Picking at the word salad of Dell EMC World

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The word salad at Dell EMC World in Las Vegas last week included many of the likely suspects: hyperconvergence, infrastructure, Internet of Things (IoT), digital transformation (with variants like IT and business transformation), cloud and its variants (public, private, hybrid, native), security and its variants (data, network, at rest, in flight), appliance, and, of course, the all-weather “solutions,” good for any season.

Ready to repair for the evening, perhaps to try to digest the first day’s lectures, we were all about to get up to leave. The mistress of ceremonies had just half-excused the room, and many people jumped at the chance. I was rather slow getting about it and so happened to be there still when, tacked on at the end, was the best act of the day: OTTO Motors. OTTO was featured as a Customer Spotlight with a sorry slot right at cocktail hour. Their head of IT, Greg Jacobs, battled on nobly. And we lingerers got to hear.

OTTO is a division of Clearpath Robotics, a robot specialty company, which makes robotic vehicles for land, sea, air and industrial applications. By limiting the problem domain to industrial applications, where controlled, predictable environments allow for simpler algorithms than those used, say, for navigating across a city, OTTO’s engineers were able to create highly functional self-driving freight vehicles. It turns out there are many hectares of industrial space — warehouses, factories — with a great need for such vehicles, and OTTO has taken off. The company offers two products: the OTTO 1500, for loads up to 1,500 kilograms (1.65 tons), and the OTTO 100, which can carry up to 100 kilograms (220 lbs). The company’s total solution package includes auto-charging technology (the vehicles drive themselves to the chargers when needed) and OTTO M, an automated autonomous fleet manager — the “brain behind the material handling brawn,” according to the company’s website — that runs OTTO fleets.

Jacobs cast his technology as “IoT for Industry” and “Industry 4.0” — more word salad, perhaps — but the videos were pretty cool (they’re up on the site, if you want to take a look). He called Dell a “strategic partner” and noted all the Dell gear the company uses. In its R&D, OTTO runs fleet simulations on 350 virtual machines, for example, refining software that does event monitoring. The infrastructure is grounded in Dell PowerEdge servers and blades, a VMware ESXi hypervisor layer, vSphere clients, and EqualLogic storage.

So, we were rewarded for our patience by getting to see an example of Dell technologies in practice. Though writ small, the story pulled together what otherwise might be loose lettuce leaves into a clear picture of a solution that works.

A persistent question has hovered over Dell since its enormous acquisition of EMC, one that haunts every large merger, and that is, will it work out? Will the synergies envisioned by the architects be realized? Or will they get in each other’s way?

I came away convinced that in general, the businesses have sorted themselves out. Yes, there are still integration issues, but mostly like has teamed up with like, and many managers are now working with their correspondents in other locations. On my flight back to Boston from the show was one of the mangers I spoke with, Joyce Mullen, vice president and general manager of Dell’s OEM and IoT business. Mullen was heading up to the Hopkinton campus of the former EMC to spend time with team members there.

And speaking of Dell’s OEM and IoT business, you might be wondering what that is, and whether “OEM” and “IoT” even belong in the same sentence. Dell will not be selling store beacons or room thermostats anytime in the near future. The company supplies computing, networking, and storage to other companies (OEMs), which integrate these systems into their own chassis with sensors and other elements. One choice Mullen’s team has made is to go after only commercial IoT applications. That means, nothing like Amazon’s Echo and Alphabet’s Nest. Specific targets include transportation minus automobile (so, think rail, freight haulers, tankers), industrial automation (like OTTO), energy, building automation and “cold chain” (the supply chain for frozen goods).

Mullen pointed out that many of these supposed vertical applications are actually horizontal. For example, temperature control cuts across many verticals. One of the issues facing this business is scalability. “When we sell the second one of any solution, we get very excited,” she said. Some of this problem will be solved by standards, which are not yet set in stone. But the EdgeXFoundry, managed by the Linux Foundation, is just cranking up to address standards for industrial IoT edge computing. Dell has already contributed code to this open source project. So far, 50 companies have joined the effort.

Dell did a lot of work to make a coherent narrative out of a litany of enterprise products, putting, so to speak, a tasty dressing on the word salad. On the morning of the third day, Jeremy Burton, the company’s chief marketing officer, played ringmaster to a show about the Dark IT Knight, an evil villain who was trying to bring down the city’s systems. In that role, Burton (who was working double time, doing his own job plus relief duties for Dell Vice Chairman Jeff Clarke, who had a family emergency) spun product managers in and out of a multimedia show that included slick video shot at the supposed Dark IT Knight’s headquarters. One product manager even arrived in full cape and skin-tight suit, suspended from the ceiling.

Dell does most of its endpoint announcements at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. So, there wasn’t much of that, but what there was focused on artificial (AR) and virtual realities (VR). Frank Azor, vice president and general manager of Dell’s Alienware and XPS lines, talked about use cases he expects to develop. “VR is like theater,” he said. “AR is like a smartphone.” The comparison highlights the fact that VR is immersive, all encompassing (like being in a theater), and therefore something you would engage in deeply, but only periodically, while AR is something you might have with you at all times.

Jake Zim, senior vice president at Sony, which partners with Dell, showed off consumer VR applications, including one that puts participants in the same position as Philippe Petit, who traversed between the two World Trade Centers by tightrope in 1974. The video showed people freaking out because they didn’t want to take a step out onto what looked like the abyss with a tiny rope stretched across it, but was, in fact, the floor.

Ryan Pamplin, vice president at Meta Company, regaled us with the company’s AR glasses, noting that by 2020, AR glasses will look like regular glasses, and people will be able to wear them anyplace. Although VR in consumer will be big (e.g., for movies, TV, and live sports), Pamplin noted, many commercial applications will arise to address education (e.g., anatomy and art history), medical (e.g., imaging and surgery simulation), training (e.g., space missions and professional sports), and retail (e.g., automobiles, kitchen cabinets).

Toward the end of the last day, I met with Rahul Tikoo, vice president and general manager of the Precision Workstation business. He told me that Dell’s has the “broadest range of AR/VR-ready systems” in the world and then went on to describe numerous applications that use them to render complex, 3-D landscapes. One involved researchers at the University of Southern California using VR to desensitize soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Another entailed a Duke University team using AR to get paraplegics to identify what they thought phantom limbs were doing so medical technologists could more accurately calibrate prostheses.

All in all, there was plenty of nutrition in the word salad. You just had to put on a nice dressing, toss it and look for the tasty bits.

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