Two may be company, but you need a crowd of at least three to make interoperability work.

Dell’s announcement Monday that it would join Microsoft and Novell in their controversial partnership was the missing piece the deal needed. As much as we like to think of operating system and virtualization technologies as relatively hardware independent, interoperability only becomes an issue as your IT infrastructure grows, and that includes the number of boxes in your data centre. Dell is in the box business, but you could also think of it as a vendor of ice cream cones. The Microsoft-Novell deal allows Dell to not only offer more flavours of ice cream, but ensures that a scoop of one flavour won’t immediately fall off when tacked on top of a scoop of another flavour.

That Dell is already a Red Hat partner means the company can offer more choices, but it might also lead to some anxious e-mails from its existing clients. If the Microsoft-Novell efforts lead to an easier-to-manage heterogeneous environment, shouldn’t those Red Hat Dell customers make the switch? If so, what is the real value proposition for offering Red Hat for future Dell customers? Dell would probably respond that it’s up to users to make that choice (and up until now, most of them have clearly chosen Red Hat) but Dell’s services organization will be judged in part by its ability to advise and influence enterprise customers.

Now that Dell has gotten in on the act, the absence of IBM and HP looks all the more conspicuous. If HP is still concerned with helping its customers become an “adaptive enterprise,” the ability to manage both Windows and Linux would seem like the kind of challenge it would want to meet. IBM, which likes to think of itself as an open source leader, may be biding its time until Microsoft and Novell have something more substantial to demonstrate to the market. Both firms, however, will be compelled to prove they can help customers deal with cross-platform computing as effectively as the Microsoft/Novell/Dell side, whatever the trio comes up with.

In some ways, Dell is the most logical firm to make the first move towards Microsoft and Novell. Unlike HP and IBM, which are both significantly increasing their software assets, Dell is more focused on its core hardware, and particularly the technologies to virtualize it. With virtualization comes, in theory, increased utilization, which in the long run should mean more hardware, even as some enterprises consolidate their infrastructure to create a service-oriented architecture. It could be that HP is hoping VMware will one day offer the kind of features to render the Microsoft-Novell deal redundant, or that IBM intends to fine-tune its middleware to address these challenges. Dell needs software to run properly on its boxes, so joining Microsoft and Novell only gives it a marketing vehicle with which to expand its customer base.

Microsoft, Novell and Dell may be joining forces for a common cause, but they don’t have the exclusive rights to that cause. Like it or not, team interoperability includes us all.

sschick@itworldcanada.com

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