Cisco Edging Into Virtualization With Blades

by Andy Patrizio

A March even will spotlight Cisco's entry into the virtualization market and serve notice to HP.

Cisco Systems will introduce "Project California," a blade system specially tuned for virtualized environments, at an event in San Francisco on March 16, InternetNews.com has learned.

The news comes as talk surfaces around Cisco's other strategies to ramp up its virtualization portfolio: namely, through an acquisition of VMware or its parent, EMC. So far, those talks never moved beyond an initial phase, although industry observers and Wall Street continue to watch for signs of renewed discussions among the three.

For the time being, however, Cisco's efforts in virtualization focus primarily on the launch of its new blade system. According to a source familiar with the products, the blades will be based on Intel's Core i7 processors and come with up to 192GB of memory, well above the maximum capacity of 128GB in today's blades. Intel recently announced it would begin shipping Core i7 Xeon processors, codenamed Nehalem-EP, as part of its Xeon 5000 series.

The blades include a PCI-Express connection, allowing them to connect to Cisco's high-speed Unified Fabric architecture. These connections also give the blades very fast Ethernet access to both the network and storage devices and eliminate the need for a storage-area network (SAN). Instead, the blades would talk directly to the storage servers.

The blade servers are believed to come with Cisco's Nexus 5000 switches embedded in the chassis, which support the Unified Fabric and is built to be virtualization-ready. The servers will also feature tight integration with and support for VMware software.

This would put computing and networking power all in a single box. "It's more of making the computer part of the network, thus Unified Computing," said the source, turning Sun Microsystems's infamous "The network is the computer" slogan on its ear.

The term "Unified Computing" was first floated by Cisco CTO Padmasree Warrior in a January blog post, where she described it as "the advancement toward the next generation data center that links all resources together in a common architecture to reduce the barrier to entry for data center virtualization.

"In other words, the compute and storage platform is architecturally 'unified' with the network and the virtualization platform," she added.

A spokesperson for Cisco declined to comment on the story.

Next page: Built for virtualization

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Built for virtualization

The source went on to say that Cisco has no interest in the broad, general purpose market for blades, only for virtualized systems. Analysts noted that most blades are virtualized anyway, making them de facto mass market products.

"On any blades run now, people are running virtual workloads," said Andi Mann, senior analyst with Enterprise Management Associates. But he added "this does not sound like just a copycat move and trying to get into a market someone else owns. This is Cisco looking at the market and extending it in their own way."

Gordon Haff, principal IT advisor with Illuminata, felt the same way, and is less sold on the idea. "If you leave aside high performance computing, that's like saying you're going after where all servers are going," he told InternetNews.com. "The direction for mainstream servers will be to be virtualized. I don't see that as a tiny niche of servers."

The vast amount of memory would make it ideal for putting up to 100 virtual machines on the server, a problem blades currently have in that due to memory constraints, they can only run so many virtual machines.

By using Core i7 instead of Xeon, Cisco gets DDR3 memory, which is much faster than DDR2 and draws less power. It's also a much lower power draw than FBDIMM used in current Xeons, which draw much more power than DDR memory and run hotter.

Also, the Core i7 has the new QuickPath Interconnect, which allows for much greater bandwidth than any prior x86 processor, greatly improving memory performance. After I/O, memory performance is the second biggest issue vexing virtualized servers.

The goal of Cisco's Project California is to remove the bottlenecks of virtualization, at the memory and adapter levels. The faster Core i7 and large amount of memory will improve performance within the blade, and the connection to Unified Fabric will make it easier to move data in and out of the blade, as well as moving virtual machines around with VMware's VMotion.

The two analysts were split in their view of the features and strategy. "This makes those blades extremely agile on how they can move resources around," said Mann. "The bottlenecks on blades are network traffic. Saturation of the network is much more of a problem then saturation of memory. This gives enterprises an extremely efficient way of using computer resources that utilize network connections and storage connections."

Hoff is not sold. "I can appreciate the general point Cisco is making, going after a specific class of servers, probably relatively higher-priced and higher margins. But I will point out that a niche strategy has not been an effective strategy for server makers for the past decade," he said.

"I can't think of a good example of a large storage vendor who has gone into storage servers in a niche way."

Next page: Returning fire at HP?

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Returning fire at HP?

Why Cisco would enter a new market, one dominated by HP, IBM and Dell, three companies quite capable of putting up a fight, seems unusual. What may have stirred all of this might very well be HP nudging into Cisco's territory first.

HP has its own networking equipment, the ProCurve line. The previous CEO of HP, Carly Fiorina, reportedly encouraged HP's sales force to promote Cisco products over ProCurve during her tenure. However, the new chief, Mark Hurd, made ProCurve a part of the company's growth strategy and is directly taking on Cisco in this area.

So is this Cisco's way of telling HP to step off? The source familiar with Project California thinks so, and so does Haff.

"I'm sure the people involved in it would see it that way," he said. "It sounds like a toe in the water, an exploration, a competitive counter and so forth, than it does a broad based foray into the server market."

He added "HP's doing well with ProCurve, I don't see them backing off where they are having success."

Mann agreed. "It's not necessarily a shot directly at HP, but it's a shot across their bow," he said. "They can't afford to put aside someone like HP or IBM. The hardware in a datacenter is predominantly HP and IBM. They've got to work with those companies. If they shut either one out they dig themselves a hole.

"But it could be a message to HP that there's overlap and Cisco will be aggressive in the datacenter market."

Article courtesy of InternetNews.com

This article was originally published on Friday Feb 13th 2009
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