Cisco’s Data Center Play Reinvents The Server

Today Cisco (s csc0) announced its much awaited data center play with what it calls its Unified Computing System. Om does a great job explaining why the networking giant is moving into the data center as the demands of digital data tax the current three-part IT infrastructure of servers, networks and storage.

The current infrastructure is showing its age, so three years ago Cisco set out to address the problems with its Unified Computing System. The end device is a reinvention of the server by looking at it as part of the network fabric and not as a discrete element attached to the network.

Hewlett-Packard (s HPQ) and IBM (s IBM) will bear the brunt of Cisco’s push into the data center, while companies that have a healthier commodity and lower-end server business such as Dell (s DELL) will likely feel less pain in the near term because some of their customers will not need the God-like powers Cisco is promising with its newest system.

Om laid out some speculative system specs, but Cisco didn’t give out anything related to the processors or the memory available on the system, saying those details will emerge later this month from Intel (s INTC). A spokeswoman did confirm that the system will use the latest Intel processors, which have a technology used to speed up access to memory at the chip level as a way to reduce computation bottlenecks associated with multicore chips.

So what do we know?

  • Each chassis could have up to eight blades with embedded “integrated fabric interconnect”
  • The blades can have a 20-port or 40-port switch for 10 Gigabit Ethernet
  • The switches have two converged network adapters that can support Ethernet or Fibre Channel
  • The fabric interconnect can connect up to 40 chassis for up to 320 blades managed as a single system
  • The system is managed through two pieces of software: one called VMLink that was developed in conjunction with VMware that allocates network resources to each virtual machines and another that is a management console and server provisioning tool for the whole system.
  • Pricing won’t be available until the system is generally available sometime in the second quarter of 2009.

The Unified Computing System is an entirely new class of data center equipment, designed specifically for managing thousands of virtual machines on one system (although it can also handle non virtualized workloads as well.) Cisco will also release open APIs for the system, which will allow it to work with legacy data center equipment.

Agreements with partners have resulted in software for the new box that allows for a virtual machine to be instantly provisioned on whatever operating system the customer would like. One notable missing partner was Citrix (s CTXS), which owns the open source Xen hypervisor used in many of today’s largest cloud computing installations. Cisco says it is still working to bringĀ  partners into the ecosystem, and that is also trying to get VMLink set as an open standard, so other hypervisor vendors could build that into their products.

Xen may not be supported, but Cisco has worked with myriad partners for this system, which include vendors from Red Hat (s RHT) to EMC (s EMC). One of the clearest beneficiaries of the Cisco push will be BMC Software (s BMC), which makes IT management software that has been overshadowed by offerings from HP and IBM. The new competition between the larger IT management software providers and Cisco may give BMC the opportunity to push its way into more customer sites if Cisco’s system gets adopted.

Cisco has 10 beta customer sites currently using the system, including Savvis (s SVVS), and it plans to go after enterprise customers. That will require Cisco to shift its sales strategy; instead of going after its traditional relationships on the networking side, it will instead have to sell to the CIO.

To that end, Cisco is advertising a 50 percent reduction in support infrastructure such as switches and cabling associated with each server, and up to 35 percent reduction in capital expenditures and operational expenditures associated with buying data center gear, if a company switches to its Unified Computing System.

Right now, the Cisco focus appears to be on what this new hardware can do for virtualization and web scale computing — be it a Facebook’s infrastructure or a cloud provider’s. In a call this morning, John Chambers, Cisco’s CEO, also focused on what it could do for the bottom line, saying it gives Cisco access to about a quarter of the many billions spent inside the data center, up from less than 10 percent presently. That potential revenue is why Cisco is reinventing the basic building block of the data center.