Cisco Combining Blade Server, Switching To Target Data Center

All eyes are on Cisco Systems as the networking behemoth is rumored to have plans to plant its flag in the blade server market on March 16 as part of its overall "unified computing" strategy.

Cisco is holding an event Monday to officially unveil unified computing, a strategy where blade servers would fit snuggly. While Cisco has been tight-lipped about its specific blade server plans, sources have told since December that the unified computing strategy will tie together some sort of blade server architecture, code-named California, with Cisco's networking technology and server virtualization. The blade server component is expected to be built on Intel's Nehalem processor.

Cisco CTO Padmasree Warrior, in a blog post earlier this year, outlined Cisco's unified computing strategy as an architecture that links all data center resources into a common architecture that reduces the barrier for entry for virtualization of the data center.

Doug Gourlay, Cisco's director of product management for data center solutions, said Cisco is working toward a "system in balance" powered by a universal I/O and a universal network. He said there are three factors needed for a next-generation data center, all of which are key components of Cisco's unified computing strategy: a purpose built, high-performance network; tighter coupling between the compute, storage and connect elements; and a single management system for virtualization and policies.

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In a blog post on Thursday titled Building A Better Blade Server -- Network Style, Gourlay said flat out that "Cisco is NOT building a blade server." Gourlay wrote that what Cisco is "doing with unified computing is so much more than just a blade server that even using terms like blade server in the same sentence with unified computing doesn't do the architecture justice."

Sources told that Gourlay is half right. Cisco is not building just a blade server, it is building a data center automation platform that includes a blade server, an Ethernet switch and a management console as a full solution play. Sources said the components that make up the unified computing solutions won't be unbundled or sold separately.

Cisco partners are eagerly awaiting what comes out Monday and most are excited about the business opportunities Cisco's unified computing strategy could create.

"We have benefited historically in Cisco continually growing the markets and business they're in," said Bob Olwig, vice president of corporate business development for World Wide Technology, a St. Louis-based solution provider. "Based on that, I believe we will absolutely take advantage of the next market they enter. Cisco has a good record of making these bold bets and being successful."

Olwig said Cisco can leverage its core networking expertise to build out powerful data center and virtualization solutions, where typical data center companies take a processor view and companies such as NetApp take a storage-based view.

"Any vendor, they need to be all looking for ways to help customers better manage their data center environments," he said. "Cisco can leverage its network expertise and build something that's better because of it."

Yankee Group Senior Vice President Zeus Kerravala agreed, noting that running mission-critical applications in the data center requires the network to handle a lot of the workload. If Cisco's unified computing strategy comes to fruition, he said, it will do just that.

"Unified computing will allow more use of virtualization for more applications that are mission-critical," he said.

Dave Dozier, director of sales at Miller Networks, a Morgan Hill, Calif.-based solution provider, said bringing another big vendor into the blade server space would give solution providers and their customers more alternatives.

"They'll be another major name in the field," Dozier said. "Dell's already there. [Hewlett-Packard's] already there. Having a third big name in there creates more options. Them just getting into the game will be nice. Brand recognition is huge with Cisco."

David Parks, director of Cisco operations for Syracuse, N.Y.-based solution provider CXtec, said that his company will also see what Cisco brings to the table Monday. CXtec, which has a large installed base of data centers, wants to see how a Cisco unified computing play would fit into its current offerings before moving forward. He said CXtec would likely add blade servers to its roster, but he wants to "sit back and wait to see how the product matures."

Frank Kobuszewski, vice president of CXtec's technology solutions group, agreed. He said a Cisco blade server offering could complement the high-end fibre solutions CXtec offers to the data center, but the company will gauge customer interest before taking the plunge.

"We're not going to jump into the blade server market just because Cisco is," he said.

NEXT: "It's not Cisco vs. HP"

A Cisco blade server and unified computing offering would also enter the company into a market already established by the likes of Dell and HP, so it is sure to stir more competition, Dozier said. Regardless of the market incumbents, Dozier said if Cisco offers a product that delivers higher performance compared to its rivals, it will certainly grab market share.

Still, not all partners are sold on a blade server product from Cisco. One solution provider, who asked that his name not be used, called the initiative "shortsighted and greedy."

"They want to sell everything to everyone, rather than staying focused on what they're best doing," he said. "Cisco is a very important and large part of our business, but I feel very strongly that this is a bad idea."

That solution provider said the majority of Cisco customers don't own data centers; they are SMBs that do not need and could not afford a Cisco blade server solution. The ones that can afford it already have a large investment in Dell, HP or IBM.

"HP's is superior and they have a 20-year head start on Cisco where they have been continually innovating hundreds of value-add technologies that have made them the leader," he said, later adding that "I also believe that HP's technology is so far superior to anything that Cisco could conjure up, or more likely, relicense from someone else ... that Cisco is wasting shareholder dollars to chase HP and IBM."

But according to Gourlay, Cisco's unified computing vision is not about shouldering out incumbents, but more about building an open data center model versus a proprietary one.

"It's not Cisco versus HP," he said. "It's open standards development partnerships versus monolithic implementation."

But one source told that Cisco's unified computing strategy is a direct jab at HP in a bid to take away market share from the incumbent.

"HP started this war a while ago with ProCurve," one source said, adding that HP diving into networking with ProCurve fueled Cisco's attack on the data center.

Gourlay added that Cisco's unified computing strategy is about working with best-of-breed data center and virtualization vendors to fulfill a true unified computing strategy.

"This is not a go-it-alone," he said. When asked to name which partners will be involved, Gourlay said he couldn't divulge them until March 16, when Cisco CEO John Chambers and "several industry-leading partners" discuss Cisco's unified computing vision and the evolution of the data center. Sources said those industry partners include BMC, EMC, Intel, Microsoft and VMware, which Cisco is already working closely with on the Cisco Nexus 1000V virtual switch that ties together virtual machines in a data center.

With the possible blade server offering, Dozier said Cisco is capitalizing on a transitioning market as servers are migrating toward blade and virtual environments, which will give partners a stronger opportunity in the data center market, especially partners that offer Cisco's traditional routing and switching networking gear.

"I see the movement as a whole going in that direction and Cisco being another major player," he said, adding that Cisco VARs will be able to take advantage of server refreshes to offer new solutions.

Olwig, too, said a blade server and unified computing offering from Cisco could help get World Wide Technology into new customer accounts.

"It can provide us entree into some new enterprise accounts we couldn't have accessed before," Olwig said.