Cisco (NASDAQ: CSCO) is pushing its vision of converged data center fabrics to a new level with the new Unified Computing System and is threatening to shake up the data storage market in the process.
The new systems, which unite servers, networks and storage in a single platform, could provide a big boost for the emerging Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) standard and for data storage giant EMC (NYSE: EMC), whose VMware (NYSE: VMW) subsidiary is central to Cisco's new offering.
In addition to VMware, EMC's Smarts and ControlCenter server, network and storage management tools are also part of the collaboration. EMC and Cisco said in a statement that they "will focus on discovery and dependency mapping, automated root cause analysis and policy-based configuration management."
NetApp (NASDAQ: NTAP) is another potential winner. Along with EMC, NetApp was mentioned as a data storage partner for Cisco's new offering.
Patrick Rogers, NetApp's vice president for solutions marketing, said the company's strength in Ethernet-based storage made it a natural partner for Cisco. He said NetApp believes that Ethernet will become the preferred data center fabric, and he had praise for Cisco's interconnect, storage access layer and integrated management technologies. NetApp and Cisco will collaborate on a variety of virtualization and consolidation offerings for servers, desktops and applications.
Emulex (NYSE: ELX) and QLogic (NASDAQ: QLGC) are also Cisco UCS storage partners.
On the competitive side of the picture, the announcement threatens to turn Cisco's rivalry with Brocade (NASDAQ: BRCD) up another notch, as the two have been at the forefront of storage and network switch vendors positioning for converged data center fabrics.
Brocade was dismissive of Ciscos efforts, saying in a statement that Cisco's approach to unified computing "is not revolutionary. Many companies with extensive experience, including Brocade, in solving complex data center issues are already working on solutions."
Brocade said Cisco's approach "is likely to be very capital-intensive up front," and the company said that converged data centers should be "tackled by a broad ecosystem of industry partners and not based on a proprietary singular architecture of one company."
Analysts Weigh In On Cisco's UCS
Analysts also had much to say about Cisco's bold entry into the server market.
"While this technology depends upon Ciscos proprietary Data Center Ethernet (DCE), it does eliminate the need for a separate Fibre Channel infrastructure," they wrote.
UCS uses an FCoE network that "roughly equates to a top of the rack system" yet "scales well beyond a single rack," they said. The system doesn't use Cisco's Nexus 5000 switches or 2000 series fabric extenders, but instead uses customized equipment called the Fabric Interconnect and Fabric Extender to route traditional LAN and SAN traffic to core IP and FC networks.
While major server vendors like IBM (NYSE: IBM), HP (NYSE: HPQ), Sun (NASDAQ: JAVA) and Dell (NASDAQ: DELL) can't be pleased that a major partner has become a competitor, the analysts said they expect HP and IBM to create new alliances with the likes of Brocade/Foundry and Juniper (NASDAQ: JNPR) to "diminish their reliance on Cisco."
Greg Schulz, founder and senior analyst at StorageIO Group, said that while FCoE is still in the early adopter phase, "for those who need it and can afford it, it has a primary market opportunity for aggregating server ports to fan in to traditional SANs," at least until it becomes a proven technology for mission-critical applications.
Taneja Group analyst Dave Bartoletti said the announcement is "significant because Cisco has acknowledged that virtualization is the new unifying data center architecture. ... This is quite an admission, and confirms that virtualization has won."
But Bartoletti said the product itself "is a sort of anti-virtualization strategy. They've gathered up several virtualization technologies and wrapped them in a Cisco box. Everything inside will be Cisco developed or chosen. Vendors will have to squeeze in between the big invited partners in order to craft any added-value solutions, and Cisco will decide who's allowed in."
Virtualization, Bartoletti said, "broke tightly coupled components apart and in doing so created a new class of solution opportunities. VMware competes with its partners to fill these new needs, but has no lock on any one. Every tier of a virtualized infrastructure is vulnerable to replacement.
"It seems to me that Cisco and its huge partners now want to gather the best of these solutions up, package them, and tell customers, 'don't waste time or money crafting a virtualization solution from parts. We've put the best together already.' I'm not convinced that's going to win hearts and minds any more successfully than Microsoft did when it tried to package web browsing as a 'feature' of Windows."