Data center derby heats up

A look at how Cisco, HP, IBM and Oracle are competing in the server market

Network thoroughbred Cisco jumps into the blade server market. Server stallion HP adds security blades to its ProCurve switches. IBM teams up with Brocade. Oracle buys Sun. And everybody courts that prize filly VMware.

In this era of server consolidation and virtualization, green initiatives and cloud computing, the data center is in flux and all the major vendors are jockeying for position, galloping in with new products, strategies and alliances.

"What you see right now is everybody shoring up and getting as many offerings as they can to provide all the hardware in the data center. Cisco, for example, wants to make it so you can be a complete Cisco shop, including all your servers," says Mitchell Ashley, principal consultant with Converging Networks and a Network World blogger.

Cisco's blade servers are part of its data center platform, called the Unified Computing System (UCS), which includes storage, network and virtualization resources. Cisco's platform includes VMware's vSphere technology and partnerships with BMC Software, EMC, Intel, Microsoft and Oracle.

But Cisco's entry into the data center fray has kicked up some dust among its longtime server partners HP and IBM, and forced all of the major players to respond in some way. "Cisco has been so successful in the network space, all the other vendors have to take it seriously at the data center level,'' says Anne Skamarock, a research director at Focus Consulting.

The resultant flurry of activity has included:

o  HP releasing the BladeSystem Matrix, a converged software, server, storage and network platform.

o  IBM deepening its relationship with Brocade, deciding to sell Brocade's Foundry switches and routers under the IBM banner.

o  Juniper unveiling Stratus Project, a multiyear undertaking through which it will partner with server, storage and software companies to develop a converged data center fabric.

o  Oracle buying Sun for its hardware and software, then grabbing Virtual Iron for its Xen-based hypervisor.

"Everything is pointing to a unified fabric," says John Turner, director of network and systems at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

Decision time for IT execs

"We're in a transition, and it's very important not to just buy who you bought from before. This is a great time to evaluate your vendors, ask about long-term road maps and partnerships, see how integrated they are," says Yankee Group analyst Zeus Kerravala. "I wouldn't make any decisions hastily if I were in IT."

This industry shakeup could also provide an opportunity for some long-shot vendors to make a move on the leaders. Kerravala puts Brocade in this category because of its storage and network strengths, Citrix Systems for virtualization, F5 Networks for networking, and Liquid Computing for fabric computing. "These could be the dark horses," he says.

Turner agrees that opportunities are available for the right vendors. "I'm happy with my Cisco network. I'm thrilled with it. No, I'm wowed by it. But that doesn't mean there isn't an opportunity for another vendor like Juniper to come in, pique my interest, gain my respect and get in here," Turner says. "This is an opportunity to take a big leap. Companies are going to be doing big refreshes."

These changing times for IT infrastructure require an open mind, says Philip Buckley-Mellor, a designer with BT Vision, a provider of digital TV service in London. Yet Buckley-Mellor admits he can't imagine BT Vision's future data center without HP at the core.

By the end of the year, Buckley-Mellor expects most of Vision's data center operations to run on HP's latest blades, the Intel Nehalem multicore processor-based G6 servers. The infrastructure will be virtualized using VMware as needed. HP's Virtual Connect, a BladeSystem management tool, is an imperative.

"The ability to use Virtual Connect to re-patch our resources with networks and storage live, without impacting any other service, without having to send guys out to site, without having the risk of broken fibers, has shaved at least 50%, and potentially 60% to 70%, off the time it takes to deploy a new server or change the configuration of existing servers," Buckley-Mellor says.

Within another year or so, he expects Vision to move to a Matrix-like orchestrated provisioning system. The HP BladeSystem Matrix, which HP introduced in April, packages and integrates servers, networking, storage, software infrastructure and orchestration in a single platform.

"We already have most of the Matrix pieces...so orchestrating new servers into place is the next logical step," Buckley-Mellor says.

Place your wagers

Gartner analyst George Weiss says Cisco and HP unified compute platforms run pretty much neck and neck. However, IBM, HP's traditional blade nemesis in the data center, has more work to do in creating the fabric over which the resources are assembled, he adds.

"IBM can do storage, and the server component in blades, and the networking part through Cisco or Brocade, so from a user perspective, it seems a fairly integrated type of architecture. But it's not as componentized as what Cisco and HP have," Weiss says.

"But with Virtual Connect and networking solutions like ProCurve [switches], and virtualization software, virtualization management, blade-based architecture, all of the elements Cisco is delivering are within HP's grasp and to a large extent HP already delivers. It may not be everything, but, there may be things HP delivers that Cisco doesn't, like a command of storage management," he explains.

Buckley-Mellor sees one technology area in which Cisco is a step ahead of HP -- converged networking, a la Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE). Cisco's Nexus 7000 data center switch will support this ANSI protocol for converging storage and networking later this year and the UCS will feature FCoE interconnect switches.

"There are no two ways about it, we're very interested in converged networking," Buckley-Mellor says. Still, he's not too worried. "That technology needs to mature and I'm sure HP will be there with a stable product at the right time for us. In the meantime, Virtual Connect works great and saves me an ocean of time," he adds.

All this is not to say that Cisco and HP are the only horses in the race for the next-generation data center. But they, as well as companies like IBM and Microsoft -- each of which have their own next-generation data center strategies -- will have leads because they've already got deep customer relationships.

"IT organizations will look to vendors for their strategies and determine how they'll utilize those capabilities vs. going out and exploring everything on the market and figuring out what new things they'll try and which they'll buy," Ashley says.

Cover your bets

In planning for their next-generation data centers, IT executives should minimize the number of vendors they'll be working with. At the same time, it's unrealistic to not consider a multivendor approach from the get-go, says Andreas Antonopoulos, an analyst with Nemertes Research.

"They'll never be able to reduce everything down to one vendor, so unless they've got a multivendor strategy for integration, they're going to end up with all these distinct islands, and that will limit flexibility," he says.

He espouses viewing the new data center in terms of orchestration, not integration.

"Because we'll have these massive dependencies among servers, network and storage, we need to make sure we can run these as systems and not individual elements. We have to be able to coordinate activities, like provisioning and scaling, across the three domains. We have to keep them operating together to achieve business goals," Antonopoulos says.

From that perspective, a unified compute-network-storage platform makes sense -- one way to get orchestration is to have as many resources as possible from a single vendor, he says. "Problem is, you can only achieve that within small islands of IT or at small IT organizations. Once you get to a dozen or more servers, chances are even if you bought them at the same time from the same vendor, they'll have some differences," he adds.

Skamarock equates these emerging unified data center platforms to the mainframes of old. "With the mainframe, IT had control over just about every component. That kind of control allows you to do and make assumptions that you can't when you have a more distributed, multi-vendor environment."

That means every vendor in this race needs to continue to build partnerships and build out their ecosystems, especially in the management arena.

Tags HPsunserversIBMciscoVMwareOracle

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Beth Schultz

Network World

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