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Data Centers: Who's On First?

For the fourth installment in NETWORK COMPUTING's five-part examination of the changes transforming the data center, we start with the shot heard around the IT world, when in March 2009, network powerhouse Cisco announced that it was taking on its server/data center rivals--HP, IBM and Sun (now Oracle)--with its Unified Computing System strategy, a.k.a. Project California. In a video supporting the March 16 announcement, John Chambers said, "It isn't just a new technology, it's an approach to vi

Meanwhile, in September 2010, Cisco revamped its data center go-to-market strategy from Data Center 3.0, which was focused on data center technologies, to Data Center Business Advantage. And a few weeks ago it announced updates to this strategy, including additions to the Nexus line of switches, the Unified Computing System and NX-OS.

Trying to understand what any one of these vendors is doing in totality would be a daunting task, says analyst David Hill, principal, Mesabi Group LLC. A simpler way is to exclude key software--including OSes, middleware and applications--and focus on the three key hardware components of a data center: servers, storage and networking. "Cisco is strong in networking and has nascent server capabilities, but uses VCE to acquire key storage capabilities in partnership with EMC and key server [that is, server virtualization] capabilities through VMware. HP has server and storage strengths, but has to show that its acquisition of 3Com can help it master networking. IBM has server and storage strength, but has to partner on the networking side. Oracle [through Sun] has both a server and storage background, but faces challenges with both and is not a networking company."

IBM is the most experienced player overall, and has the broadest array of products and platforms, says Charles King, principal analyst, Pund-IT Research. "That said, the company's multiarchitecture server strategy and related workload-optimized systems efforts seem a bit old school, especially when it gets on its mainframe hobbyhorse. Since IBM partners for most all its networking solutions, its approach is significantly different than Cisco's."

HP has a sizable product portfolio and ever larger ambitions, and its purchase of 3Com was clearly intended as a shot across Cisco's bow, says King. "But the company's software strategy and assets are nowhere, leaving it in a real quandary so far as competing against software heavyweights like Oracle and IBM."

King says Oracle's in a weird state, trying very hard (via the Sun deal) to portray itself as a data center leader and doing pretty well in niche markets (like Exadata). However, he adds, Oracle is apparently still bleeding customers like the IT equivalent of the Romanovs. On the tech asset side, the company is in pretty good shape with servers, but Sun's storage assets were the weakest part of the deal. "Like IBM, Oracle partners for most networking, but Ellison's seeming obsession with integrated stacks means a networking acquisition might be in the works."

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