Cisco Unified Computing shakes up how IT buys hardware

UCS may help Cisco gain a foothold in server and storage purchasing decisions

Cisco Systems just might be charting the course to a new way for IT to buy servers, storage, and networking hardware.

As anticipated, on Monday Cisco detailed its Unified Computing System, which comprises a blade server, network, storage access, and virtualization resources in a single rackable system -- all of which the company claims help customers achieve "next-generation datacenters."

[ InfoWorld's Paul Venezia is "underwhelmed" by what Cisco's power play really means and Cisco's competitors are downplaying its new move. ]

The Unified Computing System comes out of what Cisco called a "joined at the chip" partnership with none other than Intel.

"Cisco is differentiating itself in the systems market space, with a blade server and fabric interconnect as a single integrated management domain. Cisco is attempting to use virtualization to break up the traditional server architecture by recombining it with networking technologies," analyst firm Gartner explained in a report.

A transition in the way IT shops purchase servers, storage, and networking hardware may already have been underway. In recent years, large IT shops have begun buying in "pods," or discrete racks of servers and storage systems configured for certain operating systems and classes of applications.

Gartner has been calling this trend toward modular, building-block datacenter fabrics "tera-architectures" since 2004, according to Andrew Butler, the research firm's distinguished analyst and vice president. Since then virtualization has become endemic, Butler added. "A fabric-based architecture that brings the server, storage, and network components closer together will be very well positioned to leverage both trends," he explained.

IDC is also seeing "a requirement for purpose-built systems that lower the burden of integration across servers, storage, and networking organizations for multiple workloads," Gartner said in a report.

Working across server, storage, and networking units within a customer also means that Cisco's Unified Computing System will likely carry a heftier price tag which, in turn, requires the involvement of more IT folks with buying power -- possibly the CIO. So UCS just might give Cisco a way into hardware purchasing decisions that it did not have before. 

But Cisco is not the only one there. Long-time partners-cum-competitors Dell, HP, and IBM also team up with Microsoft and VMware, meaning they can match Cisco's intentions for servers and storage.

"Cisco is betting that UCS's technological differences will beat the competition. But to displace an incumbent vendor like HP, these features must also be price competitive and offer value, as the server market is driven by price and … that is lower than Cisco's norm," Gartner said in its report.

Forrester Research principal analyst Galen Schreck sees the move as defensive on Cisco's part. "It was necessary because there's been a collision of servers and networking. People are buying HP blades with networking consolidated in them. What would be left for Cisco in that universe?" Schreck adds that Cisco's approach is "a bit more elegant."

Cisco lined up some impressive partners to join it on Monday including Accenture for consulting services, BMC, EMC, Microsoft, and VMware. What remains to be seen is whether Cisco can maintain such an ecosystem, IDC said. "Broader adoption will require tighter integration with existing datacenter frameworks," according to the research firm.

Datacenter rivals, meanwhile, responded to Cisco with public statements on Monday. Brocade said that Cisco's "very capital intensive" approach is not revolutionary and it really should leverage industry standards. Hewlett-Packard also circulated an e-mail suggesting that Cisco has "a lot to learn about the datacenter." And Juniper Networks' vice president of business development for datacenters, Andy Ingram, said to Forbes magazine, "We like this move [because] Cisco is pushing business in our direction."

Cisco did not provide a lot of nitty-gritty details about its Unified Computing System on Monday, but we do know that it's a cluster of as many as 40 Intel Nehalem Xeon-based servers tied together over a Cisco Nexus 10Gig Ethernet switch fabric that supports Fibre-Channel-over-IP and iSCSI SANs as well as NAS. The system also has a memory extension module that allows sharing memory across servers to overcome memory constraints in virtual server environments. And Cisco is pitching it as an integrated compute-network-storage system built for virtual server environments.

Cisco executive vice president Robert Lloyd said that more details about configurations and specific solutions will be available early next month.

"It's going to take a while since this is Cisco's first foray. It does take time to mature," Forrester's Schreck said. Gartner's Butler added,  "Look out for reciprocal actions from Cisco's big rivals before long."

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