HP trying to shoulder Cisco out of the data centre

PALO ALTO – Hewlett-Packard Co. will no longer let Cisco Systems Inc. have its way in the data centre.

Until now, the two hardware giants were partners, with HP’s ProCurve division serving customers needing edge routers while handing their core data centre switching demands to Cisco.

However, on Monday HP effectively ended that partnership when it announced that it is moving into the data centre with a series of switches, software and technology partnerships.

The attack is two-pronged: First, HP is assembling a number of what it says are best-of-breed software solutions and loading them onto modules for its ProCurve 8212 and 5400 zl series of switches.

These solutions will be from companies such as Avaya Inc. (unified communications) F5 Networks Inc. (application acceleration), Riverbed Technology Inc. (WAN optimization), McAfee Inc. (network security) and Microsoft Corp. (network authentication).

All of the solutions will be on one zl module. IT and network managers will be able to chose which ones they want and pay a licence fee to unlock them.

These solutions are in the process of being certified now and not all are available immediately. Pricing has yet to be determined.

Other partner solutions will be sold as they are now as separate components but certified to run on HP ProLiant servers. HP says this will give buyers a choice in the way they want to access these applications, as standalone devices, or on a zl chassis.

HP argues that pre-certified solutions will help managers integrate these solutions into their environments.

This so-called platform approach is similar to Cisco System’s ISR routers or Nexus switches, which offer a number of applications. However, all are made by Cisco, which HP claims isn’t flexible or cost-effective and locks customers into Cisco’s architecture.

Cisco customers “are going down the path of being told they need to upgrade to a next generation Cisco Nexus architecture, and they don’t know if they want to do it,” claimed Marius Haas, ProCurve’s senior vice-president and general manager. “Many times they don’t.” That, plus the fact that IT budges are being cut, leaves a number of managers looking for more choices in suppliers, he said. The best of breed partnerships gives them those choices.

HP will also bring out the ProCurve 6600 switch series, a top-of-rack switch for linking servers to the network. Until now HP and its partners have been turning to Cisco for this switch. The series, which intially will have five models, have redundant and swapable power supplies and fans. In addition, because they use SFP+ 10G Ethernet connectors, 24 ports can be squeezed into a 1U form factor. There are also 48-port models.

The models range from the 6600-24G with 48Gbps switch fabric capacity to the 6600-24GX with 336Gpbs capacity.

Industry analysts believe many customers will welcome these two moves. Chris Silva, an enterprise networking analyst at Forrester Research, said it makes HP a contender in data centre networking “instead of just being an also-ran in the networking space.”

“Before they were seen as the meat-and-potatoes networking vendor,” he said in an interview, needed when network managers wanted “set it and forget it” switches. “The gear they made was good, but not earth-shattering.”

Monday’s announcement “will put (HP) at a level of strategic value [for customers] that they haven’t been before.”

The timing, he added — in the middle of a tough recession — also works in HP’s favour, for ProCurve products for years have carried a lifetime warranty. That will be appreciated in a period of tight spending.

“It’s a move that will take HP into a stronger position in the enterprise IT environment,” said Jayanth Angl, senior research analayst at Info-Tech Research Group of London, Ont.

The announcement will come as good news for HP customers as well as those of the partners it brings into the program, which it dubs Procurve One.

Zeus Kerravala of the Yankee Group agreed the moves expand ProCurve’s market oppotunity, calling it a logical next step in the division’s strategy.

Until last year, the ProCurve unit operated on its own, leading some to speculate on how seriously it was viewed within HP and whether it would be sold or spun off.

However, things began to change when ProCurve was moved within HP’s Technology Solutions Group, one of the largest in the company. Silva saw as a sign. Now ProCurve has to perform at a more competitive level, he said.

Around the same time HP bought WiFi manufacturer Colubris, which finally gave ProCurve an wireless LAN that uses the draft 802.11n standard, which a number of equipment makers had been selling for months. Not only did that bring up-to-date technology into the line-up, Silva noted, but ProCurve moved quickly to integrate the acquistion.

Still, both Silva and Kerravala say HP’s road to the data centre may not be completely smooth. Organizations that focus on best-of-breed products may not shift to a single-vendor supplier so quickly, said Silva. Nor will it be easy for ProCurve to convince large Cisco accounts to convert.

Kerravala said the success of the best-of-breed strategy will depend on the line-up of services partners. Intitially, he added, it seems like a strong list.

At a news conference here, executives from a number of the partners were enthusiastic about the approach.

Alan Rosenkoff, Avaya’s global alliance director, said that his company is looking to expand the number of Avaya partners to carry the ProCurve line. The zl module will carry Avaya’s Communications Manager software.

Tim Sinclair, general manager of Microsoft’s security platform group, said the zl module carry will benefit those with Windows Server 2008 environments, which require a server each for Active Directory, Windows Internet Naming System (WINDS) and Network Access Protection. Instead, all that can be carried on the blade module. “It’s quicker time to value for customers that are purchasing the software,” he said, “thus it’s significantly decreasing the time it takes to configure and install, lowering [customers’] overall TCO.”

Dan Matte, senior vice-president of marketing and business development for F5 Networks, said that later this year the company’s BigIP software will be certified to run on the zl module.

At one point a reporter pointed out to HP’s Haas that this isn’t the first time an alliance of partners has gone after Cisco. Why, he was asked, will this one succeed?

Because of HP’s breadth and depth of hardware, software and services outweighs anything Cisco offers, he replied. And the approach allows customer to pick and chose the way they want to access the solutions.

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