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How virtualization helped Dell make a pandemic pivot

Danny Cobb, fellow and vice president of engineering for Dell Technologies’ telco systems business, remembers his company cruising into early 2020: Kicking off a new fiscal year with its operating plan in place, supply chain nailed down and factories humming; people coming into the office each day to the usual routine of looking for parking spots and taking laptops down to the cafeteria.

Then came March, and the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic hit U.S. shores. In the course of one weekend, Dell pivoted to having more than 90% of its workforce working from home. That meant a dramatic shift in its network needs and operations – one that was only able to be accomplished so quickly because of virtualized infrastructure.

“We had to completely reconfigure all employee access, security and the paths to our most important enterprise applications, and we did that in a weekend,” Cobb said. “We could have never done that without a virtualized world — and I mean virtualized in the broadest sense of it.” For example, Dell was able to expand capacity with software-defined technologies and beef up security by changing policy as opposed to changing out hardware, he added.

The abrupt shift to work-from-home “forced us to entirely redefine what our edge was,” Cobb said. “Our edge used to be the ports coming in from the internet into the company. Now, it was wherever there was an employee, that was an edge. You couldn’t do that in a physically defined world, it had to be a software-defined world, a virtual world.”

Cobb credited the company’s design and management of its hybrid cloud network for the flexibility that enabled it to pivot rapidly to adapt to pandemic conditions. He said that Dell has designed its infrastructure “to be containerized, to be able to shift demand geographically or according to application, to prioritize things that are critical, things that are really important, [and] things that, if you have to wait an extra second for that email to send, no big deal, that’s okay, we’d much rather have the real-time response in the supply chain.

“We’ve purposely designed our hybrid cloud to work that way and be able to scale up and down the resources that we apply to any given business opportunity at any given moment,” he adding, going on to say that such cloud-native agility is becoming increasingly important not just under the specific conditions of the pandemic, but as enterprises and telecom operators navigate a new world that includes 5G.  

In addition to leveraging its cloud-native capabilities to adjust its own operations, Dell drew directly on that experience to help its customers do the same.

“What we were able to do very quickly was to hold up the mirror and say, ‘Here’s what we did,’” Cobb said. “Here’s how we rolled out …  end-user capabilities over a weekend. Here are the policies that we had to change. Here are the playbooks that we followed. Here are the logistics problems that we handled and how we essentially fanned out our supply chain out to sites across the world and managed configuration remotely, and those sorts of things.” Some things were already in place, and sometimes Dell found gaps in its implementation and fixed them. “Any time we learned something, we literally used [it] as a learning opportunity and then a teaching opportunity with and for our customers: ‘Here’s what we did, here’s what you might want to do,’” Cobb continued.

The global demand to get users online at home with sufficient computing power and connectivity affected more than where Dell’s employees were working and its own operations. It impacted Dell’s entire business – and in a broad sense, the company’s level of digitalization and connectedness drove how it revamped the plans with which it had entered 2020. Suddenly, infrastructure orders such as servers and storage weren’t as high a priority for customers as making sure their users were online and connected. In that environment, the most important thing Dell could bring to the market was mobile computing, Cobb says. How did the company rethink how it would operate the rest of the year? By drawing on digitalized and connected data.

“We did dozens of business reforecasts to try to figure out, how should we operate our company? What expectations should we set to our investors?” Cobb recalls. “All of that meant that we had to go in and essentially pivot our logistics and our supply chain capability from the plan that we had set up, knowing what we knew at the beginning of the year, to something that said, ‘Hey, what if the entire world has to work from home, not just for a couple of months, but maybe for a year? What about school from home? What about all the other things that involve customer demand — enterprise demand, consumer demand, educational demand — for our mobile computing platforms, our laptops?”

A complete reforecast of the company’s business in terms of its logistics and supply chain was enabled through a massive amount of telemetry information, he added: What material was where, when it would show up, where things were within factories, what pieces were in and out of stock, which things could ship today, tomorrow or the next day, where they were going in the world and what was the best way to get them there.

As Dell leveraged its digitalization and data to navigate the changed business environment, its customers across the spectrum were doing the same. “Anybody who had digital transformation effort going already suddenly accelerated it,” Cobb says. “They found themselves in a new situation where they had to suddenly be able to consume an entire new operating model, a new set of technologies to keep their business up and running. And in order for that to be successful at the scope that they wanted or the scale that they wanted, or the speed that they wanted, it had to be driven by data. You couldn’t suddenly double the size of your operations staff because you needed to double the SD-WAN capability or your firewall capability or your remote access capability.” Companies that may have started the pandemic at 20, 30 or 40% digitalized began asking themselves how they could get to 80%, Cobb says.

“The more digitally native you were, probably the better you came out of this situation in a more agile way, in a more automated way, than maybe if you weren’t,” he said. “That could have turned into competitive advantage for many people.”

It seems to have worked out that way for Dell. The company reported record full-year revenues for 2020, and Tom Sweet, Dell’s CFO, said that the results were driven by “operational focus and expanding synergies across Dell Technologies and our ability to adjust to win in any environment.”

Looking for more insights on how telecom and tech companies are leveraging 5G, MEC and virtualization in their own businesses? Check out RCR Wireless News’ editorial report and our accompanying webinar featuring Dell Technologies, Ericsson and Rogers.

ABOUT AUTHOR

Kelly Hill
Kelly reports on network test and measurement, as well as the use of big data and analytics. She first covered the wireless industry for RCR Wireless News in 2005, focusing on carriers and mobile virtual network operators, then took a few years’ hiatus and returned to RCR Wireless News to write about heterogeneous networks and network infrastructure. Kelly is an Ohio native with a masters degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley, where she focused on science writing and multimedia. She has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, The Oregonian and The Canton Repository. Follow her on Twitter: @khillrcr

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