A Tour of Dell’s Dashing Innovation Labs

Imagine walking through a technology version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, and it would look a lot like Dell’s collection of engineering labs. Thanks to my recent adventures as a Dell Enterprise Innovation Day participant, I spent the day sneaking a peak at Dell’s version of the next everlasting gobstopper. For me, this was seeing the research and development work performed in the Thermal Lab with honorable mentions bestowed upon the advanced engineering being jointly developed with eBay in the Evergreen Lab.

I’ll admit that much of Dell’s innovations were completely new to me; they seem to keep quiet on a number of fronts. Holding an in-depth tour with traditional media and bloggers is a good way to help get the word out, and I’ll do my part to share the portions that I found interesting. Is this beginning of renewed evangelism and social engagement from Dell after the Tech Center (DTC) went dark? Perhaps. It appears they want to break out of the box shippers shell and further educate enterprise clients about all of the crazy smart stuff going on in their labs, which is considerable.

Experience Design Group and Design Lab

The enterprise technology and solutions portfolio is rather deep, although I’m more familiar with other vendors in this space and had to play a little catch up. My focus has traditionally been on Dell’s XC appliance fueled by Nutanix, the VRTX, and the FX2. These are game changing entries into the modular compute category with various market size targets. Many folks would love to have a VRTX in their small-to-medium business, or perhaps their home lab. :)

The Industrial Designers, UI Designers, and Usability Engineers we met with were all focused on the next 2-5 years out. Most of them referred to the products showcased in the Design Lab by their code names, having never learned their marketing names. By the time a product is getting ready to ship, the designers have already been spending large amount of efforts on the next generation.

dell-briefing-everyone

From a prediction standpoint, USB-C was talked about quite a bit as being the next huge thing for compute platforms. This makes sense due to the flexibility, speed, and safety features included in the specification. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for every manufacturer to jump on it immediately, but you should seek it out for your next-generation compute devices.

Engineered Solutions

Another stop was in the Engineered Solutions Lab, focused on creating platforms and stacks for clients. The value proposition here is to abstract away much of the complexity involved with standing up a solution. It seemed similar to the idea behind VCE’s Vblock product and in many ways it was. Clients can purchase scalable architecture for Hadoop, SAP HANA, or even a Microsoft Cloud Platform System (which I’ve seen referred to as the cloud-in-a-box). It also sounded like Dell would pitch in from a pre-sales perspective to help scope, size, and fit the solution to meet client requirements, or perhaps find a preferred partner in the region who could. It doesn’t hurt that Dell has a global supply chain to tap into, either.

dell-labs

Everyone we met on the team had an aura of passion, pride, and excitement around the products and solutions they were working with. Each engineered solution we stopped to tour was presented by a knowledgeable and friendly engineer. They were rather candid about the work they were doing, providing user stories to highlight some of the winning takeaways from their stack. Minus ten cool points for using Windows XP on their 4×3 dashboard of monitors, though. :)

dell-labs-monitors

Data Center Solutions (DCS)

The final few stops involved visiting The Secret Cage of Secrets. At least, that’s what I’m calling it. This is where Dell is able to pivot upon their proven PowerEdge platform to meet requirements for statistically smaller shipments, such as 10,000 units. During our tour, we saw a modified pizza box server that had its DVD drive removed to house a few extra SSDs. It was a custom modification but remained under full support from Dell. The blending of customization with a proven hardware line is a nice way to drive down MTBF rates with knock-off manufacturers, which can be pricey when your business is trying to stand up an infrastructure for an initial seeding.

dell-labs-cage

The Thermal Lab was my absolute favorite. It had fish tanks filled with immersion solutions that cost a fortune – such as $300 per gallon – due to its complex boiling points and non-conductive nature. The engineering team had done relatively little to a standard PowerEdge platform to prepare for immersion. The major challenge was combating the release of particles from the cable insulation material. I believe the tank featured below has been running for the better part of a year, and because it’s a closed system, the liquid is both constantly purifying itself as it condenses and returns to the tank, and is able to cool the components to roughly 67 degrees Celsius regardless of the power consumption of the compute. It was incredibly fascinating to watch.

dell-immersion-server

Thoughts

Dell has a wide array of slick projects under their roof, from materials testing, sound and frequency labs, thermal innovations, and architecture wizards. Many of their technology focuses were unknown to me and I’m hoping that Dell continues to evangelize their spectacular work in the data center field. While not all of the innovations witnessed during the tour will reach the light of day, it’s great to view the possibilities being explored within the R&D arms of a large, tier 1 manufacturer.

The Thermal Lab sparked my imagination the most. Air cooling will reach a point where the amount of KWs (Kilowatts) consumable in a single rack will be the bottleneck. In some cases, it already is, and the data center cannot provide enough CFM (Cubic Feet per Minute) of airflow to dissipate the BTUs (British Thermal Units) being ejected into the hot aisle quick enough. With advanced immersion technologies, it’s possible to put a MW (Megawatt) or more of equipment into a rack, assuming you can pump, filter, and exchange the fluid in a timely and redundant fashion. That’s some amazing density ideas and will flip data center design on its head!