Data center hardware infrastructure can be roughly categorized into servers, networking and storage. But two of those areas are merging before our eyes, as Cisco and HP battle for server and network integration. The business and technical implications of this consolidation affect other companies and customers — and the dust isn’t likely to settle anytime soon.
Although Cisco fired the first shot with its Unified Computing System, HP has long held the keys to a successful server line and an equally successful — and often under-rated — ProCurve networking line. And while Cisco’s first server was chassis-based — akin to its current switch and router products, its most recent announcement includes support for 1U and 2U rack-mounted servers, the kind HP has been shipping for years, along with Dell, IBM, Supermicro, and many more.
I have long felt that the architectural migration to scale out computing, using lots of inexpensive rack-mounted servers, lacked industry emphasis on the networking aspects of those configurations. Anyone who has seen a hastily assembled server rack knows how chaotic the cabling can be. Beyond the physical plant, as more CPUs and nodes fill the data center, the networking elements quickly gain in importance, from managing intelligent switching and routing, to accurately provisioning bandwidth, to ensuring efficient scale.
Perhaps HP was gearing up for this when it appointed David Donatelli, hired away from EMC, to executive vice president of servers, storage and networking. Unfortunately, the injunction EMC pursued over a non-compete agreement will keep Donatelli from storage until lifted, but he can certainly stay fully occupied battling Cisco with servers and networking.
Meanwhile, IBM and Dell need to figure out whether they plan to step into the networking ring. IBM has alluded to partnerships with Juniper on cloud computing initiatives, and is known to have a strong relationship with Brocade (now owner of Foundry Networks’ successful Ethernet switching business). Dell is focused on the build-out of large-scale data centers, so it seems inevitable that at some point, they will need to own more of the dollars from the networking sale as well.
Cisco and HP will claim that their tightly coupled solutions offer the best of all worlds to customers. In many cases, I expect they will. But in the past, the data center demarcation between servers and networks has fostered a vibrant ecosystem of devices and appliances that communicated effectively and interoperated relatively seamlessly. Could a tightening of single solutions forfeit this openness?
In the primary infrastructure tiers of server, networking and storage, the interesting battles have always been between them, rather than within. The single sourcing of servers and networking from Cisco and HP mark the first phase of the battle plans. Time will tell who this benefits most and if the story will continue to include storage leaders EMC and NetApp.