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Dell, 3PAR, and VMware's tangled partnership web

Dell made waves this week with its announcement that it will acquire 3PAR, makers of high-end virtualized disk arrays. Waves in the storage industry, anyway — though I found myself wondering what ripples, if any, might reach the server virtualization world, specifically, the world inhabited by VMware.

Immediately, the talk was of how Dell partner (and VMware parent company) EMC would react. Dell’s acquisition of EqualLogic in late 2007 made things rocky between the companies behind the scenes, at least for a little while. The companies revised their OEM/reseller agreements, and Dell stopped referring prospects to EMC for high-end array sales. All along, EMC and Dell continued to insist that their relationship was as strong as ever. And they’re saying the same thing now, even though Dell has acquired a company that clearly competes with EMC.

But then again, as an analyst put it when we were discussing the deal yesterday, “there are ways to remain neutral publicly, but behind the scenes what can happen is very different.”

Some users, for example, already report having experienced contention between EMC and Dell following the EqualLogic deal, with VMware caught in the middle. One user in the public sector on the West Coast told me recently he stopped participating in his local VMUG after he said competitive strife between Dell / EqualLogic and EMC “made life difficult”.  The group had had a big Dell / EqualLogic membership, and wanted to bring in reps from those companies to speak, but the user said EMC was “moaning about bringing in someone seen as as a competitor — it was all very passive-aggressive.”

By now, Dell / EqualLogic seems fully entrenched in the VMware fold as the original shock of the EqualLogic deal has worn off. Dell / EqualLogic was one of the ‘design partners’ VMware said it sent a vStorage API SDK prior to other players in the storage market. But despite the fact that the SDK reportedly contained a ‘fourth primitive’ for integration of thin provisioning, and 3PAR was among the first in the storage market to popularize the feature, 3PAR was not a part of that early-access group. This may ultimately make little difference to end users, as most storage vendors (including 3PAR) by now have received the code. But early access for ‘design partners’ has given rise to the perception in some corners of the industry that VMware is capable of playing favorites in subtle ways.

Meanwhile, some industry-watchers have predicted that the 3PAR deal will make the rift between Dell and EMC widen even further, until there is a public split in addition to underground animosity. “Slowly but surely, Dell will wean its way off the EMC storage machine,” wrote Gary Orenstein at GigaOm. “Not immediately, but eventually.”

Of course, similar predictions were made after the EqualLogic buy, and it has yet to come to pass. But it’s also increasingly clear that the “Balkanization” of IT vendors is continuing, even accelerating, and that server virtualization vendors have a fine line to walk when it comes to navigating these choppy waters.

Take, for example, the announcement by HP of a $250 million investment in technology development with Microsoft, just a few weeks after VMware CEO Paul Maritz participated in a cozy webcast announcing a new joint venture with EMC CEO Joe Tucci and Cisco CEO John Chambers.  HP denied it, but its subsequent alignment with Microsoft was widely seen as a direct response to VCE. Another big player, HDS, has also aligned itself with Microsoft, even OEMing Microsoft’s System Center Operations Manager (SCOM) as the basis for a forthcoming cloud computing “stack” offering.

Meanwhile, Oracle has already shown it expects users to run applications on only Oracle’s own Xen-based virtual machine (Oracle’s suggestion for users who don’t want to run more than one server virtualization environment to manage different applications? Move everything to Oracle VM). What’s to stop similar lines in the sand from being drawn around VMware and Hyper-V, as the infrastructure players open new competitive battlefronts as they build their ‘stacks’, and begin stepping on toes they haven’t stepped on before?

Nothing is for certain, but the issue warranting attention from virtual server users as these deals unfold is is the question of whether the zeal for soup-to-nuts “stacks” among large IT vendors — most of which are marketed as a stepping stone to the private cloud — will have an effect on their choices about which hypervisor to use with their preferred underlying hardware. It’s not that EMC will cease supporting Hyper-V if users require it, or that HP will kick out VMware completely. But I wouldn’t be surprised if infrastructure vendors are already beginning to steer prospective buyers toward the advantages of their special integrations with one hypervisor or the other, and it’s easy to imagine the subtle ways this could ‘make life difficult’ for virtualization users caught between shifting alliances.

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