Cisco wants a piece of the virtualized network

Recently at VMworld in San Francisco Cisco announced the integration of its Frame Data Center with VMware Virtual Infrastructure. The intent is for customers to make better use data centre resources and ensure improved business continuity and security.

During the second day’s general session, Cisco chairman and chief executive officer John Chambers gave an energetic, almost evangelical presentation of Cisco’s overall vision. In it Chambers claimed that in recent years productivity growth has flattened, but that the promise of virtualization means businesses, and the economy as a whole, might experience some impressive gains.

“In next five to 10 years we will see productivity and innovation growth like we saw in the early 90s.”

The data centre will certainly be a part of this.

Peter Linkin, marketing manager for Cisco’s data centre solutions, positions this within the company’s “Data Center 3.0 Vision”.

“The next generation of data centres will typically have a very different architecture from previous ones. We’ve gone from monolithic centres, to client-server, to today’s 3.0 environment which is more virtualized and service-oriented.”

The capabilities brought about by the integration of Cisco’s VFrame Data Center with VMware Infrastructure should give this a push. VFrame orchestrates the automation of network service provisioning in a variety of areas, from firewalls, content load balancing, switch and server trunks, and access control lists. All of this is done from one GUI-based service template.

But doesn’t such a high level of automation come with some risk?

“This side of policy, of automation and dynamic control, can sound very scary from the business standpoint, and for the operations guys too,” says Linkin. “But we are not setting the network loose. The templates are in place; there are overrides and approvals. In the real world we need to build trust.”

John Sloan is a senior research analyst with Info-Tech Research, and saw the product demo at VMworld.

“The demonstration was impressive,” he says, “And hooking it into VMware makes senses. They’re the leader in server virtualization.”

Sloan points out that, among networking companies, Cisco had the highest profile at VMworld. But he wonders if, in the end, the VFrame product will be a differentiator for the company.

“This type of orchestration is still software running on a server. Why does it have to be specialized from Cisco? It’s just another component in the data centre.”

Cisco knows, as do the hardware companies, that the standardization and commodification of material assets means that the value will shift elsewhere.

“Economically, people are going to standardized CPUs, standardized storage arrays,” says Linkin. “But then that arrangement is missing the sophisticated tools of the good old days. How will you configure and manage provisioning for standardized pools of resources? This is a good intersection of where we’re going with the network.”

This is all part of chasing the holy grail of a fully virtualized data centre: a completely abstracted utility model, all managed from one pane of glass.

“Everyone is chasing up the stack as hardware becomes more standardized and the physical pool more abstracted,” says Sloan. “This is the dream of the data centre: Have a business problem, and you need storage? Go to a console and allocate the resource.”

There’s a fair bit involved in getting everything to the new VM locations. “You have to make available the addresses, all the services, QoS, security and access controls associated with a VLAN,” says Linkin.

Cisco is trying to find the sweet spot, and, given the immense popularity of virtualization, believes its “Data Center 3.0 Vision” is right on time. As Chambers said in his address, when it comes to catching transitions, “Being too early is just as bad as being too late.”

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