HP, Cisco Take Networking Competition to VMworld 2012

HP has been challenging Cisco Systems' dominance in the networking equipment space and the competition surfaced at VMworld as both rivals touted their partnerships with VMware.

VMware is the leader in delivering virtualization to the data center network and by necessity partners with networking vendors such as Cisco Systems, HP and others to make that happen. At VMworld 2012 in San Francisco, both hardware vendors promoted partnerships with VMware and talked up their differences with each other.

Cisco and VMware jointly announced an expanded partnership to deliver the software-defined data center. That will include integrating Cisco's flagship line of Nexus 1000V switches into VMware's vSphere 5.1 suite of virtualization management applications, also announced at the conference. The two will also co-develop Cisco Unified Computing System (UCS)-based cloud systems that bundle vSphere 5.1 and vCloud 5.1 with Cisco-made switch, firewall and router products.

HP, meanwhile, demonstrated recently released virtualization software products that the company said simplify, automate and secure the movement of virtual machines (VMs) and data in cloud data centers. "Simplify" is a key part of the HP strategy to deliver software-defined networking, said Bethany Mayer, senior vice president and general manager of the networking division of Hewlett-Packard., in contrast with what she described as the complexity of a Cisco network.

"Our message is all about network simplification. That is not the status quo and that is not what the incumbent has done with the network for the past 20 years," Mayer said in an interview, referring to the incumbency of Cisco as the dominant player in the network equipment market.

HP stepped up its game in networking with the acquisition of 3Com in 2010. While Cisco still enjoys a sizable market share lead over HP and other players, HP says it has been gaining share while Cisco has been losing it. And despite weakness in HP's personal computer and printer businesses, Mayer said the company grew networking revenue by 10 percent in the quarter that ended July 31.

She contrasted HP's simplification approach with Cisco's using words such as "complicated," "fragile" and "difficult to manage." "Cisco has 37 different management platforms," Mayer noted.

Two new software offerings under the HP Converged Infrastructure product umbrella include the Ethernet Virtual Interconnect (EVI) to link together up to eight geographically dispersed data centers in an automated fashion. The second, Multitenant Device Context (MDC) software, delivers security for multitenant cloud applications, preventing the comingling of data from different applications or departments.

EVI is a particularly important component of HP's software-defined networking (SDN) strategy, Mayer said. SDN helps bring to networks the same advantages of virtualization that have been realized in servers, storage and desktops. With SDN, a control layer is introduced to the network architecture to manage all the hardware in the network fabric layer for faster and more efficient routing of data. EVI manages the network not just within a data center but between data centers.

"We think [EVI] is important because a lot of customers … want to view their switching fabric as if it's a single fabric and then be able to move applications or data across that fabric in a very cohesive and consistent manner," Mayer said.

HP was an early supporter of the open source OpenFlow protocol for delivering SDN. Cisco supports it, too, but is also going its own way, developing proprietary technology.

That has invited complaints from HP and others that Cisco is going to develop its own flavor of SDN to use on Cisco-based networks to keep a hold on its customers.

VMware made its play in SDN with the $1.26 billion acquisition of Nicira, a provider of network virtualization software. That isn't a direct threat to network hardware vendors because it's a software-only solution and customers will still need hardware to make SDN work, said Charles King, principal analyst at the research firm Pund-IT.

SDN is still in its nascent stage and there's plenty of room for VMware, Cisco, HP and others to find their place in it, King said.

"In the same way that we've seen multiple hypervisors emerge for virtualizing servers, I imagine that there will be multiple network virtualization technologies out there," he said.

"Networking is so critical to every part of what goes on in a data center that it makes sense for VMware to get in the middle of this and create a standard that it feels is in line with its customers' needs."