Cisco Wants In on the Data Center

Cisco has made it clear that it wants a share of the virtualization pie.

Forgive Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers if he wasnt impressed with the size of VMwares flagship VMworld user conference, held this week in San Francisco. VMware claimed attendance was more than 10,000, but fewer than half as many were in attendance when Chambers gave his keynote on Sept. 12, the second day of the conference.

But the feeling was mutual, as those who did attend his keynote werent very impressed with it either. Alessandro Perilli, a blogger who attended the show, spoke for many when he called it "disappointing."

Some put the apathy down to a clash of cultures. "Its server guys and theyre not interested in what a networking guy has to say," one analyst said.

But if the disconnect was unintentional, the kernel of Chambers message was about that very lack of understanding between IT leaders and business leaders.

The problem facing IT, he argued, is that it still doesnt talk the language of business. Productivity growth, which had been as high as 5 percent in the late 90s, is back down to between 1 and 2 percent. As a result, once again "CEOs are looking at IT as a cost center," Chambers said.

Code for "rationalization" and "layoffs," those words got the attention of those IT folks who had bothered to attend his speech.

On the face of it, Chambers keynote had nothing to do with virtualization. It focused on the success hes had driving new revenue and profit growth at his company, at a time when IT industry growth has been sluggish. But he challenged IT to "drive virtualization of my resources on a global basis."

Chambers predicted the coming of a second phase of innovation that will reinvigorate productivity thanks to a scenario exemplified by "any device to any content over any combination of networks."

The key word there being "networks."

Chambers then took the unusual step for a keynote address of promoting his own companys virtualization offering, VFrame Data Center. But given VMwares dominating presence at the conference, Chambers probably felt the need to highlight the importance of network virtualization.

In contrast to server virtualization, which manages guest virtual machines that reside on physical servers, network virtualization can help network connectivity between the physical host and the adjacent physical switch and allow booting of the runtime bare metal server operating system from centralized storage.

Jayshree Ullal, senior vice president for data center switching and security at Cisco, later explained that VFrame also "partitions SANs [storage area networks], LANs [local area networks] and firewalls virtually."

She said the sprawl of virtual machines across the network "is an afterthought for the server decision-maker, but a forethought for the data center decision-maker."


Click here to read more about Ciscos data center vision.

Ullal admitted that Cisco and VMware, of Palo Alto, Calif., approached each other warily at first, concerned that they were going after the same piece of the pie. But the realization that there could be a hand-off between server virtualization and network virtualization is what led to Ciscos taking a $150 million stake in VMware this summer.

"When the network market leader and the server virtualization market leader get together, theres a tremendous amount of customer problems we can solve," Ullal said.

IDC analyst Stephen Elliot said that Cisco, of San Jose, Calif., was jumping on the virtualization bandwagon. "Theyve got to have a story," he said. However Chris Wolf, an analyst with the Burton Group, said Chambers was right to highlight "how important the data center is to driving the business."

Wolf said VFrame will enable on-demand server virtualization and on-demand storage by allocating hardware resources in a way that the hypervisor alone cannot do.

"Theyll automate the architecture of the data center over an Ethernet topology," he said. "Cisco has it right."

In his keynote, Chambers credited a culture of collaboration, supported by Web 2.0 technology, with driving his companys market capitalization from $110 billion in 2006 (itself a very respectable figure) to a whopping $196 billion in Sept. of this year.

That would not have been possible without the flexibility afforded by virtualization technologies.

His larger point, however, was that business users and, more importantly, CEOs will lose confidence in the technologies that support collaboration if they arent deployed properly or fail during times of high stress.

"Outages will shake the confidence of the users," Chambers said.

He credited a new data center strategy supported by virtualization with helping delay having to build a new data center at Cisco for four years while driving server utilization rates from 20 percent to between 50 and 60 percent.


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