Cisco Topspins Into Virtualization

Plans to virtualize the data center might crunch toes of storage partners EMC and IBM

September 28, 2005

3 Min Read
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Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) today laid out plans to virtualize the data center using InfiniBand hardware and virtualization software it gained by acquiring Topspin Communications for $250 million in April. (See Cisco Takes On Topspin.)

Cisco announced general availability of the VFrame virtualization software and Server Fabric Switch (SFS) InfiniBand switches, HBAs, and Ethernet and Fibre Channel gateways.

Actually, let's be clear: Cisco announced general availability from Cisco. The products are the same ones Topspin sold through server OEM partners before the sale, and the same ones Topspin/Cisco will continue to sell through those OEMs.

Cisco has conducted interoperability testing between the Topspin products and its MDS storage switches and Catalyst networking switches. Having Cisco-ized the gear, Cisco hopes to drive InfiniBand into the data center, using it as the means to virtualize resources via Vframe software. Until now, InfiniBand has been used largely in high-performance computing. (See InfiniBand Gets Second Looks.)

Cisco is throwing its hat in the virtualization arena,” says Stu Aaron, director of Cisco’s Server Virtualization business unit. “We see InfiniBand accelerating into the mainstream enterprise.”Cisco considers InfiniBand the missing piece in an end-to-end storage grid scenario. It wants customers to build grids connecting its Fibre Channel, Ethernet, and InfiniBand switches through SFS InfiniBand-to-Ethernet and InfiniBand-to-Fibre Channel gateways. VFrame would provide the provisioning and management of the switches across the entire network.

Topspin began shipping VFrame in May 2004 as a way of allowing customers to pool storage across servers and different types of storage devices. (See Topspin Frames Virtualization and Topspin Expands Its VFrame Program.) Despite OEM deals with Dell Computer Corp. (Nasdaq: DELL), Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ), IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM), and Sun Microsystems Inc. (Nasdaq: SUNW), as a startup it could never form a strategy as ambitious as Cisco’s.

But Cisco’s virtualization plan might prove over-ambitious. First, VFrame hasn’t been around long enough to prove it can manage server, network, and storage devices. Even if it can, customers might be reluctant to put all of those resources in the control of one vendor. Plus, Cisco might be bumping into the ambitions of its partners. Cisco storage partners EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC) and IBM have already declared their intentions of virtualizing the data center. (See IBM's Got Virtual Vision, EMC Casts Wider Net, and EMC & IBM in Virtual Skirmish.)

“The potential for this technology is significant. It could be paradigm-shifting, and I never uses that phrase,” says analyst John Webster of Data Mobility Group. [Ed. note: Well, why start now?] “But Cisco’s going to have to play this very carefully -- how far do they want to go with this, and when do they decide they’re encroaching on their partners? And can they do it without their partners?”

Aaron says Cisco is committed to working with partners, not against them. “Today you have server virtualization and storage virtualization, and there’s a gap between these two technologies,” he says. “We can bring server and storage virtualization that our partners can offer together.”— Dave Raffo, Senior Editor, Byte and Switch

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