Cisco rivals size up UCS with usual reaction: caveat emptor

Cisco's networking competitors weighed in on the company's new unified data center platform with the predictable reaction: buyer beware.

Video: Cisco's UCS: A closer look

Juniper, for example, says the Cisco vision of reducing the cost and power of operating data centers, and simplifying its management, is compatible with the rest of the industry, including Juniper’s Project Stratus cloud computing strategy; what’s not is Cisco’s decision to so tightly integrate everything together in its Unified Computing System (UCS) that customers lose leverage.

“Rather than keeping the components – servers, storage, networking, management – all with their own ecosystems and being individually improved by the various vendors, Cisco chose a proprietary way to integrate these things together,” says David Yen, Executive Vice President and General Manager of Juniper’s Data Center Business Group. “It deprives (customers) the ability to take advantage of the constant evolution and advancement in the server area, or the storage area, or in other software areas. The more you integrate, the more you tend to specialize.”

Cisco decision to develop its own blade servers that can only work in its own UCS platform – and have UCS not accept any non-Cisco blade servers – locks customers in with a data center component that’s typically a commodity and interchangeable between vendors, Yen says.(Compare Server products.)

“This is one reason why all of the modern data centers are using the commodity 1RU/2RU x86 servers. These are high volume, low cost and interchangeable,” Yen says. “They really facilitate the customer’s ability in a cloud computing environment to very elastically, dynamically and efficiently, utilize these resources. It creates a problem for the data center managers: should I consider using Cisco’s so-called unified computing module as my building block? It is so dangerous because then I’m completely locked into a single vendor -- not just on the server side, but anything.”

Cisco’s own ecosystem of UCS partners – Microsoft, Intel, EMC, Accenture, VMware, BMC and several others – also must be considered carefully because these companies partner with everyone and anyone in the industry, Yen says. Juniper says it too has lined up partnerships for its Project Stratus plan but has yet to disclose who they are.

“Their partnerships, quite obviously, are absent,” Yen says. “Where are the server vendors, the storage vendors other than EMC, or other networking vendors? Cisco is going it alone, by themselves.”

Juniper said it sees the UCS rollout as an opportunity to grow business as Cisco is distracted in trying to gain traction for the platform, and alienating longtime partners – and blade server stalwarts – HP and IBM in the process.

HP ProCurve, meanwhile, says the Cisco UCS launch is a validation of its own strategy to tightly link the server, switching and management components of data center computing.

“It’s quite a compliment” of a data center direction laid out by HP ProCurve in January, says Matt Zanner, worldwide director of data center solutions. “Now it’s all about execution. We’re really happy to be able to leverage the demonstrated successful track record of HP’s data center offerings. We certainly have a lot of credibility in that space. We’re hitting the ground running and excited to do so.”

Zanner said he had no insight into considerations or discussions Cisco may have had with HP on the blade server component of UCS. But he, too, was curious about Cisco’s decision to develop that component internally and what it might mean for customers.

“If there’s challenges using various standard, off-the-shelf components like servers in a given solution, that leads me to believe there are some control points being taken away from the customer and put in the hands of the vendor,” Zanner said.

Blade Network Technologies, which makes switches for HP and IBM blade servers, says Cisco’s approach puts integration and interoperability with existing data center installations at risk.

“According to Cisco, converged data and storage networking requires Cisco’s Data Center Ethernet, thus eliminating freedom of choice with a sole-source Cisco-only server and network,” writes Blade CEO Vikram Mehta in his blog. “The rest of the industry is working on an open approached called Converged Enhanced Ethernet using IEEE’s Data Center Bridging standards.”

Consultant Pace Harmon is not a rival but an advisor to Cisco customers. Principal Rahul Singh says he had input into the launch of UCS and suggested to Cisco that it partner for the system’s blade server component.

“This is not something that Cisco’s done in the past -- trying to get into an already crowded market and displace vendors that people already have a significant amount of investment in and experience with,” Singh says. “It doesn’t make sense but folks at Cisco are used to selling hardware and boxes so it’s almost a logical extension.”

Singh says UCS, especially on the management side, will have to open up some more and “learn to play with the other players” in the data center. He also says the platform has the potential to disrupt an enterprises IT organizational structure.

“Clients have been inquiring about it: How does this affect things organizationally? How do you operationalize this?” he asks. “It throws a kink into that because everything is managed and allocated on demand. What does this do to the organization and should we be doing something different along those lines?”

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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