Cisco's big data center plans: Assessing winners and losers rack by rack

Cisco on Monday rolled out its long-awaited vision of data center architecture, including multiple partners, a wire-once approach to link computing, virtualization, storage and networking and a call to lower costs. Let's assess the winners and losers of this rack-by-rack data center battle.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Cisco on Monday rolled out its long-awaited vision of data center architecture, including multiple partners, a wire-once approach to link computing, virtualization, storage and networking and a call to lower costs. Let's assess the winners and losers of this rack-by-rack data center battle.

As background, Cisco's Unified Computing System aims to unify components of the data center into one footprint. The goal is to cut the total cost of ownership by 20 percent in capital expenses and up to 30 percent in operating expenses.  

Also see: Tom Steinert-Threlkeld's coverage of the press conference, Cisco statement, Cisco on Twitter here and here, Techmeme and more resources.

How did Cisco reach those savings figures? A Cisco spokesman said capital expenses will fall because fewer switches, adapters and cables are needed. Cables represent 15 percent of data center capital expenses. Cisco's architecture only has one cable going in. The set-up is also expected to lower power, cooling and labor costs. Meanwhile, one management application can manage the entire system compared to seven with legacy systems. 

As expected, Cisco also launched blade servers that are based on Intel's Nehalem processors. Cisco's design aims to create a single system that wires the blades and consolidates networking functions (local area, storage area and computing networks). 

Here's the setup via Cisco (at a glance and overview whitepaper):

Cisco's has taken a holistic approach to data center architecture and the ramifications could be big over time. However, the effects won't be felt overnight. Cisco noted that it doesn't expect a rip and replace of existing data center infrastructure in favor of its Unified Computing System. That said, Cisco will plan to win rack-by-rack as data center assets are replaced.

Cisco CEO John Chambers told customers that he realizes that they will buy "steps at a time." He also argued that Cisco's architecture is very appealing to greenfield implementations. "The data center is evolving. It had no choice but to change. Silos don't work anymore," said Chambers. 

Here's a look at the potential winners and losers:

Winner: Data center managers looking to find more productive uses for cable jockeys. For all of the moving parts of Cisco's Unified Computing Center announcement for IT execs it really boils down to two words: Wires and cables. All of those wire and cables cost you money. Cables equal labor costs and Cisco's new architecture has one wire going in. 

Instead of this:

You have this:

Cisco is trying to bring sexy design to the data center. Jim Grant, BMC's senior vice president of strategy and corporate development said the better wiring means IT managers can "wire once and reconfigure many in logical way rather than physical."

Loser: Competitors that will need to bolster their data center architecture plans. In a blog post, Cisco said that its data center move is to add value and not take on entrenched players.  

Cisco said:

This is not the ‘Clash of the Titans’ or us ‘coming after HP or IBM or Dell’. Some companies may choose to join us in this market, others may continue to operate the status quo.  We are certain over time we will not be alone in this market.

But Cisco's design work here is substantial. As Cisco gains its footing and begins rack by rack warfare customers are going to start asking about the Unified Computing System approach. Other data center rivals will have to start answering questions about integration between functions, architecture and the potential savings. If anything just the buzz associated with Cisco's move can dictate the conversation. 

Meanwhile, Cisco's partner lineup---SAP, NetApp, EMC, Wipro, Microsoft, Novell, Oracle and a bevy of others---means that customers will ask what companies are not on board, said Chambers.

Also see: Cisco seeks a new market that stops the madness

Cisco: Beyond the data center

Gallery: Cisco moves into blade servers

Winner: BMC Software. BMC and Cisco collaborated on the management software portion of the Unified Computing System. This deep integration means one app can manage the system. For BMC, the Cisco partnership "is preferential," said Grant. BMC, which is already entrenched in data centers, will find itself in all of those next-gen data center conversations. 

Winner: Intel. The chip maker gets its Nehalem processor to ride shotgun on the Cisco news. The positioning of Nehalem and next-generation data centers will be hard for AMD to match. 

Loser: Hewlett-Packard. There are a few items to ponder here. On the hardware side of the equation, HP may see blade server margins squeezed. HP is also battling back with its networking gear. But there's another hook here that may be overlooked: HP's own automation and management software. HP acquired Opsware and the capabilities are similar to what BMC offers. Now that Cisco and BMC are partners on sales calls it could be more difficult for HP's Opsware. 

Winner: VMware. As part of Monday's announcement, Cisco and VMware announced an original equipment manufacturer agreement. VMware, which is under fire from the likes of Microsoft, Red Hat and Citrix, gets another channel to push its virtualization platform. Cisco is a nice partner to have on board. “This is perhaps the only evolutionary road,” that is feasible right now, said Paul Maritz, the chief executive of VMWare, that could lead to “revolutionary” new forms of computing.

Loser: Brocade. Brocade made a big move to acquire Foundry Networks to push its own data center vision. Cisco's announcement will put pressure on Brocade to position its version as an alternative. Meanwhile, EMC is another big Cisco partner on its Unified Computing System as is NetApp. 

Brocade responded:

"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. Cisco's approach is likely to be very capital intensive up front, which will be a major obstacle in light of today's global economy."

Brocade also noted:

"A dynamic and virtualized data center holds the promise of many compelling benefits for end-users including increased server utilization, decrease in power footprint and more efficient operations in general. However, 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."

Winner: Cisco. The company has the message and the business case to make a go of its Unified Computing System. In many respects, the company has changed the data center conversation and managed to crowbar itself into more discussions as infrastructure is replaced.

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