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Summary:

In a matter of hours, Cisco Systems will announce its much awaited lineup of server products, furthering its theme of unified computing. The move is part of an ongoing effort at Cisco to find new revenue opportunities that go beyond switches, routers and wireless devices.

In a matter of hours, Cisco Systems, the San Jose, Calif.-based maker of switches and routers will announce its much awaited lineup of server products, furthering its theme of unified computing. The company has planned a splashy event tomorrow featuring Intel CEO Paul Otellini and VMWare CEO Paul Maritz.

We had first reported on Cisco’s server plans almost a year ago. It’s a logical step, given that the company launched Nexus data center switches and made a substantial investment in VMWare.The introduction of its servers — a move that is likely to put Cisco in conflict with partners such as IBM, HP and others — is part of an ongoing effort at Cisco to find new revenue opportunities that go beyond switches, routers and wireless devices. Cisco has identified many new areas ripe for revenue expansion, and the data center is one such area.
Doubling Down on Data Center

To put it simply, our world is getting more digital. It means more information is going online, thus placing new kinds of stress on our Internet infrastructure. From storage to servers to routers, everything is being scaled up to meet the needs of a post-Facebook world in which we create all sorts of digital pollution.

This rapid growth of digital information has resulted in the formation of megacomputers — Google, Salesforce, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon and Microsoft — which are essentially data centers connected to each other via massive fiber networks.

A similar trend has started to emerge inside corporations. Take the beleaguered financial sector as an example. The chaos unleashed by the subprime mortgage crisis has resulted in the formation of super banks such as JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo. In order to get on sounder footing, they will (sooner or later) need to make their digital infrastructure intelligent and use their mammoth data repositories by analyzing the information and turning that into a key business advantage.

At the same time, the geographically and demographically diverse nature of global corporations is forcing companies to move their business processes online. Many will have no option but to turn to the web and web-based software to unite its far-flung operations because they would need to be operationally efficient. The current global economic crisis has taken away the luxury of operational inefficiencies, regardless of the size of the company.
Get Ready for Comm-puting.

As companies lean more heavily on digital data to support their operations and performance, they’ll need new data centers that can handle the needs of a real-time corporation. To build this infrastructure, corporations will have to switch away from the old enterprise class hardware to more service-provider quality equipment. This is the long-predicted union of computing and communications into essentially comm-puting.

The folks at Sun Microsystems were right when they said that the network is the computer, though they haven’t been able to capitalize on their core beliefs. Cisco, with no legacy in the data center business, has had to start from scratch, and thus has put together a solid strategy for the new emerging class of “comm-puting” equipment.

An essential quality of this new category is that it treats compute and storage resources as part of a single network fabric. Typically in data centers you would have three distinct resources — storage, compute (servers) and networks. Storage resources would be networked using different networking protocols than networks that tied the servers together. Cisco is taking a different approach (much of which will be outlined tomorrow). A key centerpiece will be “Project California” as reported by Internet News, which also has some details on the new servers:

  • The new machines will be focusing on networking and memory.
  • Each blade will have two 2.93 GHz Intel Xeon x5570 (Nehalem) processors.
  • These new processors have QuickPath Interconnect (QPI) which gives them a bandwidth throughput of 32 Gbps.
  • 384 GB of DDR3 memory per blade. Typical blade servers have 128 GB memory.
  • They will be 4u high and fit up to eight per chassis.
  • Project California box will have a rack that can hold eight “blades” and seven will use server virtualization software from either VMware (VMW) or Microsoft (MSFT). The eighth blade will be a networking switch called Nexus. (via BusinessWeek)

No Me-Too Product
These technical details reveal a blade server that is essentially the “Incredibles” version of today’s blade servers. Last week, Cisco Systems’ CTO Padmasree Warrior told me that the company was not interested in building a me-too product but instead wanted to build an entirely new kind of a product.

“We want to unify all elements – network, compute, virtualization into unified computing.” (She explains Unified Computing in this video.) In addition, she pointed out that — in sharp contrast to server-centric data centers — the network would essentially become the orchestrator, though she didn’t quite elaborate on how this will be achieved.

Cisco’s move is well timed. The demand for servers inside the data centers is on an upswing — about 50 percent of the 8 million servers sold every year end up in data centers, according to a BusinessWeek report. Similarly more devices inside the data center means more power consumption, which shoots up the operational costs of the data centers. According to Intel, nearly 25 percent of the costs associated with running big data centers can be traced back to power consumption. As we reported earlier, much of the power is drawn by pizza box style servers.

“Server virtualization has lowered the capital expenditure, but the op-ex has gone up, and what we have now is islands of virtualization,” Warrior told me, pointing out that Cisco’s new “unified computing” efforts are going to be accompanied by new software management tools as well. “The pre-virtualization era was about hardware, and the post-virtualization era is about combining hardware and software.”

