Networking VARs Prep For Data Center Blitz

Traditional networking vendors are making no bones about it: They want a major stake in the data center, and they plan to take it.

Over the past few months, key networking vendors including Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard's ProCurve Networking by HP and Juniper Networks have rolled out data center-focused products, looking to capture a piece of a lucrative market that by many accounts measures $14 billion in data center hardware and services sales.

While the data center game won't appeal to the bulk of traditional networking solution providers, those that are willing and able to move upstream will find significant opportunities to build solutions that help tie networking in with storage, virtualization and other hot data center technologies.

"Everybody's validating that the data center right now is what's driving businesses," said John Ross, vice president of solutions architecture for solution provider GreenPages. "It's not about selling more ports anymore. The data center is finally becoming what we wanted it to be."

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And what VARs want that data center to be, Ross said, is a central location for hosting applications, distributing workload and pushing data, all while leveraging an intelligent network to run systems.

John DeRocker, vice president of sales and vendor management for solution provider Nexus Information Systems, said VARs had better take notice of the burgeoning opportunity, as many potential customers are earmarking budget for building out data centers at the expense of other IT purchases.

"More money is being spent in the data center, not outside of the data center," DeRocker said, adding that roughly 50 percent of his company's business is data center-related. "If you don't take the data center down, you're going to lose in 2009. You have to own the data center. All budgets are being pushed into the data center. That's where the money is."

Traditional networking vendors are pushing in the data center direction and plan to bring some of their top-level VARs along for the ride.

No networking player has been more vocal about its data center ambitions than Cisco, which over the past two years has evolved its Data Center 3.0 vision into a solid roster of data center-ready products that may, in the very near future, even spawn a blade server offering. The first real fruit of Data Center 3.0 is the Nexus line of data center networking switches that debuted in January 2008, a high-powered family of boxes that fuel consolidation and virtualization of centralized server, storage and network resources.

And just this week, Cisco added three new data center switches to its Nexus line, hitting both the high end and low end of the data center switching spectrum with an 18-slot chassis, the Nexus 7018, and a smaller 1U model with the Nexus 5010.

Next: Juniper And ProCurve Get In On The Action

Juniper, too, has made its data center intentions known, late last year unveiling its Data Center Infrastructure Solutions play, a new network architecture that combines the EX 4200 virtual chassis switch, the SRX network and security services gateway, the EX 8200 data center switch for 10-Gigabit Ethernet and the MX-series Ethernet router to connect across data centers. Like Cisco's offerings, Juniper's data center focus is designed to aid in data center consolidation and server virtualization.

Not to be outdone, HP ProCurve this week also threw its hat into the data center ring, pulling the curtain off of five new data center networking switches and a data center management platform. ProCurve's new 6600 Switch Series represents Hewlett-Packard's first dedicated data center networking portfolio, including five 24- and 48-port high-density top-of-rack Gigabit and 10-Gigabit Ethernet server edge switches.

ProCurve also rolled out its Data Center Connection Manager management software, which helps server and network administration teams work together to enable policy-based provisioning of network and server resources in an automated and centralized fashion.

For solution providers, the new face of the data center can present both new opportunities and new challenges, especially for VARs evolving to add data center technology to their existing networking practices.

"The evolution of virtualization technology is leading the network and data center conversation in the same way that the voice and data convergence conversation was going a few years ago," said Bob Cagnazzi, CEO of solution provider BlueWater Communications Group. "The data center and network conversation has to take place, and it's an excellent play. This is a train that's going down the track."

It's up to the channel to educate customers on the solutions possibilities the new data center technology brings.

"This opens up doors and gives everybody someone new to talk to," Cagnazzi said, adding that a virtualization conversation lets traditional networking VARs make a data center sale. "Virtualization is an all-encompassing strategy. You would hope that it would create new revenue streams."

Jim Kavanaugh, CEO of solution provider World Wide Technology, agreed.

"Our perspective is, it's a big opportunity and we're continuing to invest in both the hardware and software sides of these holistic data center solutions," he said about Cisco's continued charge into the data center and its possible entrance into the blade server market.

Cagnazzi says he saw the data center networking boom coming. About 15 months ago, he acquired a company focused exclusively on data center services. That enabled BlueWater to be more nimble and armed it with the resources necessary to tackle the data center head-on without having to wade through a new set of vendor partners and different rules of engagement. For BlueWater, that added a whole new skill set to the fold that BlueWater staff would otherwise have had to rush to learn.

"It's more difficult for people to grow it organically," he said. "There's a steep learning curve."

NEXT: Making A Play For It All

DeRocker, who works closely with Juniper, said he's been telling the vendor for two years that "they have to move into the data center, that's where they are really going to play."

He said his customers prefer a manufacturer to tell both the networking and data center story, giving them an all-in-one source, especially as virtualization continues to take hold. Representing both data center and networking solutions from the same vendor, DeRocker said, gives solution providers the ability to add a solid level of backbone bandwidth while also offering SAN and backup solutions to support virtualization.

"If you can't get the data center where it needs to be, but you can get the network running, that doesn't help much," he said. "You need to make the play for it all."

And while the learning curve may be steep, being able to paint a full network and data center picture for potential customers ups the possibility of a sale, said Chad Williams, public sector manager of solution provider Matrix Integration.

"Bringing this end-to-end story will definitely add revenue to our bottom line," Williams said. "Other competitors were coming in and participating in the data center sale, taking revenue from our pockets and also getting an 'in' into the network."

Williams said the way data centers are being designed and configured nowadays is taking a different direction, and solution providers have to grow into it or get left in the dust.

"When you look at the data center as a whole, virtualization and bandwidth are driving this transition," he said. While it may take a couple of years for the data center networking trend to officially take hold and "trickle down," Williams said he's sure the opportunities are coming, as customers look for more robust solutions.

GreenPages' Ross added that as budgets tighten and virtualization and consolidation continue to save money and drive performance, networking vendors' charge into the data center lets solution providers build a strong ROI story for customers.

"Virtualization and data center practices need to present a true ROI," he said. "Customers are saving money and increasing performance."

The challenges, however, remain, and solution providers have to adapt their knowledge to embrace the shift.

"The majority of guys are Cisco partners with infrastructure practices," Ross said. "But we're not able to sell switches; people just don't invest in ports anymore. We have to come from the application and server side to show the ROI."

Solution providers also have to change how they engage customers to get a leg up on the deal and make inroads into the data center, Ross added.

"The challenge for most partners will be to change the conversation," he said. "Stop talking to the network guys, stop talking to the infrastructure guys and talk about the applications, because that's where the real revenue is here."