Dell's success is usually chalked up to its marketing savvy rather than innovative technology. Chief Technology Officer Kevin Kettler says, however, that the company has played a pivotal role behind the scenes, helping to shape emerging technologies to meet customer needs. Kettler discussed Dell's impact on technology.

Q: What role does R&D play at Dell?
A: The model we've chosen to pursue is to focus on customer-driven innovation. We have well over 4,000 engineers worldwide who are working on product development and research leading into product development. We think there's a pretty strong investment there.

Q: To what extent does Dell influence the development of the core technologies that go into its products?
A: One of the best-kept secrets around is what exactly our influence is in this area, and I consider it very extensive. Dell has core teams that are working [with silicon designers] on where we think customer requirements are and where we think innovation needs to occur in basic silicon design.

We are down at very low levels with chip set architectures, chip set partitioning, processor interfaces, processor architectures. Right now, we have discussions going on on products we won't see produced until the 2009-2010 time frame. We have a very regimented process and approach. We will typically drive the requirements based on what we are generating from our direct customer touch.

Q: Can you give an example of how Dell has influenced the development of a technology?
A: The most recent example would be PCI Express. Dell was a very early adopter of the concept of needing to move to a new, higher-speed bus interface for a lot of different reasons. We brought our expertise on how do you put that into a system, how do you do board layout, how do you ensure that EMI capabilities are not being exceeded, how do you ensure that cross-talk is handled. That's one that we've participated in from its earliest infancy the whole way through to delivery of PCI Express capabilities literally through all of our product lines.

Q: What emerging technologies are you most excited about that are likely to appear in Dell products for enterprise users over the next 12 to 24 months?
A: One of those is the work we're doing around Blu-ray disk, [an] emerging standard for next-generation optical disk drives. We've been working with a number of partners in defining the fundamental technology, what it is, how it's going to operate.

We're also excited about the delivery of technologies in the multi-core area around processors. Not just multi-core processors but multi-core coupled with some of the virtualisation technologies and techniques.

Q: Why did you back Blu-ray and not the competing HD-DVD standard?
A: When you look at the capacity of the drives, Blu-ray provides significantly more headroom than what HD-DVD does. We consider Blu-ray a pretty major change, and we wanted to make sure we had a technology that was going to have some longevity around it, especially given the investment in transitioning customers to a new format for all of their content.

Q: What synergies do you see between multi-core processors and virtualisation?
A: Multi-core is putting multiple processors on a single die to create a single footprint. Today, we think of virtualisation as a single box with virtualisation software that gives the impression of that box serving multiple operating environments. With multi-cores, if I partition up my system using virtualisation software, I can start to dedicate cores to different environments. So it expands the scope of traditional virtualisation technologies.

Q: Where has Dell led the market in adopting new technologies?
A: We have historically been the absolute leader in delivering new memory technology to the marketplace. Other technologies have been more unique. If you look at our notebook products, for example, we've put together some pretty novel approaches for handling hard-drive protection that we call StrikeZone. It's a mechanism that protects [the disk drive] when you drop a notebook. Other things, like our battery technologies, and particularly our charging techniques, are things we created, developed, designed and delivered to the marketplace.

Q: To what extent does Dell help design the specifications surrounding the emerging standards it supports?
A: There's an amount of the architecture definition around PCI Express that was created by Dell engineers. Another example is a specification called Disk Data Format [DDF]. One of the people on my team wrote that specification and brought it forward to the Storage Networking Industry Association.

DDF is in response to customer feedback. A customer would build out a Dell server or external storage array and might have a set of disk drives with their company's data on those drives. [Then] they might migrate to a different machine. What was at issue was that each of the five controller manufacturers was using proprietary formats to lay out the data and tables associated with the formatting on the drive. So [Dell technology strategist] Bill Dawkins heard this and went off and wrote a specification on how that architecture should fit together and has driven it through a standards body. It's been accepted, and we're starting to see silicon from some companies.

At the end of the day, when customers plug and play drives, they won't run into the potential for that data to be unrecognised and mis-interpreted as a blank drive and formatted over. So it's a huge win. It's direct, customer-driven innovation.

Q: Where do you see technology moving in the next three years?
A: One of the key shifts that is occurring is that with the addition of blades and the need to manage blades, it's produced a razor focus at Dell around the systems management infrastructure and how do we move from a systems management infrastructure that has traditionally been very proprietary, very monolithic in nature to something that is going to provide greater flexibility to manage across this mass of distributed resources that exist out there. We have a vision and approach that we think will move the ease at which the enterprise can be managed, deployed and serviced going forward.

What I've described has been a desire for customers, but the industry hasn't been rallied around it. That's the key thing that's happening right now. We're doing a lot of work getting people excited about plugging into an open infrastructure like that, and that's going to lead to a ton of innovation. Ultimately, if we do our job well, customers will benefit.