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  1. Junaid Ahmed Sunday, March 15, 2009

    Wow! That is one huge step towards the unification of such a new balanced unit ready for virtualized software and services, I’d love to deploy a data center using these bad boys, the power detailed in the specs looks good, with a 8-core nehalem powerhouse and 384gb of ddr3 goodness. Virtual servers would love this platform. Cannot wait for the official release and details on this unit.

  2. Alan Wilensky Monday, March 16, 2009

    This is all well and good, the world needed better carrier class hardware for compute platforms – lets call them superplatforms. The other half of the equation is the software that is sufficiently general yet comprehensive, such as Openlink’s “superserver” app server, database, id managers, linked data repositories, etc.

    So, we now graduate from comm boxes at enterprise class to servers at enterprise class. It’s still all the services that define the system.

    1. I agree with Alan that services define the system. Cisco revolves around this concept, which is probably why John Chambers, quoted in a ZDNet blog post, commented that he has always been “Technology-agnostic.”. As the Manager of Network Systems Networking and Services Switching for Cisco, I can tell you that Cisco acknowledges the increasing demands of the network, but we also realize that customers need full service and full functionality. For example, we recently improved our technology with a new line of Nexus switches and redesigned the 6500 Catalyst switch to work as a virtualized service node. The Unified Computing announcement shows how we take our existing and new technology, put it to better uses, and provide full service so that our customers can make the most of enterprise network virtualization.

      The move into Unified does not demonstrate a conflict with other companies, but rather reflects the increasing demand from our customers for this kind of technology.

  3. Lode Vermeiren Monday, March 16, 2009

    Some more details in our post at Virtualization.com: http://tr.im/ciscofornia

    For example, the part about the switches (8th blade slot for a Nexus) etc is not what we’ve heard from Cisco.
    –> 4 or 8 blades (4 with lots of memory and redundant I/O connections, 8 for higher CPU density but without redundant I/O paths)
    –> 2 fabric extenders
    –> FEX connects to UCS6100 switch (Nexus 5000 with management ports)

  4. “Network as the Platform” sounds a lot like Sun Microsystems vision “The Network is the Computer”.

  5. Are you kidding me?

    Cisco plans to take everyone back about 25 years to a high-margin, single, all-in-one closed “solution”. How can they be innovating here when they touting open standards and using closed protocols between the blade system and Nexus switch. In short, you can’t use the blade system unless you use the nexus switch. More $$ for greazy Crisco.

    Cisco is trying to own everything in the datacenter…which sounds good to them $$. How many datacenter’s do you know run entirely on one or two vendor’s gear??

    If this is the Empire (or Enterprise) Strike’s Back, shouldn’t be long before Return of the Jedi (underestimated little guy) puts the Emperor (Chambers) back to building overpriced death stars with IOS hacks posted on the Internet and delivered via an R2 unit.

    The idea of network virtualization sounds good, but should have partnered with someone that has blade system experience, instead of spreading yourself too thin.

    Should fizzle out in about the same time as their last blade venture did back in 2005.

    And as for the Sun guy (Phil) …is your company building the blades for them? Looks like Sun OEM gear to me – which I highly doubt it is.

  6. Its the comm-odity revilution, not the comm-unication and not the comm-puting !

    Amazon and Google are building huge data-centers made out of the cheapest computers they can buy. As a monopsony they force lowest margins on suppliers. They don’t pay for expensive RAID ( poor storage companies:) ) and they don’t pay for expensive boxes ( It is all the same intel inside anyway ).
    The secret of their success is software level load balancing, high availability and storage.
    Network vendors have been able to avoid the problem so far because one still needed expensive switches.
    With virtulization you need 4% of the switches you needed before because most of the traffic is inside the server and you get the switch for free.
    This is very bad news for everyone who used to sell expensive equipment in a fancy chassis.

    Cisco is trying to keep the 60% margins it has by starting to sell in the 15% margin commodity server world.
    It still remains to be seen why this server is so unique.
    It is not as if IBM and HP have not been making excellent blade servers that run VMWARE for 10 years now.

    I think the really big story here is Cisco would need to move to a software company model, which is quite a big change.
    Obviously a lot of their intellectual property is in software, but the whole thinking of the company is more “hardware” oriented.

  7. Looks like someone is already paying homage (or would that by OMage?) to the new term “Comm-puting” – http://www.comm-puting.com/

  8. Oh well, whatever the motive or the benefits, things have become a bit boring in the industry with all the economic downturn. So as a techno enthusiast, this is an interesting inflection point. I’m enjoying the marketing dynamics here.

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