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Dell: Future "Project Ophelia" PC HDMI dongle to add 4G, could be free on mobile subscriptions

We sat down with Steve Lalla, Dell’s Vice President and General Manager for the company’s Cloud Client computing, division to discuss about the impetus behind the company’s recent acquisition spree and how Dell plans to merge the disparate worlds of clients and cloud.

Steve was in charge of Dell’s monitors, printers and projector division and is the architect of Dell’s acquisition of Wyse last year (which he is going to take over from May onwards) and Credant Technologies in December 2012, both of which went a long way to strengthen the company’s commitment to the enterprise segment.

The Wyse acquisition (now Dell Wyse/Cloud Client Computing), Lalla said, is less about the client business and more about the end-to-end vision. “We didn’t buy a thin client business, we bought a software company” he added, before hinting at future investments from Dell as the company looks to “building its software asset profile”.

Wyse takes industry-standard stacks or protocols and “bringing differentiated capabilities” to them like “better management, security and performance especially on low latency connections” not only from the data center perspective but also from a client, on-site perspective.

To hammer his statement home, Lalla highlighted the fact that only five out of the 200 engineers working at Wyse were actually focusing on hardware. “Although there is a great portfolio of products, the real value of the company is in software and in the IP”, he added.

Later in the interview, he would substantiate that by giving more details about Project Ophelia and how thin clients are only one of the many outlets identified by Dell at the edge of the network. (ed : Ophelia is the name of a fictional female character in Shakespeare's Hamlet)

Wyse, Lalla underlined, was a great acquisition however you look at it, acquisition or integration-wise. It shipped 1.4m units in 2012 with an annual growth of 20 per cent over the past few years. Every year, he said, things are going to get more entrenched in the way companies deploy “compute” with no sudden cliff but a more subdued gradual transition to “data centre compute” from “edge compute” (i.e. less fat clients, more thin clients).

He also noticed that the trend is shifting from verticals such as health or banking to really large enterprises and SMBs as well who see that as an alternative to deploying traditional compute.

That only represents a CAGR growth of seven to eight per cent growth or a $3.5 billion business by 2016. That is small change compared to the estimated near half-a-trillion dollar represented by the traditional PC business.

However, it is getting everyone to think about how compute should be done and what the relationship between the user and the data is. The latter is getting increasingly centralised in the data centre; your personal data, enterprise data, application data.

More importantly though, Lalla added, “we’re looking at the end point from a user perspective rather than from a device standpoint. Different users have different equipment needs at different times to access personal or company data; Phones, tablets, home PC, TV, thin clients, projectors etc.”

The next step change would include how to make deploying alternative technology easier. Another way of thinking about it is, if there is a piece of glass that displays data, then it can be considered. Project Ophelia spouses this line as it allows displays and televisions to become terminals.

Dell, Lalla quipped, also worked towards answering a very important question: “How do I architect my back end?” Traditionally, the company currently uses reference architectures for verticals like education, large enterprises, SMBs. They are meant to reduce the fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) when clients have to consider a group of users within a business using thin clients and desktop virtualisation technologies. And this has gone very far as companies look for more granularity.

Earlier this year, Dell announced the DVS Entreprise Active System 800 for VMware Horizon View at a VMWare partner conference which it considers to be the next step in simplification. A rack-and-stack, networking and storage and server, preconfigured and pre-integrated solution optimised for desktop virtualisation.

To progress that business, Lalla added, Dell need to make it easier for our customers to consume it. There’s also an as-a-service alternative as well for small businesses from about $30 per seat per month (or around £250 per year), an option that removes capital expenditure. It makes starting your I.T. much easier.

Looking how to use the intellectual property from the Wyse acquisition across Dell’s portfolio, gave rise to some interesting discussions. From the tantalising prospects of getting your presentation beamed via a projector without any PC connected to that of getting a printer to deliver documents by accessing a PocketCloud account.

Cloud Client Computing is one of the few technologies at Dell that runs across the four pillars of the company; Client, Infrastructure and Enterprise business units, Software and Services. That allows Dell to deliver a wealth of solutions and not pigeon-holing its customers.

Dell’s VP then talked about Project Ophelia, a HDMI dongle that it introduced earlier this year and which will go on sale later this year worldwide. Lalla said that it differs from other offers on the market because it is a good, solid desktop replacement solution with 128-bit encryption, with Pocket Cloud, Viewer and Receiver. It is, in essence, an access point and is another way of enabling alternative computing environment, moving the centre of gravity towards the user away from the device and the equipment, emulating a similar trend embraced by businesses moving away from Windows towards “the cloud”.

When probed about how Dell’s approach will be different compared to Cisco (and its ill-fated Cius initiative), Lalla said that the approach is fundamentally different. Ophelia is a conduit to a desktop, a thin client and is no desktop replacement although it runs Android Jelly Bean. Security is also something that will get companies interested as well as the price, well under $100.

Lalla also revealed that Dell is looking to work with mobile phone operators in the US (and perhaps elsewhere) because there is a very different go-to-market path with telcos and could potentially be free on subscription. He stated that they are working on getting a "4G version of the Ophelia soon for round two".

Ophelia will be on sale by itself rather than bundled with any Dell services and will be available on business and consumer channels, without any changes in the “Dell Wyse” branding.

Dell is also building an app for Windows Phone, Android and iOS that allows you to remotely take over the Ophelia dongle with a mini keyboard and mouse control. No Blackberry app initially though and definitely no Windows RT version of Ophelia as Lalla highlighted the fact that Microsoft has a fairly “strict and defined set of requirements”.

Dell is also betting on it to be more intuitive front end so that it requires a very gentle learning curve.

Ophelia has received very positive feedback from a wide range of customers ranging from education, B2B and entreprise to retail. The bottom line is that there will be an increasingly growing number of ways one can access his or her data, focusing more on what the user does. It is, Lalla said, less about managing the device and more about managing the individual.

Like for Dell Inspiron and XPS PC, Ophelia also comes with the trio of Wyse applications, Pocket Cloud, Viewer and Receiver which allows the client to be accessed from a range of devices. There has been more than 4.5 million downloads of Pocket Cloud apps already.

Devices will still remain important as you progress the industry forward but managing the person and data will become increasingly important. Building that capability set, an integrated multi-platform management ecosystem, is in some ways, the Graal of the tech industry.

Lalla then steered the discussion towards “Freezer”, which he says is the next iteration after thin and zero clients. Freezer is essentially a client that runs in a browser and doesn’t keep any trace; kill the session and everything disappears. That technology will debut globally in Q3, about the same time as Ophelia.

He also touched on Credent, another major acquisition from Dell and how it moves away from device encryption towards file encryption instead where whatever file is stored is encrypted with the key management being the critical area. As data becomes even more fluid (Lalla at that point mentions “liberate data”), it needs to be centralised and sent to devices securely.

"If there's one thing you need to take from what we're trying to do, it is that we want to provide our customers choice", Lalla added, both on the front and backend as all customers are different.

That is what, he believes, will allow Dell to grow that part of the industry over time by providing with a plethora of end-to-end options to customers, ranging from the data centre to touch points.

"The user experience" he added "is not predicated by the device being used by how well thought out the entire experience is."

Desire worked at ITProPortal right at the beginning and was instrumental in turning it into the leading publication we all know and love today. He then moved on to be the Editor of TechRadarPro - a position he still holds - and has recently been reunited with ITProPortal since Future Publishing's acquisition of Net Communities.