The battle for the data centre

Cisco's Data Centre 3.0 strategy envisions switches at the heart of the architecture, with servers relegated to commodity status. But server makers won't picture a data centre build around a switch

Last month Cisco Systems unveiled its future. It's merely a big switch, but if some industry analysts are to be believed, it's also the first shot in a war to control the data centre.

The supposed weapon is the Nexus 7000, a consolidated data centre core switching system which it hopes will move the company from the heart of the network to the centre of IT decision-making.

Traditionally, that's where server system builders such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems have reigned. Will the switch or the server be the winner in this battle? It's not a simple question because data centre design is undergoing a revolutionary change due to virtualization technologies. Some five years from now it will look very different. Exactly what it will look like and how network builders get there is the unknown.

More than just a beefy switch, Nexus is the heart of what ­Cisco grandly calls its Data Centre 3.0 strategy, which envisions the orchestration of infrastructure services from pools of server, storage and network resources over Gigabit Ethernet networks.

Its not a bad vision, say industry analysts, and one that is shared with server and storage manufacturers. Thanks to virtualization, the server's role in the data centre is increasingly being diminished. Virtual storage, virtual processors and virtual memory and maybe a virtual network are coming, a future server makers acknowledge is coming.

What they won't acknowledge is that a mere switch is going to run things. Or more accurately, that a data centre should be build around a mere switch.

In fact, says Yankee Group analyst Zeus Kerravala, IBM ought to be steamed at Cisco, which is one of its partners, for daring to bring out Data Centre 3.0.

"There definitely is increasing conflict between Cisco and the system players," says Mark Fabbi, vice-president and distinguished analyst at Gartner. "What we're starting to see is a growing realization from some of C's biggest partners is Cisco might not be the friend it was a few years ago."

In effect, Cisco is saying that because everything converges on network, it's architecture will make the overarching decisions on how to allocate resources. In other words, it wants to collapse the control plane onto the network, Fabbi says, which would reduce server and storage vendors to making commodity products.

So far any anger from competitors, if it exists, has been repressed publicly. For example, asked if there's a difference in vision over the data centre with Cisco, Chris Pratt, IBM Canada's strategic initiatives executive shakes his head. "I would say the user requirements control the data centre. It's not relevant if it's the network the server or the storage, it's what is the application requirement that defines the data centre. I wouldn't look to polarize it across hardware, software lines." Virtualization, he said, is the best thing for maximizing an organization's assets. But, he added, "the physical infrastructure has to exist at some point. The machines that process data have to exist. With flexibility comes with need for security, and potentially more control." Left unsaid is that IBM would provide that layer of control through its architecture.

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