Cisco Systems stirred up a hornet’s nest among server vendors with the announcement that it was explicitly getting into the blade-based server market.
They were right to do so, according to most analysts, but not because Cisco’s server architecture—which began life as an a motherboard add-in to a dedicated router—could be a credible competitor to IBM, Hewlett-Packard or other server giants.
Cisco announced a server based on what it calls a Unified Computing System—a rack-mounted system that includes units that can support up to eight blade servers based on Intel’s next-generation Nehalen processors, a set of low-latency 10Gbit/sec Ethernet and FCoE switches and dedicated interface units called Fabric Extenders that provide up to four 10Gbit/Sec links between blade modules and the network backplane.
In a typical setup, the blades would act as host for virtual machines running on either VMware’s ESX or Microsoft Corp.’s Hyper-V, both of which partnered with Cisco for the integration. To connect VMs to the network, they would also run Cisco’s software-only Nexus virtual-switch software to provide high-speed dedicated access to both data and storage networks.
Each blade-server chassis comes with two 10 Gbit/sec connections and support for Ethernet, Fibre Channel, Fibre Channel over Ethernet and iSCSI, so they can connect to storage and data networks running a variety of protocols.
The setup is powerful, but there are too many companies selling blade-server products at too high a level of quality for Cisco to compete just as a server vendor, analysts said.
The disruptive element in the mix, however, may not be just a new brand on the blade, or even how closely the blade server is connected to both data and storage networks, according to Rich Ptak, president of Ptak, Noel & Associates. It may be the addition of BMC Software’s BladeLogic server-management software and its sophisticated ability to provision, manage and monitor all the resources a virtual machine uses.
“Until now you’ve had storage, networks and compute power, three separate elements, each of which you had to manage separately, even if you’d virtualized them,” Ptak said. “This takes that away and combines them; it reduces cost, introduces more accessibility, automatic redundancy and much more transparent management because the BMC stuff knows how to manage all those things together. Without that you don’t have the full flexibility of virtualization; it left too much management burden on IT.”
At least as important as the management capability is where Cisco got it, according to Jim Frey, research director at Enterprise Management Associates.
“Cisco doesn’t do management well,” he said. “They don’t do management unless they have to.”
Instead, Cisco licenses best-of-breed, long-established tools from Smarts (now owned by EMC), Netcool, Micromuse and others. Adding BMC to the mix adds to that tradition, but only when there are servers involved. BMC has had more trouble developing network management products than even Cisco.
“What BMC does really well, though, especially with the BladeLogic technology they acquired [in March, 2008 for $800 million] is provisioning, monitoring and managing the VMs and the server.
“Cisco’s had the ability for years to put an application blade in a switch, but had nothing close to the automated policy control you get in systems from IBM and HP. They didn’t have anything in their management toolkit to deal with hypervisors and provisioning and all that,” Frey said. “BMC has all the business-service management and automation tools in their kit. By aligning with them, Cisco gets to have a tie-in to all those first-level systems-management capabilities.”
While Cisco has been moving toward the server market by designing its routers with add-on blades and architectures very similar to mainstream servers, it is also moving into unified computing to expand beyond capabilities that are becoming obsolete, says Chris Wolf, an analyst at The Burton Group.
When it introduced the Nexus 1000V virtual switch at VMworld last year, it was moving more heavily into virtualization. But it was also moving ahead of innovations in software-only switching that would have made some of its switching and network appliances obsolete, Wolf said.
“Other vendors are also trying to sell purpose-built appliances, but Cisco saw that the transition of appliance devices to software were a significant threat to Cisco’s Layer 2 devices,” Wolf says. “That’s one of a few things happening that are disruptive to Cisco’s existing business model.”
Alternative data-center architecture
Moving into data-center servers won’t be easy, even for Cisco, Wolf said.
“They’re asking a data center that might be an HP shop to take on systems management across two different platforms,” Wolf said. “On the other hand, it’s a lot more modular approach than HP’s pod-based way to do data-center upgrades. And, in Cisco’s favor, many existing IT processes in the data center are in flux right now, from virtualization and services and other things. If [Cisco] was going to make a move, this was the time to do it.”
Data-center sales, or migrations from one vendor to another, or even additions of one vendor’s equipment to a relatively homogeneous shop, aren’t quick, however, Frey said.
If Cisco is successful in the server market, and the complaints from its competitors are one sign that it has a good chance to be, Frey said, that success will take time.
At the very least its entry will push HP and IBM and other competitors to innovate more quickly and keep prices down, both of which will benefit customers, Wolf said.
“The net-net is that you have a fundamental shift in data-center architecture,” according to Ptak. “You have three choices now: server-based computing from a traditional server-based architecture from HP, mainframe-based from IBM, and now network-centric computing from Cisco. It will create more pervasive and transparent sensibility to services you run on an infrastructure based on that.”