Dell Scoops Up Exanet After All

Dell picked up clustered NAS pro Exanet, finally signing the dotted line  after months of speculation. The US $12 million purchase follows reports that the company was going into receivership in December after failing to repay a US $10 million loan from Kreos Capital. Exanet was founded in 2000 and reports claim the company raised US $70 million in funding through four rounds, culminating with a US $18 million C series in 2007 and a further US $10 million injection in 2008.

Like Ibrix, which was acquired by HP under better circumstances last year, and ONstor, similarly  scooped up by LSI, Exanet was best known for clustered NAS software. Their ExaStore software, bundled with IBM and Xyratex hardware, put up impressive scalability and performance numbers. Dell will likely leverage this software with their own hardware as a NAS complement to their leading EqualLogic iSCSI line. Exanet’s Xyratex-sourced DX line of Fibre Channel storage devices is unlikely to be at all attractive to Dell.

Rumors of a white knight for Exanet were widespread last year. Fujitsu Siemens Computers was said to be the front-runner in May, and Exanet’s name came up mid-year as HP and LSI made their moves. Dell was apparently willing to put up some money to gain access to Exanet’s NAS technology later in the year but the company’s investors reportedly scuttled that deal. Plan B for the folks in Round Rock seems to have been to wait it out and secure the technology from the now-moribund company. If Dell keeps the doors open, Exanet’s R&D center will become their first such facility in Israel.

The acquisition gives Dell a retort when HP presents their invigorated Ibrix  line to enterprise customers. It is likely that Dell will follow HP with a software/hardware NAS bundle possibly featuring their PowerEdge blades. Back-end storage could come from many sources: Dell’s own PowerVault MD line, their EqualLogic PS iSCSI gear, or the Dell/EMC CLARiiON AX and CX lines. Exanet is known as a higher-end scale-out offering (think Isilon or HP’s PolyServe) rather than a general-purpose NAS.

Two key questions arise from Dell-owned NAS software:

  1. Would Dell reduce their reliance on Microsoft’s Windows Storage Server, as used in their PowerVault NX300 and NX3000 NAS devices? I suspect not, since Exanet is not a low-end product and Windows-powered NAS has typically sold into a separate market niche. Rival HP has certainly continued pushing Microsoft-powered gear since buying Ibrix.
  2. What does this mean for Dell’s relationship with EMC? The company only started selling the EMC Celerra NX4 last year, and a homegrown Exanet/PowerVault solution is not a drop-in replacement. Dell’s relationship with EMC continues getting deeper, and a split is unlikely in the near term.

At this point, this looks like a vote for Exanet’s technology and a reaction to HP’s PolyServe and Ibrix moves, not a statement against EMC or Celerra. Indeed, considering that Dell was merely investigating an OEM relationship before this all fell out, it doesn’t look like a strategic move at all for the company. Exanet will likely become a new line item, but Dell’s storage roster will look largely the same.