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Cisco Takes its Long Shot at Morphing into IT’s El Supremo

Cisco CEO John Chambers Monday became the latest in a long line of visionaries to come down from the mountain top with a map

Cisco CEO John Chambers Monday became the latest in a long line of visionaries to come down from the mountain top with an architectural roadmap to the Promised Land at an exploitable industry inflection point.

If the purportedly game-changing next-generation platform scheme succeeds, Chambers will be rich, even more fiendishly rich than he already is, and Cisco will own not only the data center, but the cloud, the data center's logical successor, and the computer establishment, as we know it, will be up-ended.

As prophesied, the widgetry, Cisco's answer to its slowing networking fortunes and the growth demanded of it by Wall Street, centers on a newfangled Nehalem-based blade server called the Unified Computing System, which is all about convergence with networking at its heart.

There's no guarantee it will take off; it's still slideware; and it will take time to gauge acceptance while Cisco fights what some call "rack-by-rack warfare."

UCS unites compute, network, storage access and virtualization into a reportedly scalable and modular architecture that's managed as a single system through Cisco's new graphical USC Manager and its associated APIs for handling configurations and operations.

UCS has also adopted the idea of service profiles, sometimes called templates, to automate provisioning.

Since Cisco has no history in servers, and since the UCS elements are often bought separately from different vendors, and since Cisco's stepping all over the very toes that move tons of its routers and switches, the move is pretty gutsy, not to say cheeky considering Cisco's merely a plumber.

HP, which owns the blade server market - well, 58% of it at any rate - and so stands to have the biggest black and blue toes, even more than IBM, claims there's nothing new under the sun in Cisco's architecture. It's all already been done before and better, mostly by HP.

NCS was secretly developed under the codename Project California but HP's director of strategy and architecture Gary Thome says it's more like the Hotel California where, as the song says, "You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave."

In other words HP claims it's pure vendor lock-in and that users will have to throw out the rest of their data centers if they go with the Cisco plan.

HP can't imagine a data center scheme that doesn't support Unix; figures its own BladeSystems can handle a wider variety of workloads than Cisco can; is pretty confident it can deliver headier power and cooling efficiencies; and says Cisco's blade enclosure can't function at all without its switch and that right there is a point of failure.

Brocade, another competitor, said the same thing: Cisco's approach ain't revolutionary; it's capital intensive and - complex as the problem is - doesn't leverage open architectures and industry standards.

Since HP is out to cripple Cisco, it's believed that HP, which used to move a lot of Cisco widgetry, will attack Cisco's networking base even more than it has in the last few years - those Procurve switches, say - and that Cisco can kiss HP's billion dollar contribution to its revenue stream good-bye.

Cisco appears not to care. There are far more billions to be made in data centers; Chambers, tempted to call it an "unlimited" opportunity, settled for saying it exposes Cisco to 25% of the $100 billion-a-year data center spend it's never had a shot at before.

So as Cisco CTO Padmasree Warrior told the Wall Street Journal, "We are going to compete with HP. I don't want to sugarcoat it. There is bound to be change in the landscape of who you compete with and who you partner with." (One can almost hear agreements being shredded in the background.)

Cisco has dragged in a host of brand names to create a divide-and-conquer NCS ecosystem and accelerate its market adoption, folks like Intel (hey, it's a new customer), VMware (Cisco owns a piece), EMC, BMC (providing the management software under a multi-year exclusive), Microsoft (well, nominally at any rate), Red Hat, Accenture, NetApp, Wipro, Oracle, Novell and Tata to name only a few.

Needless to say the names HP and IBM are not among them though Chambers told the Journal IBM is likely to be a partner too; at least it's being cultivated but then IBM's got Cisco rival Juniper in its pocket.

UCS is targeted at the big enterprise and service providers, and Cisco is harnessing 250 of its resellers, the ones who know something about the data center, to get there. Historically the channel has provided 80% of Cisco's revenue.

The folks that'll be buying this stuff aren't Cisco's usual end-user account managers. It'll have to start in the C-suite with a concept sell and claims that CIOs may have to rejig their own internal organizations since NCS doesn't square with the currently separate server buyer, storage buyer, networking buyer. Cisco muttered something about "unlocking the money in the cracks between the silos."

The Cisco blades, otherwise known as the UCS B-Series, are supposed to be the start of a new family of Cisco products.

To make them special, they're fitted with a patented extended memory that's supposed to support applications with large data sets and allow significantly more virtual machines per server than usual.

See, UCS is supposed to be God's gift to virtualization, "unleashing," as Chambers likes to put it, virtualization's "full potential" by enhancing the scalability, performance and operational control of virtual environments.

Cisco is supposed to have overcome the issues of security, policy enforcement and diagnostics that can hinder virtualization.

Each UCS system is supposed to be able to support thousands of virtual machines, promising to set a new high watermark for density.

Cisco and VMware, by the way, now have an OEM arrangement, and Cisco intends, among other things, to integrate VMware vCenter management suite. They mean to play in the cloud together, pushing virtualization down to the desktop and into the home.

There's support for a "wire once" unified fabric over a low-latency, lossless 10 Gbit/s Ethernet foundation that consolidates LANs, SANs and HPC networks. This is supposed to reduce the number of network adapters, switches and cables needed and so lower both cost and energy.

As a matter of fact, although it has yet to say what it's going to charge, Cisco claims that UCS will cut capital expenditures by 20% ands operational expenditures by 30%. Promises of cost savings are particularly timely right now. So is Cisco's focus on the cloud, which is heavily dependent on networking.

Cisco says the unified fabric provides consolidated access to SANs and NAS over Ethernet, Fibre Channel, Fibre Channel over Ethernet and iSCSI, which ought to satisfy just about everybody.

Cisco owes NCS development to a start-up acquisition it made called Nuova Systems, which has reportedly been working on the blades for the last two years. What Cisco can do with the $30 billion it has it the bank - more than any other tech company - can only be guessed at, especially in a down economy.

"The key takeaway," Chambers said at the end of his star-studded, mutual-grooming webcast Monday, "is it gives us a chance to perhaps become the leading company not just in communications but also in IT."

NCS isn't expected out until next quarter. It's currently in beta at a reportedly10 beta sites such as Savvis and is deployed internally at Cisco.

More Stories By Maureen O'Gara

Maureen O'Gara the most read technology reporter for the past 20 years, is the Cloud Computing and Virtualization News Desk editor of SYS-CON Media. She is the publisher of famous "Billygrams" and the editor-in-chief of "Client/Server News" for more than a decade. One of the most respected technology reporters in the business, Maureen can be reached by email at maureen(at)sys-con.com or paperboy(at)g2news.com, and by phone at 516 759-7025. Twitter: @MaureenOGara

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