Cisco's Chambers on EMC, VMware: 'Candidly, They Need Us'

Cisco CEO John Chambers on Wednesday said that Cisco is happy with its strategic partnerships with EMC and VMware but struck a subtly defensive tone, too, reminding listeners on Cisco's fourth-quarter earnings conference call that Cisco's priority, above all, is Cisco.

"Candidly, they need us," Chambers said after proclaiming continued strength in the vendors' work together, particularly in the Cisco-EMC joint venture VCE.

The subject of fraying relations between Cisco and EMC and Cisco and VMware -- which EMC majority owns and with which Cisco partners both for Vblock converged infrastructure and other architectures, including the NetApp-led FlexPod model -- has come up quite a bit lately.

[Related: 10 Signs The Cisco-EMC Partnership Is Fraying ]

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All three vendors have made moves with potential for friction with the others. EMC, for example, recently forged a server pact with Lenovo, while Cisco's OEM deal with PCIe flash storage specialist Fusion-IO seems to counter a Cisco agreement for the EMC and LSI-developed VFCache technology for use in servers.

Then came last month's blockbuster $1.2 billion acquisition by VMware of Nicira, a hot name in the emerging software-defined networking (SDN) market and a company that, according to reports, Cisco itself had been in the mix to buy.

During Cisco's earnings call, Chambers didn't address the VMware-Nicira acquisition directly, saying several times how happy Cisco is in its dealings with both EMC and VMware. The two vendors are important to Cisco, "but we will continue to control our own destiny," Chambers said near the end of the 90-minute call.

EMC rival NetApp was also a strategic ally of Cisco's mentioned by Chambers on the call. Separate from Chambers' comments, Tom Georgens, president and CEO of NetApp, said during his company's first fiscal quarter financial conference call Wednesday that the FlexPod partnership between NetApp and Cisco continues to grow strongly and currently has nearly 1,300 customers.

Georgens declined to respond to analyst questions about the potential importance of VMware's acquisition of Nicira, or of EMC's move to develop a new strategic relationship with server vendor Lenovo.

Instead, he said the NetApp relationship with Cisco is the best relationship of all, given that there are no overlaps in the two companies businesses to create potential tension, and that they both have consistent business models. And, he said, the channel partners that Cisco helped NetApp accumulate have been helpful to NetApp's business.

NEXT: Partnering Up, Cisco's Role In SDN

NetApp prefers to work with partners like Cisco, Microsoft, Citrix and Red Hat to ensure integration of multivendor infrastructures work as promised, NetApp's Georgens said. "This has clearly been a very strong story for us all year long, and continues into this quarter," he said.

Julie Parrish, senior vice president of worldwide sales at NetApp, said that despite the EMC-Lenovo relationship and VMware's acquisition of Nicira, NetApp does not expect to see any big changes in its relationship with Cisco.

"We think customer dynamics are more important," Parrish said. "Cisco had a long relationship with EMC. Despite that, we have nearly 1,300 joint customers with Cisco and FlexPod. And VMware's success is based on its heterogeneous relationships. So, we expect no major changes because of [the recent EMC and VMware moves]."

Germane to the VMware Nicira discussion is Cisco's role in the burgeoning SDN ecosystem, which not surprisingly came up several times during Wednesday's Cisco earnings call.

Cisco's Chambers echoed recent comments from other Cisco executives saying Cisco would be an active player as virtualization becomes more relevant to networking and the idea of programmable, flexible, software-centric network infrastructure takes hold.

"Our goal is to lead this evolution along with our partners," Chambers said, arguing that Cisco "saw virtualization coming early" and, indeed, jumped on the opportunity with the release of its virtualized Nexus 1000v switch in 2009.

Cisco is well positioned for the SDN trend, Chambers added, because customers optimizing their networks will look to the mix of hardware and software expertise that Cisco offers. Customers will also be well served by Cisco's "complete framework" of solutions. Others are Cisco's customers already thanks to the company's vast global market presence, which gives Cisco "a unique lens into customer requirements."

The SDN evolution will play out over many years, Chambers maintained.

Joseph Kovar contributed to this article