Cisco turns on former partners

As rumoured, US networking giant Cisco has announced its entry into the server market with a “Unified Computing System" that pits it against former partners.

Cisco's new product is a full-service data centre product, incorporating Cisco’s first hardware server, plus virtualisation, networking, management and storage components - the latter in partnership with EMC spin-off VMWare. Microsoft, SAP, RedHat, BMC Software, Novell, Oracle and NetApp are among a raft of other partners who have signed on to the Unified Computing initiative.

Cisco New Zealand country manager Geoff Lawrie says Unified Computing will have a staged release. Initially the product will be available in North America and Europe, with local release due in June or July.

Mr Lawrie says he has already been in talks with several potential customers. But given the scale of Unified Computing - which he describes as an architecture and way of thinking about a data centre as much as a set of hardware and software products - only a very limited deployment is likely this year.

Unified Computing would suit a company setting itself up as a cloud computing service provider says Mr Lawrie, or an organisation like a bank or large government department that is large enough to host an inhouse data centre.

No collision course
Mr Lawrie strongly denies that Unified Computing puts Cisco on on a collision course with traditional partners like Dell, HP and IBM.

Cisco will not sell its new blade server, developed as part of the Unified Computing package, as a standalone product on the general market, says Mr Lawrie.

"Only part of this is about a product. Unified Computing is our view of how the next generation of data centres will be built. No doubt those organisations [HP, IBM, Dell] are thinking about how they will build next-generation data centres too, but right now we're not competing head-to-head."

Mr Lawrie says Cisco will continue to work with all its server partners. "Especially HP. We want to do a lot of business with HP."

A degree of competition between the two companies is nothing new, says Mr Lawrie. "HP and ourselves have had overlapping products for some time, like ProCurve [HP's networking router that competes with Cisco's product] but we've always managed to find some common ground among specific customers."

Speaking to the UK's VNU News, Ovum analyst Tim Stammers said Cisco is as much about system management as it is blade servers and virtualisation.

"If Cisco's customers have to buy their blade servers from HP or Dell, then the door is open for either of those two to offer their management tools to customers, or to tailor their blades to work better with those tools," he said.

"Moving into more direct competition with those players - and with other systems management players such as IBM and BMC - is a price that Cisco cannot avoid paying unless it wants to be sidelined in the future."

Unified Computing components

Blades Unified Computing will feature Cisco's first hardware server, the Cisco UCS B-Series blade, based on the coming Intel Nehalem processor (the successor to Intel's Xeon).

Fabric A second key component is what Cisco calls "unified fabric"; a single 10Gbit/s ethernet network that consolidates three separate networks: local area networks (LANs), storage area networks (SANs) and high performance computing networks. This lowers costs by reducing the number of network adapters, switches, and cables and by decreasing power and cooling requirements.

The Unified Computing framework also includes virtualisation, storage, management and computing services components, organised under a modular, scalable architecture and managed as a single system.

Currently, Cisco’s core business revolves around its domination of the $US40 billion market in routers and switches, which control network pipes and are complementary to servers sold by the likes of Dell, HP and IBM - and indeed are often sold together in bundles.

But slowing router business has already seen Cisco diversify into new product lines.

Last year, Cisco ramped up its unified communications and collaboration software offerings, putting it head-to-head with Microsoft, a former partner in the space.

The three largest players in the $US50 billion server market – Dell, HP and IBM – may position themselves to offer more business to Cisco’s key competitor, the smaller Juniper Networks, as well as pumping up their in-house initiatives, such as HP’s ProCurve line of routers.

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