Cisco has long advocated a systems-based approach to building enterprise networks, saying an end-to-end Cisco infrastructure is worth more than the sum of its parts. Last year it expanded that vision to encompass the whole data center. The company introduced its Unified Computing System servers, along with storage and virtualization from partners such as EMC and its subsidiary VMware, claiming key advantages over server makers such as HP and IBM.
UCS was the first platform to support Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCOE), an approach that can cut networking costs by eliminating separate adapters, switches and cables for LANs and storage, says Jackie Ross, a Cisco vice president of marketing. The incumbents also forced administrators to manually change the network attributes of each server as applications were moved around a virtualized data center, Ross says. UCS took aim at those problems.
With its UCS servers, Cisco included adapters that can support FCOE when users are ready for it and introduced a console administrators can use to remotely define the network, storage and security needs of each application. These profiles travel with the applications from blade to blade. Special chips in the servers and in Cisco network gear help carry out commands from the console.
The company’s first blade servers came out about a year ago. Cisco argues that being new to servers has helped it leapfrog rivals—HP, IBM and Dell—in those management and networking capabilities. But like any IT industry incumbents, the big server vendors benefit from decades of development, says Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice. All three offer more choices of computing platforms, management tools and other data-center components, he observes.
UCS is easier than some other server platforms to deploy, but some users find scaling it up more difficult in a heterogeneous environment, Eunice says. “A lot of what you see in UCS is designed to work really well with other parts of UCS,” he says.
Building a data center around one vendor’s vision can simplify operations, which may help IT support rapid growth and change in a business. NightHawk Radiology consolidated its computing and storage into one data center built around 18 UCS blade servers. Unlike some other products, UCS gave NightHawk all the network interfaces per blade that are recommended by VMware, says Chris Smith, NightHawk’s manager of data-center infrastructure.
The company also has some HP and Dell rack servers, mostly to run legacy applications, and interoperability isn’t a problem, Smith says. About 70 percent of UCS customers use the servers in mixed environments, Cisco’s Ross says.
Enterprises that buy into one supplier’s data-center lineup—whether or not it’s Cisco’s—may get special capabilities without getting locked in, analysts say. Also, CIOs that only use Cisco for switches and routers don’t need to worry, Eunice says. The gear should stay viable no matter whose servers are in the data center.
Customer demand will force Cisco and its rivals to support mixed environments, says analyst Steven Schuchart of Current Analysis. “Enterprises hate being told, ‘You can’t,’” he says.
The Company: Cisco
Headquarters: San Jose, Calif.
2009 Revenue: $36.1 billion
CEO: John Chambers
What They Do: The company pioneered the network router, then acquired Ethernet switch technology, to become the dominant maker of enterprise networking equipment. It has since tackled carrier and consumer networks and branched out into areas including telepresence and consumer electronics.
Stephen Lawson is senior U.S. correspondent with IDG News Service.