Cisco Systems says its new Nexus family of switches and related software will be a revolution in data centre control, promising network managers increased efficiency and simplified operations.

It could also be the line the company needs to fulfill its dream of dominating the data centre.

The company said this week that its Nexus 7000 switch, to be run by the new NX-OS operating system, is the first of a series of devices Cisco says will meet the possibilities offered by 10Gigabit Ethernet connectivity and beyond.

Aimed at large data centres run by enterprises and service providers, it will have 15 Terabytes of switching capacity, the ability to virtualize switches and offer a unified fabric to merge storage, backup, front-end and management networks.

At least one industry observer agrees it could make Cisco the dominant vendor in the data centre.

With storage being removed from servers, blades becoming computing engines and almost everything else becoming virtualized, the network is becoming the most important piece of the data centre, says Zeus Kerravala of the Yankee Group.

“So Cisco, who has always sold a lot of equipment into the data centre but never really controlled it, will have an opportunity to control it,” he said.

The switch manufacturer that the Nexus announcement challenges most is Juniper Networks. It has a press conference scheduled for Tuesday to announce products and strategy for 2008.

“This is clearly one of the biggest enterprise products Cisco has ever introduced to the market,” Dante Malagrino, the company’s director of product marketing for data centre solutions, said in an interview.

Kerravala called it the “first flagship announcement from Cisco since the Catalyst 6500 switch” some 10 years ago.

A measure of Cisco’s ambition is that it wants the 32-bit NX-OS, to eventually be able to run on any Intel-based server.

Cisco’s plan is to have the Nexus 7000 at the heart of the data centre, which would by overseen by the new Data Centre Network Manager application.

Other pieces of the Nexus family, some of which will be introduced this year, will include rack and blade switches. The Catalyst line will continue.

Malagrino was quick to stress that IT managers shouldn’t be concerned about the new operating system and management suite. NX-OS is built on Cisco’s IOS and SAN-OS operating systems and has IOS’ interface. “It won’t take you too long” to learn it,” he said.

Data Centre Network Manager has been developed from Cisco Fabric Manager, a storage networking tool which has been extended to be able to view all storage, Layer 2, Layer 3 and Ethernet-linked devices on the network.

Key features of the 7000 are what Cisco calls Zero Service Disruption design (the ability to receive software upgrades without shutting down), the ability to virtualize its switches and the ability to restart processes without having to reboot the operating system.

Malagrino was even proud of the 7000’s physical design. “Usually, networking products tend to be ugly,” he said. “We’re not Apple.” But he noted detail was paid to making sure airflow in the new switch runs front-to-back and not side-to-side as in most Catalyst switches. Also, cables are protected by doors on the front panel.

Initially, the 7000 will be offered with a 32-port, 10GbE module and a 48-port 10/100/1000 module. The chassis can handle any combination of modules.

Pricing of the 7000 series starts at $75,000.

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