Posted by: Peter Burrows on January 28, 2008
Cisco Systems revealed a major offensive today in its ongoing assault on the data center market. And more than ever, it proposes a vision in which data centers are defined not by a computer architecture, be it mainframe or PC server farm, but around the network itself. That makes sense. After all, almost every kind of software is evolving from something that was written for a particular computing platform, into something that is written to be delivered as a service via the Internet. And not static services, either, but ones that can be adapted at a moment’s notice on a users’ whim—say, by adding a new widget to Facebook, or a new customer order on Salesforce.com. These days, the communication of information—not just the processing of information—is where the action is.
Specifically, the company announced the Nexus 7000, its biggest upgrade of the basic corporate network switch since Cisco started selling its now-ubiquitous Catalyst line in the mid-1990s. The box is so fast it can download all of NetFlix’ 90,000 movies in 38 seconds, or copy the entire searchable Web in 7.5 minutes, the company claims.
But the speeds and feeds of the new box are not the big change.
The real news is a new layer of software, called a fabric, that is designed to orchestrate the efforts of the various kinds of technology found within any data center. Rather than just oversee the Cisco gear that moves bits in and out of the building, this fabric can also be used to control the servers that process those bits, the storage gear that holds them, and the applications that do something useful with them.
If it works, Cisco would mark off a hugely strategic niche for itself, as a kind of king of virtualization. That's the name of a technology that's risen to prominence in recent years within pockets of the data center. VMWare, for example, has become corporate tech’s new darling thanks to software that lets companies spread work among all of their available servers, rather than have them sit idle waiting for their particular job to be called. In storage, gear from companies like Brocade plays a similar role. But until now, no company has figured out a way to easily coordinate these various pools of virtualized gear. With a Nexus, companies will be able to automatically create “domains” to describe a given combination of bandwidth, processing, storage and software, says Cisco senior vice president Jayshree Ullal.
It’s been a huge undertaking, she says. She first assigned 50 top techies to the job almost three years ago. Now there are more than 500 on the job. The company has spent nearly $250 million on the project—mostly on perfecting the ten million lines of code in the new software.
Given Cisco's proven ability to move into new markets and its vast cash reserves and market influence, I don't think Cisco will fail. But here’s my question: How will today’s kings of the Data Center feel about Cisco taking on this expanded role? Cisco assures me it's worked this out to everyone's satisfaction, and referred me to a number of its partners. Top executives at VMWare and Intel, for example, both said they welcome Cisco’s approach. “We don’t think it threatens us, because we work at a fundamentally different layer,” says Bryan Byun, VMWare's vice president of Global Partners and Solutions. Since virtualizing the entire data center depends on being able to virtualize the computers, “we think the two approaches complement each other.”
But what about IBM, the world’s leading data center supplier and Cisco’s most important partner in recent years. I didn’t interview anyone from IBM, and I’m sure its executives will profess support, publicly. But the basic philosophy of Cisco’s new mantra can’t help but be threatening at some level. Ullal refers to servers, storage gear and other kinds of products as “peripherals” to the real platform of the future: the network. I’m sure IBM, a company that’s spent decades designing and building corporate data centers, doesn’t see itself as a peripheral maker. And Ullal says that as Cisco settles into this new role, it will begin rolling out many new services to help companies take advantage of its technology. Makes sense, but it will be interesting to see if Cisco can pull it off without encroaching on the turf of IBM’s Global Services division. “Cisco is trying to subsume control of the IT space,” says Frank Dzubeck, president of consultancy Communictions Network Architects. “They’ve got to be stepping on [some of its partners’] toes. It’s a question of how much it hurts before they start turning to other [partners].”
No doubt, Cisco won't enjoy any clear sailing. By the time the Nexus 7000 finally ships--it's not due out for another six months--it will face increased competition. Microsoft is pushing ahead with new virtualization plans. Brocade recently introduced a box called the DCF, for Data Center Fabric. And industry insiders expect Juniper Networks to announce a new switch for corporations at a Jan. 29 press event. Indeed, Juniper CEO Scott Kriens implies that Cisco made its announcement today in part to steal Juniper’s thunder. "I'm sure they knew we were having our little party in New York [tomorrow]."