Dell tries to buy into virtualization again, with another storage vendor

Compellent offers good SAN management, weaker VM support than 3Par

Dell Computers is trying again to buy its way into the top tier of vendors able to bid credibly on what analysts expect will be tens of billions of dollars worth of virtualization and cloud-computing projects during the next few years.

Dell said this morning it is offering about $876 million for Compellent Technologies -- a storage vendor that focuses on fine-grained control of data on storage-area networks using fibre channel connections, expanding the iSCSI SANs Dell got by purchasing Equallogic in 2008.

Compellent's differentiator is the ability to do block-level storage management, rather than storing chunks of data according to volume. Blocks, in addition to being lower-level and quicker than Logical Unit Number (LUN) storage, can handle chunks as small as 512MB at a time.

Compellent's HSM -- Enterprise Manager -- moves data around according to how frequently it's accessed, not how high-priority it is in the minds of storage managers.

That, combined with the relatively small data blocks, make it a more efficient user of limited disk space -- which is increasingly important in any virtualized environment, but especially those with thousands of virtual servers or virtual desktops , where every server and virtual PC is stored on expensive SANs.

Compellent also has a deal with VMware that allows it to bundle VMware's vCenter Site Recovery Manager (SRM) software with Compellent's products to make it easier to do disaster-recovery planning (and disaster recovery) on virtual machines by replicating data from them and storing the backups off-site.

Compellent software also moves data associated with specific VMs when the VMs themselves are moved, and supports VMware, Citrix and Microsoft's VM migration.

While it offers thin provisioning for new VMs, its abilities in virtualization are not as great as 3Par, which both Dell and HP wanted primarily for the thin-provisioning ability that could be adapted to both giant VM farms and giant virtual-desktop rollouts.

Compellent also doesn't hit the high-end of the performance scales like 3Par.

So Dell isn't getting the best of the virtualization-supporting storage vendors, but it's certainly not losing out completely.

The question is how far into the high end Dell wants to push, especially if its own servers so far can't compete directly with the higher-performing versions from HP and, increasingly, Cisco.

Both HP and Cisco have rolled out unified systems that act like blocks of computing, storage and networking power customer can grab and plug into quickly growing virtual environments.

So far Dell has not been able to match that level of integration, which becomes increasingly important as the size of the virtual landscape grows larger.

For Dell and its customers, Compellent may end up being a benefit, but if it's virtualization they're interested in, it's in no way a compelling addition.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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