Cisco planning significant data center assault

Cisco Blade servers, green switches and collaboration on tap as company morphs into overall IT giant

SAN JOSE — Cisco has a number of significant product introductions on tap for 2009 as the company continues to morph from a pure networking player into an overall IT supplier.

Expected next year are internally developed data center blade servers; energy efficiency improvements across Cisco's switching portfolio; and a new release of the company's unified communications software for intercompany collaboration.

The product launches are intended to buttress Cisco's strategy to become not just the leading network vendor to corporations and services providers, but to become the leading supplier of overall IT architectures to these constituents."The network will enable all forms of communication and IT," said Cisco CEO John Chambers during his keynote address at the company's annual C-Scape analyst conference here last week. "IT is not enabling our strategy, it is our strategy."

California dreamin'

Perhaps the most important example of that will be a new Cisco blade server system expected next year. This will take the company into the data center compute space, right up against longtime stalwarts — and up to now, Cisco partners — IBM and HP.

Cisco officials interviewed at last week's C-Scape conference would neither confirm nor deny that this system is in development — its code name is "California Server," according to sources — but its impact will be substantial in the market and on its current relationships with compute partners.

"I've seen the product," says Vikram Mehta, CEO of Blade Network Technologies, a supplier of blade server switches to IBM, HP, Dell and others. "I think I know what Cisco's trying to do. Servers are a $60 billion market. And if you're the size of Cisco — $40 billion — you're looking for the next multibillion dollar market to jump into. There aren't a lot of adjacent markets so they decided to step on their partnerships and take these guys head-on to get a slice of the server action."

Blade, a private company which just announced a record fourth fiscal quarter in terms of Ethernet port shipment growth, believes Cisco's entry into the market will only strengthen the ties Blade has with IBM and HP, Mehta says.

Mehta says there's not much difference between "California" and existing blade servers for data centers, but there will be a Cisco-specific twist on it to justify its cost and profit margins. Other sources say it is an internally developed system based on Intel x86 processors and a Linux operating system, and it also embeds its recently introduced Nexus 5000 data center switches.

In addition, it is expected to support Cisco's unified fabric, which supports multiple data-center traffic types over a single Ethernet host bus adapter, data-center automation tools and deep integration with VMware Infrastructure.

Cisco, meanwhile, believes there are areas within the data center beyond networking where it can iron out "seams" of technology between servers, switches and storage devices, says John McCool, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco's Data Center Switching and Services group.

"I can't comment on unannounced product," McCool says about California.

"I would say though that you see with what we've done with the (Nexus) 1000V — the interesting things now are happening at the seams of technology. Obviously, we represent the networking component. But you have a virtualization layer that's now emerged in data centers and you have compute.

"We're very much interested in making the whole environment — we call it unified computing — a homogeneous environment by making those seams not look like gaps in IT," McCool says.

Cisco's Nexus 1000V is a software switch that runs on multivendor servers. It takes a virtual machine's (VM) network and security properties with it while the VM is moved around the data center.

McCool was philosophical about the potential impact Cisco's data center expansion will have on current partners.

"We see such a shift in the technology landscape with virtualization that it's creating a new set of challenges that have to be innovated," he says. "I'm sure those companies are looking at their own vectors of innovation on how to address this. Change brings challenges; challenges hopefully brings innovation. We've decided to embrace the challenge and believe that we can innovate.

"I would think the nature of partnerships in general is going to change," McCool says. "I think the nature of large organizations, especially solving customer problems, there's going to be a little bit of overlap, a little bit of collaboration."

Analysts say the company's overall IT ambitions will be Cisco's most daunting hurdle in the coming year.

"Can they really make the credible transition to an IT vendor from a networking vendor?" asks Zeus Kerravala of The Yankee Group. "That is their absolute biggest challenge because that gets them into a whole different set of buying criteria."

The Unified communications manefesto

A buying criteria Cisco's most familiar with is networking, particularly LAN switches. Cisco's Big Bang switching upgrade, hinted at last spring, will emerge in January and encompass more than just the Catalyst 6500, as initially expected.

The emphasis on Big Bang, the code name for the switching upgrade, will be green and apply to Cisco's entire switching portfolio, says Marie Hattar, vice president of network systems and security solutions at Cisco.

"It's an evolutionary capability. It's not a new platform," Hattar said at Cisco's CScape analyst conference here this week. "It's really more tied to green capabilities, and how the network really enables those types of capabilities."

Hattar would not divulge any further details on Big Bang.

Next year will also see Cisco's collaboration portfolio progress with a new release of its unified communications software that will let companies collaborate with each other.

Cisco's Unified Communications System 7.0, which was unveiled in September, enables companies to collaborate internally. The 2009 release will enable inter-company collaboration among business partners, suppliers and customers, according to Barry O'Sullivan, senior vice president of Cisco's Voice Technology group.

"In 2009, you'll see business-to-business unified communications" from Cisco, O'Sullivan says. "We have 60,000 customers and there's a huge opportunity to connect them all over the Internet."

The software will enable IT organizations to configure security and quality of service policies for communications with companies they trust, O'Sullivan says. It will employ the Session Initiation Protocol for call setup and allow companies to establish presence "federations" for groups of collaborative workers.

Cisco's WebEx Connect product, which also debuted last September, will be the tool by which these companies can federate, O'Sullivan says.

Cisco has prototypes to demonstrate the capabilities of the new software but no trials as yet. Target trial customers include those in the supply chain and manufacturing verticals, O'Sullivan says.

The system will let users build hybrid premises/on demand intercompany collaboration networks, which combine the capabilities of Cisco's Unified Communications Manager IP telephony platforms and WebEx Internet conferencing system. Video will also be a key component of the system but may not be accessible from mobile devices due to bandwidth limitations of wireless networks, O'Sullivan says.

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