn to Dell for servers.

The company has worked to change that by building a larger architectural strategy based on acquisitions of storage vendors like Compellent and services companies like Perot Systems. But selling a third-party vendor's network gear as part of an integrated, converged infrastructure solution just wasn't compelling enough, given the integration of networking and server technologies that Cisco and HP have done with their Unified Computing System (UCS) and Virtual Connect technologies, respectively.

"When you look at Intel buying [network silicon vendor] Fulcrum Microsystems and Cisco building servers, there's a pretty clear trend here that networking and computing are coming together," said Zeus Kerravala, vice president and distinguished research fellow with Yankee Group.

Dell announces new data center architecture with Force10 acquisition

As part of the Force10 acquisition announcement, Dell executives outlined a converged infrastructure strategy: Virtual Network Services Architecture (VNSI). VNSI is built upon three "pillars," according to Dario Zamarian, vice president and general manager of Dell Networking.

The first pillar is "managing from the edge." This refers to servers and storage that are attached to the network. “The edge is where the applications and data are, so we believe intelligence on the network should be driven from the edge as well. Tying network policies to applications allows our customers to scale data centers much faster from an operational standpoint, especially with a highly automated approach from Force10," Zamarian said.

The second pillar is "flattening the network," a notion familiar to network engineers. Most networking vendors are pushing customers to abandon the traditional three-tiered data center network—core, aggregation and edge—in favor of a flatter network approach. Networks need to be more "fluid and flexible" with faster, denser switches in order to support high-performance applications and virtualization, Zamarian said.

The third pillar is "scaling virtualization," Zamarian said. VNSI will enable enterprises to build networks that can grow with rising demand for applications and services.

These pillars of VNSI fit well with Force10's new distributed core data center network switch, the Z9000, a 2 rack unit (RU), 2.5 Tbps switch with 128 10 Gigabit Ethernet ports. Force10 has claimed that enterprises can use multiple interconnected Z9000 switches to build a distributed data center network core that is flatter and more scalable than networks built with larger modular switches.

Force10 and Dell are both major suppliers to Facebook, and they have developed their products to support the needs of data centers with the scaling and performance requirements of Facebook and other Web giants, Kerravala noted.

"It's pretty well known that Dell redesigned its servers for Facebook," he said.

With Force10 acquisition, Dell is a data center network vendor, but enterprises want more

Dell's Force10 acquisition will boost the networking element of its data center strategy, but that doesn't address the wiring closet. Many enterprises prefer a vendor that can offer both data center and campus/access switching.

Currently, Dell covers campus switching through its own PowerConnect line, and OEM deals with Aruba Networks for wireless LAN products and Brocade and Juniper for switches. But those partnerships might be threatened in light of the Force10 acquisition. Dell executives said the company remains committed to those OEM deals where there isn't overlap with Force10, but given Brocade and Juniper's commitment to innovating in the data center with QFabric and VDX, those agreements appear doomed.

Ultimately, enterprises that buy network gear from Dell will want a single network operating system for data center and campus switches, said Rohit Mehra, director of enterprise communications infrastructure at IDC. Whether Dell unifies Force10's FTOS operating system with its PowerConnect switches remains to be seen.

In the meantime, Dell may continue shopping around for networking vendors to beef up its campus networking business. "I'd go buy Extreme Networks," Kerravala said. "The big volume in networking is at the edge."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor.

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