With the acquisition of Force 10 Networks today, Dell is finally signaling its intentions to compete at all levels of the enterprise, which is going to have a profound effect on how IT organizations manage major vendors going forward.
While not possessing a huge installed base, Force 10 Networks has developed a reputation for switches that not only scale, but also serve as a foundation for delivering other applications, such as an application firewall.
Historically, Dell has been a strong partner of Cisco. But once Cisco moved into the server space with the launch of its Unified Computing System (UCS), it was really only a matter of time before Dell returned the favor in the networking space.
The implications of the acquisition of Force 10 Networks, however, go well beyond a tit-for-tat war among major IT vendors. The real issue is the growing importance of the networking layer as a foundation for managing information flow across the entire data center. As servers increasingly become commodity compute engines, we're seeing more intelligence being embedded into the networking layer. As Brad Anderson, senior vice president for the Dell Enterprise Solutions Group, put it today, the network is now a critical component of intelligent data management in the data center.
Dell, however, is still light years behind Cisco and Hewlett-Packard when it comes to the integration of networking and servers. Even IBM is struggling to catch up after selling its network business to Cisco many moons ago, only to turn around and recently acquire Blade Network.
Of course, none of this has been lost on Intel either, which just acquired Fulcrum Technologies, a provider of processor technologies used in switches. It may take a few years, but it's easy to discern that with the advent of multicore processors, the definition of what a switch does and what a server does is rapidly converging. In fact, we already see that happening with the prevalence of virtual switches in the data center today.
One day in the not-too-distant future, we'll see data centers in a box. In the meantime, the major vendors are positioning themselves to logically deliver end-to-end data centers where all the elements are managed under a common framework.
Some may find that troubling in that they perceive working best-of-breed vendors in a particular technology category as the way to go. But once that category essentially no longer exists as a distinct entity, it becomes increasingly harder to resist the tide.