Cisco's Server Strategy Gets Mixed Reaction

Cisco Monday unveiled its Unified Computing System strategy, which seeks to combine compute, storage, virtualization and networking capabilities in an integrated package that the company said will make data centers more flexible, efficient and cost-effective.

Cisco sees unified computing as a way to make it easier to virtualize the various parts of the data center.

Cisco has an opportunity to knit together the four key components of the data center using its networking experience. The company is a leader in moving networking to such new technologies as 10-Gbit Ethernet and Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE), which allows multiple networking protocols to share a single cable.

Once the FCoE protocol is ratified by the industry, a move expected to happen before the summer, a company could run its LAN, WAN, Fibre Channel, iSCSI and InfiniBand networks through a single fabric, eliminating costly cables, switches and interface calls.

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Cisco also introduced a new blade server family that, when it is released as expected in the second quarter of this year, is expected by the vendor to integrate seamlessly into its networks and be optimized for VMware server virtualization.

That level of integration is important to data centers, according to Cisco and its partners, because of the need to bring physical and virtual infrastructures together into a single unified architecture.

Cisco has an opportunity to shake up the data center with its Unified Computing System strategy in the same way it shook up the telecom market a few years ago, said Lee Koepping, senior director of solutions architecture at Apptis Technology Solutions, a Chantilly, Va.-based solution provider.

"How dare Cisco enter a market they never played in before," Koepping said facetiously. "They set a precedent with telephony. When Cisco entered that market, it was not considered a player. It isn't dominant now, but it's a big, important part of the market. The idea that blade computing has become an extension of the network, that leaps them ahead of the competition. And that's something they've done before."

Because Cisco has a loyal share of the networking market, it can penetrate it with unified computing, Koepping said.

"However, the server and data storage administrators are not exposed to networking," he said. "So there will be some resistance. There will be client-side politics. But that happens every day in the market. There is precedent for the collapse of customer silos."

However, said Cisco's competitors, Cisco is entering a whole new business with its new blade server offering.

Even more important, many of them said, is the expectation that Cisco is introducing a proprietary system that will lock in those customers who invest heavily in adopting the Unified Computing System to Cisco technology, a result that contradicts Cisco's talk about an open architecture.

Citrix agrees with Cisco that virtualization has changed the way data centers are built but is disappointed that Cisco is doing it in such a proprietary way, said Wes Wasson, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Citrix.

"Not surprisingly, Cisco's view is all things are found in the network," Wasson said. "But this is a proprietary approach, even though Cisco has partners supporting it. Cisco is loading everything including the servers onto the network."

Cisco has a bold vision but is pushing a risky strategy by competing against companies like Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Dell with a new line of blade servers that have yet to be seen, Wasson said.

"It [Cisco] says it will want to integrate compute, storage and networking," he said. "We'll have to see how attractive it is to customers. Right now, Cisco has a zero percent market share. But even if it does become successful, customers will go to Cisco and ask for it to be more even."

While some of Cisco's partners such as VMware and EMC are developing products to go with Cisco's new strategy, others are there for the ride, Wasson said. "Intel is a great company and will support anybody who will work with x86 technology," he said. "Microsoft supports anyone who supports Windows. Some of these companies were there to share the limelight."

While Cisco talks about the cost savings from its Unified Computing System, it needs to do more to show the return on investment, said Marty Lans, senior director of product and marketing at Brocade Communications Systems, which competes with Cisco in the storage networking market.

"You have to make a big initial investment to make those cost savings," Lans said. "You need to rip and replace the existing infrastructure."

Lans said that system vendors such as HP and IBM also offer storage, networking and virtualization technologies, but do it in an open fashion. "It keeps you away from the lock-in," he said. "For us, if system vendors are doing something, we support them."

Lans said that he doesn't expect a noticeable part of data center customers to move on Cisco's Unified Computing System any time in the near future.

"Customers tend to move slow," he said. "They don't migrate to new infrastructures quickly. Look at VARs. They have certain practices. To change takes a long time. They need to learn a new practice, and dedicate resources to make it and sell it. Never mind the fundamental technology. It will take a long time to go to market from a channel perspective."

Jim Ganthier, director of BladeSystem Marketing in HP's Enterprise Storage and Servers Division, said that Cisco unveiled technology that will help it cover about 25 percent to 50 percent of a data center's needs, but by focusing only on its relationship with VMware ignored the need to manage both the physical and virtual parts of the data center.

"Someone has to manage the server, the storage and the switches," Ganthier said. "You have to be able to manage both the physical and the virtual."

Furthermore, Ganthier said, everything Cisco talked about on Monday is already available from other vendors. HP, for instance, already has a 50-plus share of the blade server market, and offers storage, ProCurve networking, and its Virtual Connect technology for virtualizing those resources.

In addition, Ganthier said, HP also works closely with server virtualization vendors such as VMware, Citrix and Microsoft, and indeed is a partner with every vendor that on Monday said they support Cisco's new strategy.

"As far as I'm concerned, everything they talked about today, we already have," he said. "They're just showing up late to the party."

Cisco, however, expects its Unified Computing System to introduce a unified fabric and single wiring to boost energy efficiency, lower cooling and power costs, and reduce data bottlenecks, said Mario Mazzola, Cisco's senior vice president, server access and virtualization business unit.

"We developed a unique new computing model that transforms the data center into a dynamic IT environment with the power to increase productivity, improve business agility and drive the benefits of virtualization to an entirely new level," Mazzola said in a statement.

Rob Lloyd, executive vice president designate of worldwide operations for Cisco, said the addition of a Unified Computing System to its roster continues Cisco's data center dominance.

"Cisco has become the unequivocal and undisputed leader in data center networking," Lloyd said, adding that the data center blending with the network in a virtualized environment will shift workloads in a new way, while also being able to support 320 servers and thousands of virtual machines.

Cisco CEO John Chambers said the addition of the Unified Computing System helps Cisco go to market with an entire data center strategy that will take advantage of a new market opportunity. "We believe the network is at the heart of tying this together," Chambers said. "We're looking at this market in terms of bringing virtualization to life, unleashing the power of virtualization."

NetApp, which is involved in developing unified networking technology like Fibre Channel over Ethernet One, is looking forward to working with Cisco on its strategy, said Patrick Rogers, vice president of solutions marketing for the storage vendor.

"We believe the Ethernet will be both disruptive and advantageous to data centers," Rogers said. "So we are focusing on FCoE. We've done a lot of work with VMware to make sure our technology integrates with VCenter, and making sure it integrates with Cisco."

VCenter is a management console that provides APIs which let it see and manage all storage that is connected to a VMware infrastructure, Rogers said.

NetApp is building an Ethernet Unification Center of Excellence based on Cisco's new Nexus line of switches, and is working with the Cisco Data Center Network Application (DNA) lab on developing FCoE, he said.

As such technology develops, it will help drive down the cost of data centers and increase flexibility and lay the groundwork for cloud computing, Rogers said.

It is also an opportunity for solution providers, said Julie Parrish, vice president of worldwide channel sales at NetApp.

"Solution providers will be able to utilize the tested solutions as a stepping stone into the dynamic data center with a solid, referenceable architecture," Parrish said.

About 60 percent of the top solution provider partners of NetApp, Cisco and VMware already overlap, making Cisco's strategy one that will work with the channel, Parrish said.

"This tells you that this not just a top-down vendor relationship," she said. "Instead, it tells you that customer affinity is driving this relationship."

Jennifer Hagendorf Follett & Andrew R. Hickey contributed to this article.