Efficiency is the name of the road map game for enterprise networking in 2009, at least according to one Cisco Systems executive.
"Today, you get servers from one company, SAN from another, and then IT pays their employees and contractors to assemble it - and only once it's assembled can you move workload to it and draw business value," Doug Gourlay, director of product management for Cisco Data Center Solutions, said in an interview.
"But what if all that came pre-assembled? Preconfigured systems would have more efficiency because the systems aren't slapped together."
Efficiency would also appeal to network customers looking to shave costs in an era of moribund economics.
Despite the recession, however, Cisco plans to make a push into new markets such as the data center, as evidenced by the public commitment in Oct. 2008 by CEO John Chambers to grow the company's IT budget by 10 percent in 2009.
In addition to taking a more unified approach to its networking and data center business, Cisco has already begun deepening its commitment to virtualization, pairing with VMWare on a number of solutions, including the Cisco Nexus 1000V, a virtual switch that helps manage and network virtual machines within the data center.
In June 2008, Cisco also launched the Data Center 3.0 initiative, designed to offer IT administrators everything from virtualized application hosting services to application acceleration and video delivery, with a number of these solutions relying on VMware software.
Despite its embracing virtualization, Cisco faces increased competition in the networking arena from the likes of HP ProCurve and Juniper, both of which have been making their own virtualization inroads.
"Networking was traditionally a black art; some did it very well, and you didn't stray from them because they were the only ones that could do it," Rob Whiteley, an analyst with Forrester Research, said in an interview. "Today, you can buy a network on a chip."
A flexible network that presents a mature open-source alternative, Whiteley adds, could put a lot of pressure on Cisco's network vendors - which in turn forces the company to innovate above and beyond.
All three vendors - Cisco, ProCurve and Juniper - have realized that networking for enterprise now extends far beyond merely wiring up the building; key to dominating market share over the short- to medium-term will be the ability to create a flexible, largely automated and well-managed network that can interface well with virtual components.
"There are some interesting implications - Cisco has been talking about the network as platform for a long time," Whiteley said. "I think we're trending towards network as middleware, that happens to be I/O intensive, that's all about supporting applications."
Which leads, perhaps inevitably, to a discussion of enterprise clouds. Currently the hot trend in the IT world, cloud computing is something for which all three companies have been preparing, to various degrees.
"Cisco is clued into how disruptive cloud technology really is; that's why they're interested in making relationships with VMware and service providers," Whiteley said. "That's going to be the big trend in 2009 for Cisco - can they capitalize on that before Juniper and ProCurve position themselves?"
With Juniper recently having entered into a partnership with IBM to handle network connectivity for the latter's cloud computing, that question suddenly becomes a pressing one - and will only be answered by time.