While Telecom is not a new vertical focus for Dell Technologies, I would argue it has not been a priority in the past. From my perspective, that changed this month at Dell’s virtual telecom event on June 9th. Not surprisingly, the underlying theme was 5G’s ability to bridge the unconnected and accelerate enterprise and service provider digital transformation. Dell believes it can deliver agility and reduce operational and capital expenditures with an open, software-defined, cloud-native, data-centric approach. I attended both the keynote and breakout sessions and would like to share my insights.
Chairman and CEO Michael Dell kicked off the event speaking to how Open RAN plays into the company’s industry standards DNA and how its disaggregation will be a game-changer for 5G deployments. I agree with Mr. Dell’s assessment that building open telecom ecosystems and increasing competition in the cellular infrastructure market will lower deployment and access costs, especially for rural, underserved areas. However, this will drive integration complexities that Dell and its systems integrator partners will have to address. The integration of cellular infrastructure is a high bar, and incumbent cellular infrastructure providers, including Ericsson, Nokia, and Samsung Networks, have delivered turnkey solutions. Additionally, Open RAN optimizes for cost savings and not necessarily performance. It will be interesting to see how Open RAN matures over time.
Dennis Hoffman, SVP and GM of the telecom systems business unit, and his team members spoke to new products, solutions and services to support Dell’s broad push into the mobile network operator space. From a product perspective, Dell is focused on core, edge and RAN with purpose-built, pre-integrated edge computing platforms, new telco-grade servers that meet the environmental demands of telecom environments and workloads and partnerships with software providers. At the event, Dell spoke of its plans to knit all of this together in the form of two strategic initiatives – its Open Network Ecosystem and Cloud-Native Infrastructure Foundation.
Two strategic initiatives
First, the Open Network Ecosystem aims to provide tested, full-stack solution reference architectures for 5G core deployments with partners Affirmed and Nokia, edge services with partners Intel, RUCKUS CommScope and Red Hat, and an Open RAN solution that integrates Mavenir’s 5G Stand Alone software platform with Dell servers. Private cellular networking is a hot topic these days and one that I write about frequently on Forbes and other sites. Dell spoke on a high level about its edge services initiative supporting private wireless deployments, but I look forward to learning more detail in the future. To round out the ecosystem initiative, Dell announced a lab effort to provide a carrier-grade testing environment to support multi-vendor configurations and CI/CD pipelines, and an incubator for the exploration of new platform and service offerings. I believe Dell has chosen a great set of partners to address the cellular network continuum. The lab should provide the necessary support for its operator customers.
Second, the Dell Cloud Native Network Infrastructure Foundation aims to deliver open software solutions and provide mobile network operator flexibility and choice. Dell’s Project Metalweaver is a software platform designed to enable zero-touch provisioning, remote diagnostics, telemetry and simplified, cloud-native lifecycle management. Under the hood, Project Metalweaver leverages an API-driven infrastructure that promises to provide ease of integration, intent-based automation to simplify provisioning, modularity for choice and a federated architecture to facilitate overall network deployment. While the name of the offering conjures up images of Sci-Fi movies, it will be compelling for operators if it can deliver on its promises.
The serviceability of both initiatives is critical. Thus, Dell plans to lean into its global IT services footprint to support telecom customers. It is an impressive network of 60,000 professional services employees, spread across 170 countries (complemented with a significant number of parts depots and distribution centers). Indeed, Dell's services capabilities are on par with traditional cellular infrastructure providers. Still, it will need to invest in field service personnel with deep telecom experience like some of Mr. Hoffman's recently hired direct staff.
Dish Wireless and Vodafone wins
Customer wins are always proof of a solution's viability, and Dell can point to two announcements that closely followed its telecom event. First, Dell is partnering with Dish Networks on several initiatives to help the new U.S. mobile network operator entrant deploy a cloud-native, 5G network. These plans include private 5G cellular wireless network solutions, multi-access edge cloud platforms, Open RAN deployments and co-development of market solutions that include Dell 5G enabled laptops with eSIM provisioning capabilities. I like the end-to-end focus on infrastructure, services and devices. Dell has a massive enterprise install base, which should also be instrumental in bringing Dish into private cellular networking opportunities.
Second, Dell announced a partnership with Vodafone to support the operator's desire for supply chain diversity. The deal should help lower operational and capital cost structures in Vodafone’s rollout of 2,500 Open RAN sites in the United Kingdom. Through the integration of COTS (common off the shelf) Dell EMC PowerEdge servers with Wind River Studio, Dell will provide a cloud-native platform that can host Open RAN applications and a virtualized RAN offering from Samsung. Vodafone is a big win for Dell, given the operators' commitment to Open RAN. It could be a highly visible showcase for Dell to demonstrate the effectiveness of its newly minted product, solution and service plans.
Like many public cloud providers, Dell now sees the telecom segment and 5G as an incredible opportunity for incremental revenue. In the past, I believe Dell viewed 5G as just another way to sell a bunch of servers and storage equipment to a new set of customers. That is not a recipe for long-term success, given the integration needs and complexity of mobile networks. I like what I learned at Dell's telecom event about its plans for ecosystem creation, partnerships and reference designs. Dell has a formidable competitor in HPE, who has a deep bench of talent and has been addressing the telecom space for a considerably longer time. However, I see all of the right pieces in place for Dell to make a serious run at taking its share of the 5G opportunity.