Cisco's UCS move has rivals taking stock

Cisco New Zealand is already approaching potential customers

As Cisco entered the blade server market with its hotly anticipated Unified Computing System last month, competitors lined up to dismiss the new technology, saying it raises the problem of vendor lock-in and is too limited in scope to address broad customer needs.

Cisco detailed its Unified Computing System, which comprises a blade server, network, storage access and virtualisation resources in a single rackable system — all of which the company claims help customers achieve “next-generation datacentres.”

The new offering is based on future Intel Nehalem processors and includes memory improvements to support applications with large data sets, and allows the creation of many more virtual machines on each server. Partners such as EMC, VMware, Savvis, BMC and Microsoft joined Cisco in calling the UCS a major step forward in the datacentre. But Cisco’s competitors have raised several points of criticism.

A US Dell executive calls Cisco’s blade server a “one-size-fits-all” product that doesn’t take into account the varied needs of customers.

“I think [Cisco is presenting] a niche-focused approach,” says Rick Becker, Dell’s vice president of software and solutions. “We believe it can’t just be a single blade appliance. You need a whole portfolio. You need to deploy blades where appropriate. You need to deploy rack servers when appropriate.”

While Becker acknowledges Cisco is now a competitor in the blade server market, he professes not to be worried. He points out Dell still partners with Cisco to deliver networking technology to Dell blade servers.

“I compete with HP, I compete with IBM and I compete with Sun,” Becker says. “And I am perfectly able, willing and ready to compete with Cisco in the server space.”

Cisco has acknowledged it is not getting into the general blade market place, says Geoff Lawrie, general manager of Cisco New Zealand. “This is a targeted product — a high-end, highly scalable offering for the virtualised environment,” he says.

It would be hard for Cisco to launch a product and to compete effectively in the general blade market, which is already a mature market with some experienced and capable players in it, he says.

Over the past few years, the market has changed as organisations have moved towards centralised computing, consolidation and cloud-based computing models. And there is clearly a problem to be solved in the datacentre space, Lawrie says.

The general server industry has solved part of that problem by making equipment smaller and more compact and by enabling higher utilisation, but the scale problem has not yet been solved, he says.

“In particular, we haven’t produced an environment that is manageable at that scale – it has become too complex.”

UCS is offering companies looking to build significantly scalable environments a product that manages the performance issue, as well as puts all the resources into a single-management fabric, says Lawrie. All of the computing, storage and networking resource is managed as one unified environment.

Lawrie has already talked to a number of local customers that are interested in the offering. Local organisations big enough to be able to reap the benefits of the system are for example service providers and government departments, he says.

Cisco rival Brocade recognises its competitor’s attempt to create a “dynamic and virtualised data centre” that will improve efficiency of power and operations, but accuses Cisco of locking customers in to just one vendor.

“Achieving this goal is a complex challenge that can be best tackled by a broad ecosystem of industry partners and not based on a proprietary, singular architecture of one company,” Brocade says in a written statement.

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

“Cisco is attempting to use virtualisation to break up the traditional server architecture by recombining it with networking technologies,” says analyst firm Gartner in a report.

A transition in the way IT shops purchase servers, storage and networking hardware may already be 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 calls this trend towards modular, building-block datacentre fabrics “tera-architectures”. Another trend is, of course, virtualisation.

“A fabric-based architecture that brings the server, storage, and network components closer together will be well positioned to leverage both trends,” says Andrew Butler, Gartner analyst and vice president.

Working across server, storage and networking units with a customer also means that Cisco’s UCS will likely carry a heftier price tag which, in turn, requires the involvement of more IT folk 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.

The response from datacentre rivals includes a generally distributed email from Hewlett-Packard, suggesting that Cisco has “a lot to learn about the datacentre”.

However, local HP enterprise server and storage business manager Jeff Healey isn’t as aggressive. He says HP and Cisco are still partners. “We have competed and cooperated with Cisco over an extended period of time. Cisco is now branching out into a core area of our expertise … but Cisco is our lead partner for unified communication around voice and that is not going to change,” he says.

An IBM New Zealand spokeswoman says Cisco remains one of several partners IBM works with to build infrastructure for its clients.

Juniper Networks’ vice president of business development for datacentres, Andy Ingram, said to Forbes magazine, “We like this move [because] Cisco is pushing business in our direction.”

Doug Dineley and Tom Sullivan at InfoWorld (US) contributed to this story.

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