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Q&A: Dell Software CTO works to build the master model

Dell Software's CTO Donald Ferguson reveals his thoughts on cloud security, the Internet of Things and software design.

AUSTIN, Texas -- Donald Ferguson, CTO of Dell Software, is a bit like a Legos Master Builder. Ferguson is primarily responsible for assembling disparate technologies that form a seamless whole.

Except there is no instruction manual on how the pieces fit together; he and the engineering team must create the design to build the final structure. It's a huge and critical challenge for Dell Software but Ferguson's long career as a software architect and engineering fellow at large enterprise companies could spell the difference between success and failure for Dell Software.

Ferguson sat down with at Dell World 2014 last week to discuss Dell Software's future and how technologies like the cloud, mobile, security, software development and the Internet of Things will impact the company.

What does Dell do to secure software and hardware?

Donald Ferguson Donald Ferguson

Donald Ferguson: Secure hardware is something Dell already does. Dell doesn't worry too much about the security group. We talk about the differentiators. In lots of cases we have to rely on [the fact] that the software is secure. But one thing from Dell that is interesting is certification from the supply chain. That is a big part.

People are still hesitant to move to the cloud over security issues but we hear in some cases security is better in the cloud than on-premises.

Ferguson: I think that's true. In certain situations it can be better. One of the Achilles heels in security is complexity. The more complex an environment, the more attack surfaces there are. Cloud-based tools can be simpler. It's kind of like the fear of flying. My father wouldn't fly because he didn't trust the pilot. It's the fear of loss of control. It's the feeling of powerlessness.

Where's the real value for the Internet of Things in an IT shop?

Ferguson: There are some surprising things having to do with the environment and power. The gaiting factor in a lot of data centers is the use of power. There is optimization around power cooling, so environmental [sensors] will be one example. Is the temperature problem localized or more pervasive? One of the first IT management setups someone told me about was an application program interface to make the light on the blade server blink so if the blade goes bad you can tell. I think those kinds of things [will impact IT].

How do you design software for users?

Ferguson: As we evolve our products, we try to focus less on computers and managing applications [and make it more] user central. It's a theme. Sometimes the user is the IT admin but it's also making sure the design of what we're producing starts with the user internally.

What is your approach to integrate all the acquisitions you are making?

Ferguson: I don't think you try to integrate it all. You focus on a few important things. We have hundreds of products. We may integrate all of them at some point, but we focus on just three or four things, [including] customer pain points with endpoint management [with products such as KACE, Quest Software and SonicWall to provide secure mobile access]. We create tools to support people so they can manage hyper clouds. What are the three things they care about? Self-service, application reliability and identity governance. It's like Legos. Step one is to figure out what they are trying to build; step two is, do they have the right Legos and step three is building it.

From a corporate culture standpoint, are the software and hardware people working together better?

Ferguson: If I'm in an engineering meeting, almost without fail two-thirds of the people are from another Dell product group. Most of my 1:1s in technical meetings are the software group. From that perspective, I can't quantify the monetary [value]. In terms of collaboration, I worked at IBM for a long time and sometimes I'm meeting these people that are not my organization. It's gone quite well.

Are you using what you learned from IBM's efforts to transition Dell more to a software focus?

Ferguson: I was the chief architect for the IBM Software Group for years. First, there were significant software assets already in place such as Information Management Systems and Customer Information Control Systems and, also, it was software that people tended to think about there. Second, there are different [pieces] we had to put together at IBM including some big acquisitions like Tivoli and Rational. Even when they did smaller acquisitions, it required a center of gravity. We have to form that [feeling] and that's different. Here, it doesn't feel like that.

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