Cloud enablement

Cisco Dreams of Data Center Unity

Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) has launched an ambitious plan to remake the data center, insisting that its goals rely on partnerships rather than on Cisco taking over the world.

Specifically, Cisco insists that the Unified Computing System (UCS) announced today, which spawned from ongoing research projects that Cisco calls "California," is not a server and is not meant as a declaration of war against server companies like HP Inc. (NYSE: HPQ). (See Cisco: No Blade Server.)

"We have very little interest in the product space; we're interested in how it [the whole data center] ties together," CEO John Chambers said on today's Web-hosted conference for press and analysts.

UCS turns out to be a collection of systems, including blade servers, that are meant to be treated as a cohesive whole. (See Cisco Gets Unified.) More on that in a bit.

The big-picture goal of Cisco's unified computing idea is to let any device access anything on the network at will -- a goal that's shared by the rest of the industry and has led to the rise of virtualization in the data center.

But Cisco says the data center's problems, such as connecting up masses of servers that traditionally haven't been used at full capacity, really boil down to networking, making (guess who?) Cisco the right company to helm a new data-center initiative.

There's something in all this for the service provider market, too. "This unified computing platform is a functional building block for our customers as they look to build private clouds... or shift that load to service providers," said Rob Lloyd, Cisco's incoming executive vice president of operations.

In fact, Cisco has announced Savvis (Nasdaq: SVVS) as one of the 10 beta customers for the unified computing scheme.

While Cisco did announce new products today, it spent much of its PR ink (and most of today's Web conference) on the partnerships surrounding its unified computing dream. The company is making a big deal about how the UCS blades are based on Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) processors and standard memory chips, for example.

Other partners announced with UCS include Accenture , BMC Software Inc. (NYSE: BMC), EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC), Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT), Red Hat Inc. (NYSE: RHT), and VMware Inc. (NYSE: VMW).

As for UCS itself, the products in question were developed by the team from Nuova, the Cisco-acquired group that worked on the Nexus 5000 data-center switch. (See Cisco Wraps Up Nuova and Cisco Adds to Nexus.)

As much as Cisco says UCS is a "subcategory" of servers, as you can see in this blog entry, the collection of new products does include, well, blade servers.

The central piece to UCS is the 6100 Fabric Interconnect, which links everything else together on 10-Gbit/s Ethernet connections.

Cisco is also offering the 5100 Blade Server Chassis, which holds up to eight blade servers, and the UCS 2100 Fabric Extenders, which can go into the 5100s and include the unified switch fabric that was introduced with the (non-Nuova-built) Nexus 7000.

Cisco's blade servers themselves, called the UCS B-Series, are based on Intel multicore processors and include what Cisco and Intel are calling a "memory-expansion" technology that lets the server run more virtual machines. The whole package is rounded out by mezzanine-card adapters for specific applications and new management software.

"You can't think of this as a blade or a network. It will be shipped as a system, configured as a system," Lloyd said. "That's why we don't think we're competing on a blade platform, but competing on a new system platform."

Cisco will start discussing details about how all this will get used (and, presumably, when it will be available) in April, Lloyd said.

Naturally, competitors have their doubts about the new platform.

Juniper Networks Inc. (NYSE: JNPR) has its own ideas wrapped up in Project Stratus, its secretive project to make the data center more scalable. (See Juniper Strikes at the Data Center.) More immediately, Juniper has been touting the virtual chassis technology of its EX 4200 switches as a way of eliminating the aggregation layer in data centers -- something it says is lacking in Cisco's new vision.

Juniper is pitching that the access layer of a data center connect directly to the core. "The aggregation layer in new networks that are being built is 10-Gbit/s Ethernet, and the latest price-per-port for 10-Gbit/s Ethernet is $5,000, so you're talking about some very expensive ports," says Mike Banic, Juniper's vice president of product marketing for Ethernet platforms.

Brocade Communications Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: BRCD), in a statement issued to the press, notes that Cisco's unified data center involves a lot of new equipment to buy -- an expense that Brocade says could be hard to justify even if the new architecture saves money later. Brocade also notes that many companies with "extensive experience" in the data center are already working on the problems Cisco is claiming to solve.

— Craig Matsumoto, West Coast Editor, Light Reading

Pete Baldwin 12/5/2012 | 4:09:11 PM
re: Cisco Dreams of Data Center Unity

The good part of all this, for Cisco investor types, is that Cisco won't be selling plain servers and thus dragging down margins.

To sell all those pieces as a single mass, though... Mark Sue of RBC likes the announcement a lot but notes that it's going to be a long sales cycle.- And I'm not sure this is going to be like TelePresence, where customers can buy a couple of samples and decide to go whole-hog with it later -- you need to be all-in with cisco's plan, it sounds like.

jhawk810 12/5/2012 | 4:09:09 PM
re: Cisco Dreams of Data Center Unity

OK, I get it, it's not a server blade. Right.

