HP, Cisco Hardware Coexist in Greenfield Data Center Project

In building a greenfield data center for customer Diversified Agency Services in Atlanta, HP conceded that it needed to include Cisco equipment to fill gaps in its network product line.

ATLANTA – Hewlett-Packard and Cisco Systems are in a heated rivalry in the networking space, and HP touts every case in which it wins over a Cisco customer. But HP had to concede that it couldn't provide all the networking components needed to build a new data center here.

In developing a brand-new data center for Diversified Agency Services (DAS), a marketing services firm that is a part of the marketing and advertising conglomerate Omnicon Group, HP advised the customer to go with Cisco in certain instances.

"They went down line-by-line and said 'This is where we think we are a good fit, and this is where we are not a good fit,'" said Jerry Kelly, CIO for North America at DAS.

DAS is scheduled to bring its new 2,740-square-foot Atlanta data center online Oct. 19, which will be connected to an existing data center in Phoenix, while a third one in London is in the planning stages. The Atlanta facility, which reporters and tech bloggers were invited to tour Sept. 6, is a private cloud housed inside a third-party data center operated by Quality Technology Services, which Kelly described as a "data center as a service" provider.

DAS provides marketing communications services to 165 companies, mostly small and midsized businesses that Omnicon has acquired over the years. Each of those companies has its own IT assets ranging from data centers to servers stashed in small closets. The Atlanta project is intended to deliver a common infrastructure to all of them.

But in planning the project, the HP people admitted that Cisco was the better choice in some instances, said B.G. Naran, general manager of operations for DAS.

During the planning, Naran said, HP's people noticed that switches in a number of the existing DAS facilities were "managed switches" operated for DAS by AT&T and that HP advised leaving those Cisco switches as they are. In addition, "from an HP Networking perspective, their routing is a little shy," he said, meaning not as robust as Cisco's. Kelly also noted the lack of an HP firewall product. Although one is in development, it isn't yet in production.

"Our goal was to provide the best recommendation in terms of design and technology for their new Atlanta data center, and we did just that" Mike Banic vice president of marketing for HP Networking, said in a statement issued in response to an eWEEK request for comment several days after the data center tour.

Banic added that HP's networking products are designed for "interoperability with complementary products from other vendors."

HP's candor in admitting its rival's products were better in some instances enhanced HP's credibility with DAS, Kelly said.

"I don't like it when people are aggressive and they don't have what I want," added Jason Cohen, global CIO for DAS.

To be sure, HP sold DAS a lot of hardware. The facility has 119 ProLiant servers, multiple 12518 series network core switches, racks of 5830 and 5900 series top-of-rack switches, HP storage hardware and a bank of 3PAR V800 storage controllers. HP acquired 3PAR in 2010 for $2.35 billion after winning a bidding war with Dell.

The data center is virtualized on VMware's ESX platform, and eventually 60 percent to 70 percent of the workloads will be virtualized, said Naran.

The HP-Cisco rivalry aside, the DAS data center project serves as a case study on how to consolidate disparate IT resources into one cloud-enabled data center.

At the beginning of the project in 2010, DAS assembled a group of 24 CIOs, IT professionals and other stakeholders throughout the various agencies DAS serves to get their buy-in early, said Kelly.

"The biggest resistance was obviously you're saying: 'We're taking your equipment and we're moving it into the [data] center.' That was a very big thing for leaders at each of the agencies to have to embrace," he said.

Also key to the initiative was not to try to do too much, said Cohen, who emphasized that the project was limited to consolidating infrastructure, not applications. Many of the Omnicon companies are actually competitors—Fleishmann-Hillard, Ketchum and Porter Novelli are all public relations agencies—and use apps that they don't want their rivals to know about. They also want to keep their data separate. There are some apps DAS might want to deploy across all companies to do customer relationship management or finance, but that is down the line.

"A lot of times these projects struggle because they focus on application aggregation" and they don't have the correct infrastructure foundation to start with, Cohen said.

Although the company has long sold networking hardware, HP stepped up its game with the $2.7 billion acquisition of 3Com in 2010 and has competed aggressively against market leader Cisco.

While HP is a solid second-place vendor to Cisco in the network switch market and there is some evidence that its gains have come at Cisco's expense, Cisco still dominates the switch sector and HP is not a presence in the router market, according to Dell'Oro Group research.

HP's share of the switch market grew to 11.2 percent in 2011 from 9.4 percent in 2010, while Cisco's share fell to 68.5 percent from 71.2 percent over the same period. In the first half of 2012, HP's share was 11 percent to Cisco's 67.4 percent. In routers, HP's share is a minuscule 1 to 2 percent, while Cisco's is in the mid-to-upper 50s, depending on the quarter.

While market shares may fluctuate quarter-to-quarter, "it is too early to say any vendor is gaining significant share over another yet," said Alan Weckel, senior director at Dell'Oro. "The lumpiness in the data needs some more quarters to average out."

As to the inclusion of Cisco equipment in an HP-built data center, Weckel added that sometimes enterprises insist on a multi-vendor solution and that the lead vendor, knowing that "the customer is always right," would comply.

Even though HP advised DAS to put some Cisco gear in its new data center, HP remains committed to taking on Cisco.

"We are aggressive when we talk about wanting to eat Cisco's lunch," said HP's Banic. "We're happy to eat their dinner, too."