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Mixed Views on Cisco's Server Play

Cisco Systems Inc. built an empire in the networking space, but experts say there's no guarantee the company will conquer the server market as easily.

The IT industry's leading supplier of routers and other networking hardware revealed in March that it's expanding its offerings to include blade servers as part of a comprehensive push into the white-hot world of virtualization. The blade server architecture is one part of the Cisco Unified Computing System (UCS), which also includes networking and storage-management capabilities. Cisco envisions an end-to-end data center solution, with virtualization technology underpinning the infrastructure.

However, at least initially, the company is only making blade servers. Its offering includes the Cisco UCS 5100 Series Blade Server Chassis, which supports up to eight blade servers. Those servers will be Cisco UCS B-Series Blade Servers outfitted with Intel's Xeon processors. Other products in the line include fabric extenders, switches and network adapters.

All of those components can be virtualized, which will give the system a great deal of flexibility and scalability.

The networking titan has put in place partnership deals with a number of giant hardware and software vendors, including Microsoft, VMware Inc., NetApp Inc., BMC Software Inc., Red Hat Inc., EMC Corp., Novell and others.

Lukewarm Reaction
Cisco's server play might have been big news, but it didn't prompt many positive responses from Redmond readers. "[I'm] very satisfied with Dell, particularly their support," says Reed Reynolds, an MIS administrator. "Cisco support doesn't come close. Given past experiences with Cisco training and router systems, well, Dell is better."

One analyst echoes Reynolds's sentiments. Kusnetzky Group LLC analyst Dan Kusnetzky has questions about Cisco's announcement and how it will compete with server incumbents Dell Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM Corp. In a blog entry, he writes:

"Dell, HP and IBM each have a track record supporting customers in increasingly complex environments. This means having relationships with all of the suppliers of operating systems, application frameworks, applications, security software, management tools and virtualization technology. At this point, Cisco doesn't have a portfolio of products, services, partnerships and alliances that comes close to those fielded by HP or IBM."

Redmond reader Scott Youlden, assistant vice president and information technology officer at Clinton Savings Bank in Clinton, Mass., suggests that Cisco might be looking to boost other areas of its product line through its entry into the server market. "This is an avenue for them to sell their own servers for voice systems rather than HP, which they use now," Youlden says. "I can see them offering a package of X number of blade servers, all encased in a nice, neat, single cage for a complete solution, at least for small and midsize businesses.

"Hopefully they'll also get to the point of offering virtualized solutions for their voice systems, thus eliminating the herd of physical servers that are now required," he adds. "Knowing Cisco's pricing, however, I have to wonder how competitive they'll be in the server market."

Analysts Weigh In
Burton Group analyst Chris Wolf, who specializes in virtualization, says Cisco "has a good product," but notes that he's not sure how quick uptake will be. "It might take time to penetrate enterprises ... and the server market," Wolf says.

The announcement is further proof of the skyrocketing popularity of virtualization, which many in the industry believe will thrive in the current economic environment, given its proven and quick return on investment.

UCS will be offered with hypervisors and management platforms from both VMware (with vSphere, formerly known as Virtual Datacenter Operating System, or VDC-OS) and Microsoft (with Hyper-V and System Center Virtual Machine Manager).

Wolf believes Cisco's hardware products are strong right out of the gate, and should garner interest from businesses. "I think the blade is a good way to get started. You need high I/O, and the Cisco chassis provides that as well," he says.

Wolf goes even further, claiming the Cisco strategy is another nail in the coffin of traditional data center computing. "The days of building a server platform to run one app are over," he says.

About the Author

Keith Ward is a freelance writer and former Redmond senior editor. Lee Pender is executive editor of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.

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