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Coming Soon: The Cisco Blade Server?

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The movement toward blade servers in the enterprise data center has been growing steadily for some time, backed by manufacturers like IBM and HP. But expect to soon see networking giant Cisco Systems enter this market as well, setting themselves up for a tense battle with blade server manufacturers for control of the enterprise data center. [digg=]

Earlier this year Cisco introduced their next generation of data center switches, the Nexus 7000 series. While many in the industry saw this announcement as playing catch-up to the likes of Force10 in the data center switching market, the blade server market took notice. Cisco is not a blade server manufacturer -– they are a networking company pushing the envelope of their areas of expertise in an attempt to keep their place in the enterprise data center. They already produce Linux-based blades for their Catalyst 6500 Series switches, so it seems logical to expect that a blade server will appear shortly in the Nexus 7000 Series.

Both Cisco and the blade server manufacturers know they’re in the midst of a revolution in the enterprise data center, one based on blades and virtualization. Data networking, an important component of the enterprise data center, is no longer the central force driving the vision of the future. Losing that visionary status means that account control, the prize coveted by all enterprise sales organizations, is moving from Cisco to others like IBM, HP and VMware (which may explain Cisco’s investment in VMware as a toehold in the virtualization space).

IBM currently sells Cisco switch ports attached to their blade servers. Once Cisco reverses this selling dynamic and announces their blade server for the Nexus 7000 switch you can bet that the folks in control of the enterprise accounts will take notice and go on the offensive.

In the long run, the enterprise data center is all about providing computing resources for an organization. Who do you think can provide those resources more effectively -– a blade server manufacturer using virtualization with networking added to the system or a data networking manufacturer adding blade servers and virtualization?

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34 Responses to “Coming Soon: The Cisco Blade Server?”

  1. I would postulate that Cisco will come out with more products in the “Nexus” family of products focused at the Data Center. The 7000 may not be that vehicle, but there will be other “Nexus” products targeted at this space soon, of which there may be some that will start to threaten IBM and HP’s dominance of the blade server area even more.

  2. Control? Not quite yet my friend. Today we are seeing more and more customers understand that networks play a critical role in the data center, but many are still ‘server centric’. It amazes me that I still get customers asking, “Is Cisco IN the Data Center?”

    I guess my amazement comes from remembering the days of connecting 7500 Series Routers to Mainframes with a faster Front-End Processor and then from the shift to Client-Server and SOA apps driving the most network-centric application architectures seen yet.

    I don’t want to say that the network reigns supreme, but I would argue all day that a data center needs networks, servers, and storage- all working in concert together, in order to efficiently process workload.

    Today- I’m pretty happy we have a good seat at the table, 3-4 years ago it was a different story. 3-4 years from now…


  3. @seen it all and Ed – You both bring up good points about the backbone capacity of the Nexus 7000 and the price cisco wants command for each slot. That being said, I still think that control of the enterprise data center will be won by the company that both controls the blades and the virtualization software. Sure seems to me that technical capacities aside, cisco sure wants to be the winner in that battle as opposed to others. Politics and account control may trump technology in this case, IMHO.

  4. Interesting conjecture. Right now there is no way we could/would use the Nexus 7000 as a blade chassis. I will freely admit in years past I had looked at both the 6500 and 7000 with the same idea though? “Could we do it?” being the real operative question…

    Cooling capacity is the real issue when you get down to it. I have 230Gb/slot in the Nexus 7000 (to correct one errant post) and about 800w/slot. In today’s VM focused environment I would need about 64-128Gb/Socket and given the board sizings on the Nexus 7000, (roughly 17″x20″) I would hope to fit 2-4 sockets on it. Given the power densities of DDR3 today and the demands of a quad to octal-core chip per socket there is no way I could come close to powering it much less cooling it in the Nexus 7000 or Catalyst 6500.

    I can assure everyone the Nexus 7000 and Catalyst 6500 will continue their development trajectory as NETWORK platforms, not as SERVER platforms. Although, suffice to say, we’ll continue to focus on delivering the best NETWORK platforms out there :)

    The Linux blades offered today are purposed as appliances, usually with a mixture of x86 and NPU/ASIC data paths. None of them offer an open compute environment for development of apps. The bulk of these are used for things like Firewalls, Server Load Balancing, IDS, etc.


  5. Ed Williams

    There was a response to this post on Network World which summed up my thoughts well (no, it’s not my post):

    “Not a Chance!

    The slots in a Nexus 7000 are too valuable and high performance to waste on a simple server. At 230G/s, unless you are looking at putting 20 servers in a slot, this would be a complete waste of money. Cisco wants to make $40K per slot, not $3K for a blade server.”

    There are other places in their portfolio where this may make sense but on the Nexus? Pass me what you’re smoking. That’s a bad call, Allan.

  6. Seen it all before

    Cisco has tried this before, and it was squashed by IBM before it ever saw the light of day.

    Why do you think Andy Bechtolsheim left Cisco to form an AMD blade company? (which was smartly bought by Sun!)

    Frankly, I don’t trust Cisco to be able to execute on this type of product. They’re simply too big and politicial to pull it off.

    Also the Nexus 7000 would be a waste of that platform.
    Each slot on the Nexus 7000 can push 80Gb. You’d need at LEAST 8 machines per slot to make the backkplane useful. There would be little point as a customer in spending so much on a chassis and backplane to only run a few gigs per slot.

    So I think you’re way off on a few points here, but it’s fun to talk about.

  7. This is an interesting question. From a customer’s point of view, which option gives the warm and fuzzy feeling of knowing that the computing infrastructure is “up”? I think that question reduces to one of recovery; how hard is it to recover from bad network engineering versus bad server engineering.

    How does it happen? I argue that the recovery from bad network engineering has a clearer path to success. You cough a relatively bounded sum of money for new networking equipment, deploy it in a relatively bounded time, and fix the problem. Recovery from bad server engineering has a much less clear path to success. Because the success of the application has many connections between servers, VMs, memory, caches, disk storage, and networking, the recovery from bad server engineering is much less deterministic. It is harder to predict when you will recover, and if you have enough money to recover.

    In the market you describe, IBM has the server engineering expertise, while Cisco and IBM both have the network engineering expertise. Having Cisco peddle blade servers won’t change that.

    I’d go with IBM. If Over time Cisco builds branded enterprise server engineering expertise with a “Cisco Global Services” group (or something like that) that is well known, then I would give them the same advantage as IBM.