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In March 2009, Cisco Systems staked its claim in the blade server market with the launch of its Unified Computing System, a bundled solution set bringing together networking, servers, storage and virtualization under a single management console. Cisco CEO John Chambers, at the time, proclaimed UCS would "change business models forever" by ushering in a new generation of data centers optimized for virtualized resources and the cloud.
What UCS also changed was the face of the Cisco channel. While some partners initially questioned how Cisco would compete against market incumbents like IBM, Dell or HP, others viewed the launch of UCS as one that would accelerate their growth in both the compute and virtualization space, while broadening their overall data center play.
Fast forward to 2013, and both the number of Cisco's data center-focused partners and Cisco's standing in the blade server market have soared. In February, IDC dubbed Cisco the third largest vendor in the blade server market with a 15.3 percent share, coming in behind IBM with 21.7 percent and market leader HP with 44.7 percent.
"We went from nowhere in blades to No. 3 in blades in the matter of a few years," said John Growdon, senior director of Data Center Sales, Worldwide Channels at Cisco, in a recent interview with CRN.
Cisco's UCS business, meanwhile, has flourished into a $2 billion business with over 20,000 customers in the span of four years.
In addition to an aggressive marketing and sales push by the Cisco team itself, Growdon attributed the networking giant's ability to hit the ground running in the blade server and unified compute market to solution providers.
"Cisco very aggressively went out to the world to take this new technology to market," Growdon said. "We worked very closely with the channel and our channel partners around the world to become proficient with this very quickly and in a very focused fashion, and the channel grew along with us as we did this."
And grow it did. Cisco's first-generation data center specialization for partners -- called data center networking infrastructure (DCNI) specialization -- attracted roughly 600 solution providers globally when it was introduced in 2008. Today, that number has grown to 1,700 partners, with Cisco's partner program also having evolved to include new specializations for data center architectures, fabric and unified compute technologies.
For some Cisco partners -- namely, those deeply rooted in networking without much of a data center play -- selling UCS presented a learning curve. Both Growdon and Cisco partners compared the transition to selling virtualization and unified compute solutions as the transition the Cisco channel faced when it started to sell VoIP. But for partners that did take the leap with UCS, it seems to be paying off.