People visit a Dell booth during the 4th Digital China Summit in Fuzhou, China, on April 25, 2021.
Photo: Visual China Group via Getty Images

When hardware companies try to be software companies

Protocol Enterprise

Welcome to Protocol | Enterprise, your comprehensive roundup of everything you need to know about the week in cloud and enterprise software. This Thursday: Dell and HPE hope for a software spark, why Spotify is happy to be locked into Google Cloud and more boardroom trouble for Box.

Also: Don't miss our upcoming Protocol | Enterprise event, "Data in the Enterprise: Risk and Opportunity" on May 11 at 10:30 a.m. PT/1:30 p.m. ET. Protocol's Joe Williams will interview PayPal's Kristie Chon, Melissa Goldman of JPMorgan Chase and Phil Venables from Google Cloud on the challenges of protecting data and dealing with ever-changing regulations. RSVP now to save your spot.

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The Big Story

Service game

After spending nearly a decade with their heads in the sand, an older generation of IT companies is starting to embrace new thinking. Now all they have to do is to convince their current customers to stick around.

Dell and HPE, once the two of the most dominant companies in enterprise tech, are now putting software front and center. This week they separately introduced new data and infrastructure management software in hopes of bringing cloud-like capabilities to more traditional operating environments.

Right now, AWS and the other cloud providers are in the position Dell and HPE once enjoyed because they were much better at building software for people who build software at a time when software was eating the world. However, the new announcements are also a reminder that "cloud" has come to mean two things: off-premises servers and storage rented from another company, and a completely different infrastructure operation model designed around flexibility, ephemeral computing and pay-as-you-go billing.

Dell's new software-focused and consumption-oriented strategy is called Apex. "Essentially, with Apex, we're in the process of creating the new Dell," senior vice president of marketing Sam Grocott told ZDNet this week.

  • At first blush, Apex looks a fair amount like the old Dell. It's designed to allow customers to use Dell hardware in new and different ways, but it's still designed around Dell hardware.
  • Apex gives customers several different options for letting Dell manage that hardware on their behalf in their own data centers, papered over by a layer of management software that promises to let those customers focus on managing applications.
  • It can be deployed inside "private clouds" (more correctly known as on-premises data centers) or "hybrid clouds" that span self-managed data centers and cloud providers through VMware Cloud Foundation.
  • Dell also introduced Apex Data Storage Services, which promises a cloud-like data storage service that runs inside existing data centers on Dell hardware.

HPE already went down a similar infrastructure-management path with HPE GreenLake a few years ago, and this week it unveiled a data-oriented expansion of GreenLake with new "cloud" services that really will help companies manage on-premises data equipment.

  • "This is the opening round. This is a very different company moving forward," HPE's Tom Black told CRN, unconsciously echoing Dell while introducing software designed to encourage customers to keep buying HPE hardware.
  • The Data Services Cloud Console is software-as-a-service for managing your own on-premises storage, although it supports "edge to cloud" functionality, which is a nascent concept.
  • And the announcement of the HPE Alletra system briefly broke my brain with its description of a big black box designed for private data centers as "cloud native."

In both of these cases, Dell and HPE are liberally borrowing from that second definition of cloud outlined above in attempting to convince customers they can have the best of both worlds: modern enterprise tech's best practices on hardware they can reach out and touch.

There's one big problem with that. The companies that invented those modern best practices are working on the same idea, and will always be able to promise easier hooks and links to the cloud services they own and operate.

  • AWS Outposts, Azure Stack and Azure Arc, and Google Anthos extend their cloud services into on-premises data centers, and that's an interesting pitch for potential customers that want a hybrid cloud IT strategy with a real public cloud component.
  • The startups that will become the next big businesses over the course of this decade are building around public cloud services, and those startups will take business away from older companies that can't match their speed, reliability and capabilities on self-managed hardware.
  • That leaves Dell and HPE with a pool of existing customers who want to maintain their existing data centers while being cloud-focused, following the mindset of Target CIO Mike McNamara: "If we didn't have [data centers], I don't know if I ever would have built them, but we have them."

The big providers are pulling out all the stops to meet those companies where they are with hybrid cloud services, especially after the pandemic accelerated the need for nimble IT options. Some of those customers — distrustful of three of the richest companies on the planet — will likely want to remain partners with Dell and HPE, and those folks will likely welcome these new software-first services.

