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.