As servers and storage start to merge into unified, virtualized systems, Cisco wants to do the same thing with the networks that connect them.
On Monday, the company is set to unveil a datacenter networking platform that eventually could take the place of both the Ethernet switches that link servers as well as the Fibre Channel devices that form storage networks. The Nexus series is designed both to meet exploding demands for bandwidth and energy efficiency within datacenters and to simplify the jobs of IT administrators. In the process, it could help give Cisco the central role it seeks in IT infrastructure.
Cisco is already a leading player in datacenter networks with its Catalyst-series Ethernet switches and its MDS storage network platform. Now it hopes to transcend those separate systems using a single, unified switching fabric and the emerging Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) standard. The platform it will use, called Nexus, will be a line of routing switches in chassis, rack-mounted, and blade form. The first of these, the Nexus 7000 chassis, will be generally available in the second quarter. Prices will start at $75,000, but a typical configuration will cost about $200,000, according to Jayshree Ullal, senior vice president of Cisco's Data Center, Switching and Security Technology Group.
Mark Drake is looking at the Nexus platform for future-proofing as his company, Health Management Associates, centralizes its data resources. The company runs about 60 hospitals, mostly in the southeastern United States. Health Management's current Catalyst switches are probably enough to handle connectivity needs in its datacenters for the next two years, but it's hard to predict storage and processing requirements beyond that as he looks for the next generation, Drake said.
"I'm looking at a little over 10 years' capacity," Drake said. The Nexus line is built to go far beyond the scale of the Catalysts, delivering more than 15Tbps. "The capacity to grow is huge," he said.
Another benefit Drake sees in the Nexus, which he has been told about but hasn't tested, is ease of management. Health Management is already trying to reduce IT staff costs by consolidating datacenters from each hospital to two main locations. Because the new platform combines storage and data switching along with security in a single switch and management interface, it could further simplify running those datacenters, he said.
Initially, Cisco sees the Nexus switches at the core of datacenters that still use separate networks for processing and storage. But as FCoE emerges in storage systems, the Nexus could become the single connectivity platform, Ullal said. Its switching fabric is designed to be lossless, unlike a standard Ethernet system, which tolerates dropped packets, said Tom Edsall, senior vice president and CTO of the datacenter group. The platform also has built-in security features, including wire-speed encryption and authentication capability for each port.
At the heart of the platform is a new, virtualized operating system, NX OS. As with server virtualization, NX OS can turn a Nexus switch into multiple logical switches running totally different processes, Ullal said . For example, one logical switch could handle storage and be managed by storage specialists, while the other links servers and is run by a different staff. A third could be a test platform. All would use a single switching fabric and set of redundant power supplies, which provides benefits in performance, economies of scale, and resiliency, she said. This virtualized architecture eventually will trickle down to other Cisco product lines, according to Ullal.
Cisco also has automated some aspects of management with the Nexus line, drawing on best practices it learned partly from its customers, Edsall said. The system is designed to monitor and heal itself in many cases.
The network's role in datacenters is growing as computing and storage are combined and shared, according to industry analysts. It's now the "orchestrator" of the datacenter, Zeus Kerravala of Yankee Group said. Cisco is the only vendor with both the networking and the computing experience to fulfill that role, he believes. But though many managers of datacenters want to see total virtualization of the datacenter, which could boost efficiency, they aren't yet ready for it.
"We're just entering the very early stages of the virtual datacenter," Kerravala said. "This is probably at least two years away."
Cisco is best positioned to build the core of datacenters because the network touches everything in it, according to Ullal, Edsall, and other executives.
"For Cisco, it's very critical that this platform be a launching pad to go further up the IT stack," said IDC's Cindy Borovick. However, taking control of datacenters won't be a walk in the park, she cautioned.
"Cisco's in a very strong position, but there are other very large suppliers that recognize how important the datacenter is and are willing to invest the R&D dollars," Borovick said, citing IBM and Sun Microsystems. To Cisco's peril, datacenter administrators are more than willing to buy the best of many vendors rather than standardize on one, because they control the "crown jewels" of the enterprise, she said.