Following on from the announcement of Project APEX at the last Dell Technologies World in 2020, the company has confirmed the availability of APEX, the ability to consume Dell infrastructure as a service. Hot on the heels of yesterday’s HPE news, is the world moving to a scenario where all infrastructure will be purchased via the service model?
CAPEX vs OPEX
The disruption caused by the widespread adoption of the Public Cloud has caused traditional infrastructure vendors to take a different approach when selling their wares. It’s a topic we’ve been discussing for some time (see this post from 2014, this post from 2018 and this recent podcast episode).
With VAST Data getting out of the hardware business, NetApp introducing Keystone in 2019, and challenges in growing specific infrastructure market segments like storage, you’d be forgiven for thinking that every vendor wants to ditch their traditional hardware operations.
In reality, though, the public cloud represents a fraction of overall IT spend (as highlighted by Andy Jassy in a March 2021 email to AWS employees), and billions of dollars continue to be spent each year on infrastructure. The challenge for Dell, HPE and others is how to stem the flow of money from the capital to the operational model in the hands of the public cloud providers.
Rent vs Buy
The idea of leasing, renting or otherwise consuming services rather than buying them outright is well established in IT and the wider world. Take motoring as an example. Why save up or take out a loan when you can lease a car by the month? Why buy a mobile phone when you can pay monthly and own the handset at the end of the contract? For the customer or end-user, the process makes sense.
In the world of on-premises IT, the transition to an opex model represents an excellent deal for the vendor. Now costs are obfuscated behind service levels. Technology doesn’t have to be the best, just operationally efficient (see yesterday’s HPE article for some additional background). Revisiting the car analogy, who these days cares about 0-60 acceleration or top speed? Fuel economy is perhaps a consideration, but most buyers (or leasers) are more interested in features.
Let’s look at capex/opex from the perspective of the vendor. Sales teams are charged with engaging customers, getting that purchase, negotiating better deals for quarter and year-end, offering incentives and otherwise making every purchase a bespoke transaction. Three years later, the process starts all over again. The consumption model changes that focus entirely.
Now the challenge is completing the initial sale and offering good service, so the customer feels no desire to move elsewhere. Remember that the customer doesn’t own the platform, so migrating storage or virtual instances to another provider will come with a direct and quantifiable cost – every month of migration is a month of double payment at full rate to the old and new provider. The opex model becomes a regular income stream, with an opportunity for the vendor to sweat the asset, defer upgrades, or even use refurbished equipment – as long as the initially agreed SLAs are met.
Getting back to the Dell announcement, precisely what will be offered under the APEX banner? All APEX services will be made available through the APEX Console, a SaaS platform that allows customers to order and manage on-premises infrastructure. The console offers a self-service catalogue of services, with centralised billing and federated management.
Dell anticipates a “time to value” of fourteen days or fewer, for new service subscriptions and a target of five days for incremental capacity increases. Both would obviously be subject to working within the customer’s change control procedures. This process will be managed by a “customer success manager” assigned to each customer.
At launch, Dell has announced two primary services; APEX Data Storage Services, which sits under the “APEX Infrastructure Services” offerings and APEX Hybrid/Private Cloud, under the APEX Cloud Services group.
- APEX Data Storage Services is essentially storage on-demand for block and file protocols (object is coming soon). Customers choose from five attributes (protocol, performance tier, capacity, subscription term and location), then Dell or their partners deliver the infrastructure within the SLA period. The hardware itself is owned and maintained by Dell Technologies within the service level objectives agreed with the customer.
- Apex Cloud Services provide on-premises compute infrastructure deployed in either a hybrid or private cloud model. Customers choose from four parameters (offer type, instance type, instance quantity and subscription term) then receive the infrastructure resources within the SLA period. It’s not entirely clear here what Dell Technologies means by “hybrid” when the technology is on-premises.
Dell Technologies is also announcing custom solutions and the ability to deploy technology within Equinix data centres (coming soon).
At first glance, the Dell Technologies and HPE offerings look remarkably similar. Both will provide access to services through a console; both re-use existing technology, rebranded for the services-based model.
Does either solution reflect a leap forward in the way we consume infrastructure resources? In both scenarios, the services are sold with the simplicity of public cloud purchasing. However, the reality of deployment into traditional data centres is much more complex, with networking, security, and infrastructure services (e.g. DNS/DHCP) that have to be implemented alongside the “as a service” hardware.
Fundamentally, the only thing that has changed between the old model and the new is the purchasing method. Previously, IT organisations could have purchase or leased infrastructure, whereas now the option to pay by usage is included. However, it’s not a true consumption model in the public cloud sense, as the 12–36-month term doesn’t align with the public cloud model of on-demand. Businesses also till need IT departments to run all of these functions.
The Architect’s View™
I completely understand the reasons Dell and HPE have built out service-based portals for infrastructure purchases. Every aspect of the modern world is moving to the consumption model, from entertainment to transport and technology. HPE and Dell (plus NetApp and others) are following the trend and are in the process of a repackaging exercise to make their existing capital purchases more appealing to buyers choosing a consumption model.
However, what is the logical conclusion of this transition process? In other industries, the consumption model results in a race to the bottom where the only differentiator is cost. As vendors fight to compete, will there still be room for innovation and creativity? Are we on the brink of an era where the hardware implementation no longer matters other than to the vendor?
I suspect the answer to the latter question is firmly, no. Firstly, many businesses won’t care about hardware specifics, but those potential customers don’t care today either. Second, the devil is in the detail with IT. HPE might be hoping to simplify the provisioning process for their customers, but Dell Technologies doesn’t appear to be adding any operational value. Until we’re in a position where the entire on-premises operation resembles the public cloud, then customers are still effectively buying infrastructure.
Looking back over the last decade, we can see how infrastructure vendors have already attempted to deliver complete packages, first as CI (converged infrastructure), then as HCI (hyper-converged infrastructure). Both models have merits and disadvantages. Until we reach the “cloud in a box” model, then there will be room for innovation, new products and solutions. By then, of course, the public cloud vendors may well have already cornered the market with their equivalent on-premises solutions, which can already do the “cloud in a box” model on-premises model today.
Related Posts & Podcasts
- #181 – Is There a Future for Storage Infrastructure Companies?
- #198 – Software-Only Storage Vendors
- #199 – Quantifying Data Storage Innovation
- Dell Power and the Challenge of Modernisation
- Exploiting Technology Inflection Points
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