Cisco beta testing blade server

Cisco Systems Inc. is entering the blade server market with its Unified Computing System B-Series, due to ship before July.

During a conference call with analysts and journalists Monday, Cisco officials took great pains to emphasize this is an “architecture” announcement and not a “point product.”

UCS includes virtualization, computing, network access, storage access and overall management, said Mario Mazzola, senior vice-president for Cisco’s server access virtualization business Unit. With UCS, the company wants to to “unite” the different “silos” in the data centre, such as the network, storage and servers.

San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco plans to release more details in April. What the company did say Monday is the B-Series blades will include Intel Corp.’s Nehalem processors, and it will provide a management software package – dubbed Cisco UCS Manager – to manage all configurations.

Mazzola said 10 customers are beta testing the products, including financial service firms, technology vendors, research firms running simulations and automotive companies.

“It makes sense for Cisco to go this way,” said John Sloan, senior research analyst at London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group. “We’re moving away from specialized hardware to abstracted workloads. We’re now reaching a point where application workloads can be moved across different processors.”

He added: “If Cisco wants to stay in the game, it has to be an infrastructure provider.”

Cisco’s announcement it is making a blade server wasn’t much of a surprise. The senior vice president and general manager of the company’s data centre switching and services group, John McCool, hinted last December at the C-Scape analyst conference it might announce blade servers.

At the time, McCool said the company is interested in making the data centre “a homogenous environment,” ensuring what he called the “seams” do not appear as “gaps in IT.”

During Monday’s announcement, Cisco CEO John Chambers said with UCS, his company is “catching the next market evolution.”

“We think the biggest architectural play is where you bring virtualization … to any device, any content,” he said.

The announcement is significant because it “will push big server vendors to innovate and find a way to match this challenge,” said Jim Frey, research director for network management at Enterprise Management Associates Inc. of Boulder, Colo.

“I see it as a natural progression for Cisco,” he said.

Though HP may be best known for servers, storage and printers, the Palo Alto, Calif. vendor made it clear in January it plans to compete head-on with Cisco.

HP announced it plans to add a whole slew of software — including WAN optimization from Riverbed and unified communications from Avaya — to its ProCurve 8212 and 5400 zl series of switches.

Frey pointed out IBM already has a partnership with Juniper Networks Inc.

For IBM, the announcement “will not change balance of power between Cisco and Juniper but will open up another front that Juniper does not have any offerings in.”

For its part, Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Juniper said its data centre strategy has already been announced, in the form of its Stratus Project.

Juniper has yet to provide product information (such as pricing and availability) but has said Stratus is designed to address data centre problems of latency, power, space, cost complexity. The company has said it includes a data centre manager, storage, computing, Layer 4-7 switching, appliances and networking.

Cisco has been talking about unified computing now for three years, Chambers said.

“It really is the next generation data platform in our opinion, managed as a single system,” he said. “We’re not trying to go through a cumbersome approach of tying things together.”

Though Cisco did not announce pricing Monday, Chambers said UCS will help cut costs.

“We think 20 per cent (savings) will be a conservative number,” he said. “We don’t think of this as a product announcement. It’s a data centre architecture announcement.”

Cisco has been steadily adding products to its “Data Center 3.0” category.

At VMWorld last September, the company announced its Nexus 1000V, a soft switch designed to support security and quality of service in VMware ESX. The switch is designed to let VMware users take advantage of Cisco’s security, policy enforcement, provisioning and diagnostic technologies.

The switch will include Cisco’s Virtual Network Link (VN-Link) technology, which is designed to make it easier for IT managers to manage virtual machines when they move them to other physical severs.

Last January, Cisco released the Nexus 7000 switch.

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