But companies under pressure to modernize their approach to IT and reduce their dependence on self-managed hardware could find new software management consoles too little, too late.

— Tom Krazit


DevOps and the Alternative Cloud provides insight into the capabilities and priorities developers expect from cloud infrastructure providers. In a market where hyperscalers dominate, a small band of alternative cloud providers — which includes DigitalOcean, Hetzner, Linode, and OVHcloud — is having an outsized impact.

Learn more

This Week On Protocol

With friends like these… : Microsoft and Salesforce own an enormous amount of enterprise software real estate, especially after Salesforce's big deal for Slack last year. Protocol's Joe Williams looks at how integrations between the two companies and smaller SaaS players could be an increasing point of contention.

Radio Google: Spotify made a decision several years ago to put all its tech infrastructure eggs in Google Cloud's basket, which was a little surprising at that stage in Google's evolution. In an interview, Tyson Singer of Spotify outlined how Google's eagerness for customers actually worked in Spotify's advantage, and why lock-in might not be so bad.

The non-compete trap: Thanks to its Seattle roots, Amazon continues to be one of the few tech companies that enforces non-compete clauses. Protocol's Megan Rose Dickey told the story of Charlotte Newman, who is still working for Amazon amid a sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuit thanks to the threat the company will enforce the clause.

Five Questions For...

Neha Sampat, CEO, Contentstack

Pick one piece of consumer or business software you can't live without.

I use Alfred, the app launcher and productivity tool for Mac. This tool is basically a supercharged butler that makes you a superhuman while computing. Among other shortcuts and automations, I use Alfred to launch apps, build shortcuts to launch and search websites, as a shortcut to find everything in my Google Drive, to paste snippets of content or paste from my copy history and for simple calculations. Alfred makes Spotlight for Mac virtually insignificant. It's become a tool I can't imagine living without.

What was the first computer that made you realize the power of computing and connectivity?

Well, given that I'm a Xennial, I remember the computer I assembled with my brother using parts acquired from RadioShack and a magazine catalog when I was leaving for college. When I had access to my first dial-up internet connection, billed by the minute and taking two minutes to connect every time, I realized the power of what was at my fingertips. I loved that computer and would disassemble it, repack it and check it as luggage to and from my parent's house on holiday and summer visits every year with a few boxes of floppy disks that contained my academic life's work. What's incredible is that the first generation of the iPhone (from over 10 years ago) was more powerful than that bulky desktop computer.

Will the pandemic usher in a new era of remote working, or will we all come back together when it is safe to do so?

We certainly learned a lot last year about how to be effective at communicating, selling and collaborating from a virtual workplace. While there have been some cost and efficiency gains from learning to operate remotely, the reality is that most of us crave human interaction, miss each other and love water-cooler conversation outside of our homes. The spontaneous ideas that may be sparked on a one-on-one or group walk to the local coffee shop are not easily replicated over a Zoom call. I believe that we will come out of the pandemic with a healthy balance of in-person interaction and remote collaboration. Having proven that we can be productive while giving employees some flexibility will likely be one of the best gifts from our experience in 2020.

What is one book that changed your professional mindset?

There are so many! One that came to mind recently was a book (and accompanying workshop) that helped me take the leap back into entrepreneurship. "Crucial Conversations" helps people have critical conversations when the stakes are high. I happened to take this workshop when I was working on exiting my corporate job to focus on my startup(s). The book gave me a framework to approach a few important conversations that led me to where I am today.

Who do you look to as a mentor?

Mentorship is about giving someone the gift of your time and your knowledge. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have had several great mentors throughout my career. They are an essential part of my success, and have guided me through many pivotal moments. But they never got so "busy" that they forget to share the gift of knowledge.

One of my mentors was an entrepreneur who told me: "Don't think about what you can get from someone or something. Think about what you can give." This mentality has become the cornerstone of how I live and run my life — my family, friendships and companies. Not only has this thinking positively affected each of those areas, but it's benefitted my community and the broader world.

Around the Enterprise


DevOps and the Alternative Cloud provides insight into the capabilities and priorities developers expect from cloud infrastructure providers. In a market where hyperscalers dominate, a small band of alternative cloud providers — which includes DigitalOcean, Hetzner, Linode, and OVHcloud — is having an outsized impact.

Learn more

Thanks for reading — see you Monday.

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