What do Cisco Systems’ key competitors in the data center systems business really think of the big networking fish that will soon be flopping around in their pond, trying to gain new market share?
Cisco announced on March 16 its Unified Computing System strategy, which includes the production of new network-centric server, software and services that will compete directly with those of Hewlett-Packard, Dell and other systems makers.
All IT vendor roads lead to the data center, and the paths that go there often cross over each other. Business is done on a slippery slope when companies that partner on some technology solutions have to become cutthroat competitors in other sectors; you can’t talk too nastily about a partnering company without burning some bridges that could have been useful later on.
However, Hewlett-Packard, which has been in the IT systems business for three generations, was pretty candid about this new challenge.
“Would you let a plumber build your house?” Jim Ganthier, HP’s vice president of infrastructure software and blades, asked eWEEK. “Cisco’s network-centric view of the data center is great for bandwidth management, but leaves a lot to chance in terms of service-level delivery as well as data reliability and accessibility.”
HP: Been there, done that?
Ganthier said he heard the March 16 Cisco presentation introducing the new initiative, which brings in a number of partners (such as EMC, Microsoft, VMware, BMC and Accenture) to handle various parts of the UCS solutions. Cisco is providing the network infrastructure-plus a new network-centric server called the B-Class and some associated services-to sell to enterprises that are planning to refurbish their aging data centers.
“We thought, ‘Nice event, but we’re delivering today what they promise tomorrow,'” Ganthier told eWEEK.
“Most people I know are saying, ‘HP stepping into an adjacency area such as networking-which we’ve done successfully with both ProCurve and VirtualConnect-well, that seems rather doable,’ ” Ganthier said. “But Cisco stepping into an adjacent area, such as storage or servers, and not addressing any of the other value chain or life-cycle aspects? That’s a little bit harder to basically do the leap of faith on.”
Cisco’s new UCS strategy also appears to be a lock-in for Cisco and its partners, Ganthier said.
“The way that Cisco portrayed this thing, it’s one server, one OS, one management piece, one chunk of storage,” Ganthier said. “Remember the movie ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’? It reminded me of the big 1 by 4 by 9 monolithic block. That is, that everything is predefined, prebuilt for you. What if somebody wants to take a different hypervisor? Or a different management construct? Cisco has already pretty much pre-chosen a lot of the components for you. Our belief is that you should have a choice.”
UCS Built on Open Standards
Jackie Ross, Cisco’s vice president of marketing, server access and virtualization, told eWEEK that Cisco has been planning this for years, and that the new UCS is based on open standards.
“Cisco is not just deciding to do this overnight,” Ross said. “We have been working on this for the past three years. We assembled a team in the areas where we wanted to augment our own areas of expertise. We actively built a group of experts from the compute space, from the server space and from the virtualization space, to augment the expertise we already had in house.”
Cisco took a fresh approach to this-not simply overlaying the individual components, but actually embedding the management as an essential part of the system that it designed from the ground up, Ross said.
“The other very important point here is that we’ve been talking to customers for even longer than the three years that we’ve been developing it. We didn’t start developing until we truly understood what customers are challenged with today. That’s what led us to taking a clean-slate approach to the problem,” Ross said.
Vikram Mehta, president and CEO of Blade Network Technologies, a Cisco competitor that makes Ethernet switches for HP and IBM servers, told eWEEK he believes Cisco’s “so-called unified computing strategy holds vast and arguably adverse implications as a way to lock customers into a proprietary world while locking out vendors like HP and IBM that are trusted open systems suppliers to enterprises around the world.”
Cisco’s converged data and storage networking requires Cisco’s DCE (Data Center Ethernet), Mehta said, thus eliminating freedom of choice with a Cisco-only server and network.
“This puts at risk integration and interoperability with vast existing installations. The rest of the industry is working on an open approach called Converged Enhanced Ethernet … using IEEE’s Data Center Bridging … standards,” Mehta said.
Ross said the whole UCS system is standards-based, starting with x86 processors and including standard Ethernet, iSCSI and Fibre Channel connectivity choices.
“You can choose Ethernet, native Fibre Channel, iSCSI or NAS to [use with] your storage,” Ross said. “The virtualization technology that we have embedded in the hardware is technology that we co-developed with VMware, and both companies have jointly proposed this as a standard to the IEEE standards body.”
What about the new embedded management software tools Cisco is offering? Are those also a lock-in?
“We have exposed this through two sets of APIs: one a standard API for all of those companies who have invested a great deal of time, energy and money into scripts for deploying their applications, so they will be able to hook right into the system and manage it,” Ross said. “The second is an XML-based API for any commercial systems management application so they can tie in as well. EMC, BMC and VMware all have announced they are integrating their systems management tools into the ACS.”
Dell ‘will compete aggressively’
Dell, which partners with most of the same companies as Cisco-including EMC, Microsoft and VMware-wasn’t quite as tough on Cisco as HP, but those slippery slopes are still in evidence. The server space will see the most friction between the two companies.
“In general, we’re excited about the concept of unified computing,” Dell Marketing Director Rick Becker told eWEEK.
“For our Cisco customers, the notion of being able to manage not only their networks, but also their server and storage devices, from the same cloud management console is good. So you’ll see Dell working very closely with Cisco at integrating that capability around virtualization and seamless systems management into our award-winning blade infrastructure, as well as our rack servers.
“We’re very experienced at competing in the server market: We compete with Sun, IBM [and] HP, and we’re absolutely prepared to compete with Cisco for the server space,” Becker said. “While we’re excited about their network experience and what they’re doing to combine systems management, we’re prepared to aggressively compete in the server space.”