Cisco Partners: Four Years In, UCS Has Been A 'Game Changer'

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.

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"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.

NEXT: Cisco Partners Talk UCS Adoption

"When we first heard of UCS, we said 'wow, this is definitely going to be a disruptive technology," said Jason Nash, director of the data center practice at Varrow, a Greensboro, N.C.-based solution provider that specializes in virtualization and storage.

Nash said the unique, converged architecture touted by UCS immediately set Cisco apart in the blade server and data center market, even from veterans like HP and IBM. Specifically, Nash said Varrow was drawn to the scalability offered by UCS, and the ability to manage networking, storage and virtualized environments from a single pane of glass.

"Cisco had the advantage of working with a clean slate," he told CRN. "And what we saw was a much different model than anyone else had."

Nash said customer demand for UCS has "exploded," and that UCS represents one of the fastest-growing products in Varrow's portfolio, which also consists of VMware's vSphere and EMC's storage. Selling UCS also helped Varrow bolster its routing and switching business, Nash said, and round out its data center networking practice.

John Bristol, practice director at Trace 3, an Irvine, Calif.-based solution provider, said selling UCS has helped expand Trace 3's data center play beyond storage, which was the bulk of its business before partnering with Cisco about two and a half years ago.

"It's been fundamentally a game changer for Trace 3," said Bristol, who joined Trace 3 to help manage its partnership with Cisco. "It allows our company to take on a more architectural view of the data center."

Today, Trace 3 also sells Cisco's Nexus 5000 Series Switches and has waded more and more into the networking space through its partnership with Cisco. Still, Bristol said 60 percent of Trace 3's Cisco business is in the data center.

Bristol noted that Cisco still has some legwork to do in displacing server incumbents like HP and IBM but that the momentum with UCS is clearly there.

"There are things UCS has that no other compute platform has. It is a very converged stack, and it is an architecture sell and companies have to see the value in that," Bristol said. "Obviously, there is heavy, massive install base there with HP, Dell and IBM, so it won't just transition overnight. But we did this with voice, and we didn't displace Nortel and Avaya overnight [either]."

Jamie Shepard, regional vice president for the Northeast and principal at Lumenate, a Dallas-based solution provider, said one of the biggest benefits of selling UCS is that it represented a new business for Cisco, so partners were especially leaned on by the Cisco sales team early on to drive new deals.

"We started to get a lot of attention from the Cisco reps, and they looked at us as heroes because they couldn’t have a data center discussion," Shepard said. "They needed us."

NEXT: What's Next For Cisco Data Center Partners

Cisco's Growdon suggested a number of "critical success factors" for partners to embrace to maintain momentum in the data center. First, he said, Cisco partners should adopt a unified data center sales approach, meaning the ability to sell products and services that touch each unique aspect of a data center, ranging from storage to networking to applications and beyond. Growdon said the way in which partners can achieve this, and break down the various data center "silos," is to on-board a data architect, or somebody who can weave together disparate data center technologies and clearly communicate the value of that process to clients.

"You have to have individuals that are data center architects that have that ability to go across those silos and construct solutions that incorporate and work with each piece of that silo," Growdon said.

What's more, Growdon said Cisco data center partners should be vigilant about forging partnerships with other vendors in the data center space, particularly in the areas of storage and orchestration. Many Cisco data center partners -- and Cisco itself -- already partner with storage and virtualization giants including EMC, NetApp and VMware.

Professional services and expertise around data center applications is also a must for partners, Growdon said, pointing to desktop virtualization software, SAP's in-memory HANA solution and big data applications as an example.

To help partners nail down these must-have skill sets in the data center, Growdon said Cisco will continue to offer data center-focused training resources to its channel, such as the Data Center Architect Scholarship program introduced at Cisco's partner program last year.

Looking ahead, Growdon said he sees a number of new opportunities in the data center that are there for Cisco partners' taking. Software-defined networking (SDN) is on the largest, he said.

"The advent of things like SDN coming into play or coming into more of the forefront, I think that’s one of those new things that, over time, will create many new opportunities for everybody involved in it, as well as our partner community," Growdon said.

Cisco's SDN strategy today is anchored primarily by its Open Network Environment (Cisco ONE), a portfolio of Cisco technology and open standards aimed at bringing enhanced programmability to the network. Cisco also touts overlay network technologies based on its Nexus 1000V Switch, which allows virtualized workloads to directly control network services.

Varrow's Nash noted that, while the SDN movement is one that will eventually open new doors for the Cisco channel, Cisco's SDN play, at least at this point, is "not crystal clear." That said, other networking vendors, like Juniper, haven't fine-tuned their SDN strategies as this point either, Nash continued.

Christian Rolland, practice director, converged network infrastructure at Technology Integration Group, an Irvine, Calif.-based solution also feels there's some ambiguity surrounding Cisco's role in SDN.

"It's really going to be important for [Cisco] to respond in the data center with a stark response or a new innovation jump to address some of the things we are seeing with software-defined networking," Rolland said. "They are really going to need to take a position."