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Cisco Enters Server Market

Cisco Systems Inc., the IT industry’s leading supplier of routers and other networking hardware, is expanding its hardware offerings to include blade servers as part of a comprehensive push into the white-hot world of virtualization.

The blade server architecture is one part of the "Cisco Unified Computing System" (UCS), which also includes networking and storage management capabilities. Cisco envisions an end-to-end datacenter solution, with virtualization technology underpinning the infrastructure. Cisco has put in place partnership deals with a number of giant hardware and software vendors to supply these needs, including Microsoft, VMware, NetApp, BMC, Red Hat, EMC, Novell, Accenture and others.

Cisco, at least initially, is only making blade servers. It includes the Cisco UCS 5100 Series Blade Server Chassis, which supports up to eight blade servers. Those servers will be Cisco UCS B-Series Blade Servers outfitted with Intel Xeon processors. Other products in the line include switches, fabric extenders and network adapters.

All of those components can be virtualized, which will give such a system a great deal of flexibility and scalability. Since virtualization abstracts software from the underlying hardware, multiple operating systems and applications can be loaded on a single server, unlike older systems which generally ran one OS and one application per server. That can lead to big savings on hardware, as well as reduce significant datacenter costs like space, cooling and power.

The announcement is further proof of the skyrocketing popularity of virtualization, which many in the industry believe will thrive in the current economic environment, given its proven and quick return on investment (ROI). Although Cisco says on its Website that it supports both "virtualized and non-virtualized systems," the very idea of a unified computing system implies virtualization. And although companies could use the hardware in a physical-only environment, San Jose, CA-based Cisco has tied its value squarely to its use in virtualized datacenters.

It is also a direct shot across the bow of traditional server vendors like IBM, HP and Dell. Burton Group Analyst Chris Wolf, who specializes in virtualization, called today's announcement "A pretty big deal. There's another competitor now in the server market, which is good. It pushes innovation and pushes the stalwarts."

Although Wolf says Cisco "has a good product," he's not sure how quick uptake will be. "It might take time to penetrate enterprises ... and the server market. It will put pressure on vendors like HP, IBM and Dell."

UCS will be offered with hypervisors and management platforms from both VMware and vSphere (formerly known as Virtual Datacenter Operating System, or VDC-OS), and Microsoft, with Hyper-V and System Center Virtual Machine Manager. Wolf said that Cisco made a good choice in its partnerships. "VMware and Microsoft are the top two vendors in this space, so it makes sense to support those platforms."

Kusnetzky Group Analyst Dan Kusnetzky, in a blog entry, had some questions about Cisco's announcement. He wrote:

This would place them in direct competition with Dell, HP and IBM. The key question that should be in potential customer’s minds is “are they ready?”

...Dell, HP and IBM each have a track record supporting customers increasingly complex environments. This means having relationships with all of the suppliers of operating systems, application frameworks, applications, security software, management tools and virtualization technology. At this point, Cisco does not have a portfolio of products, services, partnerships and alliances that comes close to those fielded by HP or IBM.

Wolf said he believes that the market can support another hardware player, even in the current economic environment. "I think the timing is right, because of the rapid move to virtualization. Virtualization projects aren't slowing down; they're doing just the opposite because of the economy."

He added that he believes Cisco's hardware products are strong right out of the gate, and should garner a lot of interest from businesses. "I think the blade is a good way to get started. You need high I/O, and the Cisco chassis provides that as well."

Wolf went even further, stating that the Cisco strategy is another nail in the coffin of traditional datacenter computing. "The days of building a server platform to run one application are over," he said.

Product availability and pricing information was not given.

About the Author

Keith Ward is the editor in chief of Virtualization & Cloud Review. Follow him on Twitter @VirtReviewKeith.

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