Can Dell, HP Compete for the New Data Center?


IBM and Cisco are on track to reshape the data center industry as we know it over the next several quarters, so it only makes sense to wonder how some of the other vendors expect to weather the storm.

The first name that comes to mind, of course, is HP, which could be on the verge of losing its traditional role as chief rival to IBM for data center server and storage technology. But the landscape is mixed for HP at the moment. On the one hand, it could find itself strengthened by Cisco's new Unified Computer System (UCS) by virtue of the two companies' long years of cooperation. At the same time, however, Cisco's decision to build its own blade server for the platform means that HP could be cut out of a significant OEM opportunity.

CEO Mark Hurd put the best spin on it for shareholders this week, telling them that the company's engineering and technology prowess will ensure that it has a role to play now matter how the industry shakes out. And it's true that the company has an impressive line-up of data center solutions -- augmented just this week with a new NonStop server for SMBs -- but we have yet to see an overall vision from the company, particularly when it comes to advancing technologies like cloud computing. If he's not careful, Hurd could find himself in the same position as Dell, a strong provider of server and storage technology but not a company that can be relied on to become a full-fledged partner in the new IT universe.

And speaking of Dell, how has that company responded to the gauntlet thrown down by Cisco? With the same approach it has take all along: Adopt a platform-agnostic attitude and attempt to sneak in its technology wherever it can. As I've said before, that may prove to be a profitable strategy, but it will relegate Dell to permanent second-tier vendor status, albeit with HP right alongside.

In the meantime, there will be more than just pressure from above for these two companies -- new threats are emerging from below. Companies like InteliCloud are using combinations of commodity and proprietary hardware and software to devise new cloud-based data center solutions that offer significant advantages over current brick-and-mortar designs. The company's InteliCloud 360 is essentially a data center-in-a-box that offers low cost, easy administration and virtually unlimited scalability. If the SMB market that would normally gravitate to Dell and HP starts to see more value in cloud computing, both companies could see themselves deprived of significant revenue streams.

As I've argued before, the days of simply providing hardware and software are over. Customers today need solutions, not stuff, from partners, not suppliers. It will be a difficult transition from the silo to the virtual environment to cloud, and the companies that offer the most hand-holding will be the ones to come out on top.