I guess they are trying to walk a fine line and not upset perenial partners in the space, yet in today's WSJ:

Cisco's chief technology officer, Padmasree Warrior, says the company has moved boldly in the past, and suggests the old rules are changing. "We're going to compete with H-P. I don't want to sugarcoat that," she says. "There is bound to be change in the landscape of who you compete with and who you partner with."

There you go. I don't get it any more...




Pete Baldwin 12/5/2012 | 4:09:08 PM
re: Cisco Dreams of Data Center Unity

It's not any one feature; it's the fact that you're gonna buy this entire infrastructure rather than individual blades or blade servers.

That's my understanding, anyway.- In other words,- Cisco isn't claiming it can charge more for a server than others can.- But it won't sell standalone servers; the Cisco blade server will be bundled with all this other higher-margin stuff that will counterbalance the low margins of the server itself.- That way, Cisco overall margins get cushioned, and Cisco doesn't have to worry about being a commodity server maker.

(Another theory: Cisco *will* charge more for its servers but you won't know because the price is bundled up with the rest of the UCS package.)-

Pete Baldwin 12/5/2012 | 4:09:08 PM
re: Cisco Dreams of Data Center Unity I think you're right, jhawk - Cisco *is* going to compete with those guys (and with Microsoft or IBM, on various other fronts) but politically doesn't want to say so out loud.- Kudos to Warrior for telling it like it is.
fiat_lux 12/5/2012 | 4:09:08 PM
re: Cisco Dreams of Data Center Unity

So what feature does their product offer which will allow them to charge more than HP,- IBM, SUN or Dell?- Or are they just jumping into this market to help drive blade server prices lower?


Honestly 12/5/2012 | 4:09:07 PM
re: Cisco Dreams of Data Center Unity

About every 4 years CSCO must introduce the end all game changer System.- System is a critical part bcause they want to sell as many systems as possible and it sounds bigger and better than box.:::))- CRS was real big too.- I think many would agree too big, even for the core.- UCS, Unified Cisco System (hm sounds great) is another massive announcement that is again, to big to really understand in thoughtful detail, but it is what CSCO MARKETING MUST DO TO MAKE THE BIG BOSS feel like he has delivered something that Wall ST will have hope for.

As for the partnerships.- The Microsoft announcement is a real joke.- CSCO will re-sell Windows for everything and MS will pretend it cares.- They hate each other and that will never change.- SVVS!, wow underwhelm me.- I would take product too If it is given to me with a ton of free PR.- No AT&T, Verizon, EMEA, or APAC tier 1?.

-I bet IBM has something for CSCO, but it is not going to be a PO, that now belongs to Juniper.-

Oh, don't forget that everything is the NETWORK, or the CSCO system.

Pete Baldwin 12/5/2012 | 4:09:07 PM
re: Cisco Dreams of Data Center Unity

Blade Network Computing also sent us a prewritten Cisco-bashing statement.- One highlight:

"Unified Computing
means standards with a 'C.'"

(referring to Cisco's use of its own Data Center Ethernet vs. IEEE's Converged Enhanced Ethernet.)-

fiat_lux 12/5/2012 | 4:09:06 PM
re: Cisco Dreams of Data Center Unity

> I bet IBM has something for CSCO, but it is not going to be a PO, that now belongs to Juniper.

How about to Voltair?- The backbone of the Roadrunner supercomputer is their ISR2012 switch...- seems to fit nicely in with the idea that infiniband could be the converged datacenter backplane.

I was originally thinking that this is the perfect opportunity for HP and IBM to start their own switch/router projects.- But really there are many options for this in the marketplace already.

I was also thinking that this-could-be an opportunity for IBM and HP to drop their Cisco specific line cards.. but I doubt their enterprise customers would go for it.


Honestly 12/5/2012 | 4:09:04 PM
re: Cisco Dreams of Data Center Unity

I beg to differ about IB.- I think it is, or is very close to dead.- IBM will be doing all 10GbE ethernet.- The guts of the Blade Center will be as good as it gets and it is not Voltair. It will, However come from a company with HPC heritage.- CSCO cannot hold IBM's jock.



soldack 12/5/2012 | 4:09:00 PM
re: Cisco Dreams of Data Center Unity

IB isn't dead until a technology can beat it for price, performance, and scale for HPC.-- The real question is can IB make it into the data center?- I don't think it can until the big OEMs really buy into it.- So far everyone is hedging their bets and trying to support everything.- Cisco is the best example of this.- They sell IB, ethernet, FC.- They have ethernet and FC over IB but also have FC over ethernet.

What about shared I/O through PCIExpress?- I see a few companies trying this.- Could this be the "unified" interconnect?

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