March 16, 2009, stands to be a pretty big day in the long, successful history of Cisco Systems.
It's been a not-very-well-kept "secret" for years that the world's No. 1 networking company has wanted to shed the image of being the pipefitter for the Internet and delve deeper into what really makes the new-generation data center work.
Servers. Storage arrays. Virtualized operating systems, applications and storage. Speedy I/O constructs. Business analytics and aggregated intelligence. They all need ultrafast networking, and many of those things are already in the Cisco product line or about to join it.
Cisco wants IT administrators to do what Apple Computer said a few years ago, to "think different." That is to "boot up" their systems from the network. It aims to add system intelligence and virtualization capabilities right into the network infrastructure in order to add a magnitude of efficiency-and to save power at the same time.
Cisco and its charismatic and respected CEO, John Chambers, have been working toward this day for a long, long time. The clues have been coming down the pike for an equal measure of time.
Two years ago at the VMWorld conference in San Francisco, Chambers took the unusual step for a keynote address of promoting his own company's virtualization offering, VFrame Data Center appliance, which is, in effect, Cisco's data center operating system. But given VMware's dominating presence at the conference, Chambers cast the speech so as to highlight the importance of "network" virtualization.
You just knew he wanted to talk about all virtualization in the data center, but it wasn't his place at the time. He certainly could have; after all, Cisco is a part owner of VMware.
In September 2007, eWEEK's ace networking writer Paula Musich interviewed Jayshree Ullal, Cisco's senior vice president of data center, switching and security technology, about how the company expected this long-range strategy to play out.
For its strategy to work, Musich wrote, "Cisco has to gain the confidence of a totally new audience and entice them to accept its vision of orchestrating and provisioning different resources to support the on-demand creation of virtual machines." The first product instantiation of that vision, the VFrame provisioning appliance, was launched at the end of July 2007 at Cisco's Networkers user conference.
And the company has been aiming for March 16, 2009, ever since.
"The network is the ideal place to connect heterogeneous equipment [which is the stuff of all data centers], and it is the natural place to scale and manage all these different images-be they servers, apps or storage," Ullal told Musich.
"To continue to add virtual capacity, configure downstream storage, add/drop/delete, and maintain configurations, it requires a constant state. The network is ideal for that. The radical approach to booting from the network and providing a heterogeneous set of automated discovery management tools was compelling," Ullal said.
The other thing Cisco realized was that the depth of VFrame comes also from the number of devices it will have to support, Ullal said. In 2007, it was very Cisco-centric; since then, the company has provided API integration with VMware using SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) X M L APIs, among many other APIs.
Cisco's Data Center 3.0 vision was to be a three- to five-year effort before coming to fruition, said Ullal.
The centerpiece of that vision, the Cisco VFrame Data Center appliance, was designed to bring greater automation to the process of provisioning the server, storage and network resources needed to bring new business applications online.
Nearly two years later, ahead of schedule, Cisco apparently is ready to launch a retooled VFrame along with a new home-developed server, and perhaps some other products. We'll find out March 16.
"This is an architectural statement about how data centers need to be retrofitted," Ullal said. "This is a journey, not a sprint."
With so many legacy data centers around the world originally outfitted in the 1980s and '90s ready to be refreshed to handle Web services and the increasing demand of cloud computing, the time is right for a company to come into this market from the networking perspective.
A new race against the conventional data center competition-IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Sun Microsystems and dozens of other companies-is just about to begin.
May the best companies win.