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Cisco's Unified Strategy Revamps the Data-Center View

By Jennifer LeClaire
March 17, 2009 9:40AM

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Cisco's Unified Computing System, formerly code-named California, leverages an open partner ecosystem to offer a new approach to data centers. While Cisco will offer USC B-Series blade servers, the type of server is less important than the ability to work in concert. Cisco's approach shifts the server-power competition to a team overview.

Details of Cisco's much-anticipated but highly cloaked data-center architecture, solutions and services have been unveiled. Once code-named California, Cisco's Unified Computing System leverages VMware's technologies to offer a new approach to data centers.

The solution unites computing, network, storage access, and virtualization resources into a single system to reduce costs, simplify use, and improve efficiencies.

Among the first products in the Unified Computing System lineup are Cisco USC B-Series blade servers based on Intel Nehalem processors; support for a unified fabric that consolidates networks, security, policy enforcement, and diagnostic features; and Cisco's USC Manager to handle system configuration and operations. The system delivers IT as a service, with flexibility to set policies around network and server usage.

Thoroughbreds Versus Wagon Teams

For something ostensibly cloaked in secrecy, Cisco's efforts around its California blade servers have been the talk of the IT industry since mid-January, when rumors of the impending launch began, according to Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT. The support of Cisco partners, he said, suggests that the potential benefits and opportunities of the Unified Computing System are significant.

"During the past few weeks, most analysts and media outlets focused their attention on the threat Cisco's plans posed to server stalwarts, including HP, Dell, IBM and Sun. This is natural enough, since Cisco's move into servers can only succeed at the expense of those companies," King said, noting that considerably less attention has been paid to the implications of Cisco's strategy.

Cisco's system suggests that in virtualized and cloud-computing environments high levels of system and network integration deliver optimum performance. By extension, King said, the characteristics of individual servers and other hardware components are less important than their capacity for working in concert.

He called this a thoroughbred versus wagon-team mentality. Though less refined and elegant, he said, a wagon team is capable of greater sustained efforts and pulling far heavier loads than any single horse, no matter how fast it can run.

The Bigger (Unified) Picture

"While that issue has been a fact of life in the IT industry for years, many traditional hardware vendors are mostly locked into a one-on-one marketing mentality, matching up the capabilities -- via benchmarking performance and statistics -- of their solutions against competitors' machines," King said. "However, in virtualized data centers and cloud-computing environments, individual system performance is only meaningful in the degree to which it contributes to or subtracts from the whole."

King also observed that many vendors have changed the way they pitch virtualization solutions over the past year -- emphasizing ease of deployment and management, reduced cost and complexity, improved energy efficiency, and other fundamental business values. That shift, he said, has created an opportunity for Cisco and unified computing.

So for all the initial attention on how Cisco can compete successfully against seasoned server vendors, King expects Cisco to emphasize how the Unified Computing System and its open partner ecosystem can benefit enterprises and service providers, regardless of whose servers they deploy. He said he views Cisco's partners -- Microsoft, Intel, BMC, EMC, Accenture and VMware -- as the most important aspect of the company's announcement.

"The massive popularity and success of virtualization has fundamentally changed the competitive landscape in IT, allowing innovative groups of partners to compete effectively in markets once dominated by traditional systems vendors," King said. "Whether or how well Cisco's unified-computing strategy will succeed is impossible to say at this point, but we do not expect it to be the final or ultimate example of how vendors can band together for the good of themselves and their customers."

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