It is just over a year since Dell completed its acquisition of Force10 Networks, but the company already has big plans to challenge Cisco's dominance in the data centre.

According Dario Zamarian, general manager of Dell's networking division, enterprise IT customers are finally opening up to the prospect of alternative network providers. This is because new data centres require new ways of thinking about networking.

In particular, opportunities are arising out of the notion of distributed core architecture, and the ability to have blades that connect the servers and storage into the fabric of the network, as well as the general move towards network virtualisation and software-defined networking.

Zamarian, who was previously vice president of systems and network management at Cisco, said that by approaching the market from the perspective of virtualisation, converged infrastructure and private cloud, there is an “insertion point,” whereby Dell can offer not just networking for the sake of it, but networking for a new kind of data centre design.

“Three or four years ago, arguably the time was not right and the customer would have said, why would I switch from Cisco? Now you have a new architecture. Not only are we doing different things on the technology side, we can show you how an end-to-end approach gives you much better economic value,” he said.

Dell's proposition hinges on two key principles: the concept of a converged physical and virtual network, and the notion of a distributed core architecture that allows customers to scale horizontally. While this may sound very similar to the 'fabric' architectures proposed by the likes of Cisco, Brocade and Juniper, Zamarian insists that Dell is in a unique position.

“We don't have a multi-billion dollar install base to protect. If you're going in with an aim first and foremost to provide value at the application level, and to manage the data centre holistically, we are in the business,” he said.

“If you're a pure networking player you're not in that business. So now you have two whammys – you don't have the whole technology composition to do it, and if you are a pure player of a certain size you also have an incumbency that forces you to go slow because you don't want to reduce your gross margins.”

Integrated systems

Dell's networking ambitions feed into the company's overall focus on integrated systems. Zamarian said that more and more customers are now demanding this “lego model,” which allows them to buy their storage, servers and networking as a pre-integrated box and scale out according to their needs.

“If you have a finite amount of cycles and you're a team manager, the last thing you want to do is spend time connecting the cables and having to change a VLAN or change a configuration,” he said.

“Let us save time and money for you so you don't have to worry about this, and if you need to scale it because a single part may need to serve say 500 virtualised desktop users or a certain number of users, then you can scale it.”

Zamarian dismissed the notion that integrated systems are the enemy of “best of breed”. He said the integrated systems that Dell offers as part of its Active Infrastructure are essentially made up of best of breed components, such as the company's 12th generation servers.

He said that if a customer has a strong opinion about using a Cisco switch or an EMC storage array then Dell will make sure that the architecture works together with its servers and help that customer to stitch the different parts together.

However, for customers that are driven by the outcome of the overall architecture rather than the specifications of the product, Zamarian recommends taking advantage of Dell's integrated systems.

“Take our PowerConnect switch with our EqualLogic storage array – the PowerConnect switch will recognise the EqualLogic array and configure the PowerConnect switches in a way that the storage traffic is privileged. If you don't have both pieces – the networking piece and the storage piece – you cannot do this kind of 'Better Together' innovation,” he said.

“It requires the technologies and engineers on the PowerConnect switching side and the technologies and engineers on the EqualLogic to work together to solve and remove the barriers, otherwise the customer will have to do it themselves.”

Zamarian said that, for Dell, “open” means allowing the customer to swap components from wherever they want, but still providing end-to-end data centre support so that the customer has peace of mind.

“The word open stands for, let us match the needs we have right now, but should you need to do something different in the future, you can,” he said. “That's the idea of being an open provider, and not being a one trick pony.”

Between Cisco and HP

Zamarian said that, when it comes Dell's position in the enterprise IT market, the company sits somewhere between Cisco and HP. Although Cisco does provide an integrated solution in the form of its Unified Computing System (UCS), Zamarian believes that there is too much inflexibility.

“Cisco needs to bring together somebody else's storage to give you the whole solution. Sometimes that may work, sometimes it doesn't work. We believe that the customer will be better served if we provide a complete solution,” he said.

Meanwhile, though HP has phenomenal set of assets, Zamarian believes that it actually has too many, and this causes unnecessary complexity and cost for the customer.

“I don't think they serve the mid-market and the inter-level enterprise as elegantly and simply as they should, so we think we have an opportunity, given our brand and our legacy, to go after a better approach,” he said.

Zamarian concluded that Dell does not want to see networking innovation for the sake of it. Rather, it wants to use its acquisition of Force10 and software assets such as Quest to innovate within the broader context of an end-to-end architecture.

He gave the example of the 40-Gigabit Ethernet switch for its PowerEdge M1000e blade system, whose creation was put into motion almost as soon as Dell has acquired Force10.

“The point is you would not have done that product in a standalone company. Why would you create a blade for somebody else's chassis? But now it is part of Dell, it was the most obvious thing to do,” said Zamarian.