The data centre is the digital nervous system of business. And the major systems vendors, HP, IBM, Fujitsu, Dell and (now) Oracle/Sun, all base their credibility on delivering to the evolving requirements of that nerve centre.
But that environment is changing fast. Increasingly, the building blocks of data centres are no longer the servers, storage systems, the network switches and so on. Rather, the new building blocks are virtual machines – holistic units that can be provisioned rapidly and deployed to satisfy the workloads of different applications.
For many years, executives at Cisco made back-of-envelope sketches of how an internally developed server system might fit together with the networking equipment it sells into the data centre today. But they could see no clear value-add, no differentiator that would make a Cisco server any better than offerings from IBM, HP, etc. With no track record in the server market, failure and a humiliating withdrawal was a serious consideration.
But the move from logical to virtual machines has presented Cisco with the opportunity it had been looking for – a major inflexion point, in the words of company CTO Padmasree Warrior. And the availability of its Unified Computing System next month will thrust Cisco into the server mainstream with a network-centric, converged system whose integration, memory, management and energy profile make it a formidable competitor from day one
The response from several of those competitors has been to dismiss the UCS as “just another blade server”, but interviewees for our cover story kept repeating one sentiment: “This is not just another blade server. This is the kind of computer platform you’d build if you had $100 million, a clean slate, and a crack team of engineers with an acute understanding of the opportunities and challenges of virtualisation and, ultimately, the cloud.”
Nor is Cisco just another company. With $35 billion in annual revenues and $33 billion in cash reserves, it is an instant and formidable new ‘gorilla’ in the space.
While this may not be the ideal time to launch into the server market, UCS is a long-term play, with possibilities that have captured the imagination of many well-informed sources. Jim Grant, strategy lead at BMC Software, is one: "UCS changes everything. I don’t think people sufficiently understand what this thing is and what its impact is going to be. It changes the basic equation of what IT costs and will make the lives of people in IT organisations better. A lot better.”
Bold, effervescent predictions – even from a UCS technology partner. But if they are only partly prophetic they will be warmly welcomed by users. And they demand an aggressive response from the incumbent server vendors.