Cisco's data-center push holds promise, perils

Cisco set to make virtualization easier

Cisco Systems' move into the heart of data centers, expected to be laid out at an event next Monday, holds the promise of easing a big IT headache but may also escalate competition between the company and its partners.

The networking giant is widely expected to announce an entry into the blade server market, code-named "California," at the Monday event, though the company's brief press invitation referred only to a concept Cisco calls "Unified Computing." In a recent blog posting, Cisco CTO Padmasree Warrior described Unified Computing as a move toward unifying computing and storage platforms with networks and virtualization platforms. She also acknowledged Cisco will compete with some of its partners.

What Cisco wants to do, according to industry analysts, is to make virtualization easier -- and gain a lot more control over virtualization itself. That goal doesn't necessarily require the company to make its own servers, but some signals point in that direction.

Unified Computing is intended to give IT administrators a way to manage all the components of a virtualized data center from one place, according to Yankee Group analyst Zeus Kerravala. Virtualization lets enterprises run applications in virtual machines that can be moved from one physical server to another. But when those changes are made, the network topology of the data center can be disrupted. When a virtual machine moves to a server with a different IP (Internet Protocol) address, on a different virtual LAN, it may not perform as well or may even become unavailable, Kerravala said.

So today, network engineers have to go in after each change and make adjustments, such as changing access control lists and reconfiguring the network.

"For the first time in history, network managers have had to become slaves to the computing guys," Kerravala said.

Most enterprises have been able to realize the benefits of the first phase of virtualization, consolidating their data centers for economies of scale and simpler management. But it's been hard to achieve full virtualization, in which virtual machines can continuously move among servers, Kerravala said. This would allow for adding processing power as demand for an application grows, or for moving tasks off a physical server at night for hardware maintenance.

"True virtualization isn't here, because we don't have tools to manage the computing and the network infrastructure together," he said.

Full virtualization essentially requires automation. With its Unified Computing initiative, Cisco wants to supply that automation under its own management system, and in the process put the network at the center of the virtual world, Kerravala said. When IT administrators want to move a virtual machine, they'll move it in Cisco's management console and everything else will adjust automatically.

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