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Will VMware, Cisco Collide On Virtual Networks?

VMware Vs. Microsoft: 8 Cloud Battle Lines
VMware Vs. Microsoft: 8 Cloud Battle Lines

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With the launch of its NSX platform Aug. 26, VMware has added network virtualization to the list of things its willing to do in the data center. It's also set a course that appears to intersect that of a venerated partner, Cisco.

If there's a collision, it's going to be hard to classify it as an accident.

VMware knows virtualization and understands very well the new control point that's emerged at the virtualization management console. If there's a software-defined data center someday, VMware will be deeply entrenched in the heart of it.

Cisco knows networking, and counts many VMware users among its primary customers. When VMware brought three early NSX users on stage on the first day of VMworld: eBay, Citi and GE, it gave CEO Pat Gelsinger a powerful testimonial that the crowd, too, could take the networking platform seriously. All three customers were also users of Cisco networking, Gelsinger acknowledged. It was a genuflection to an old ally, with the subtext that VMware customers didn't have to wait for Cisco to do what it had already done.

[ Want to learn more about VMware's entry into the virtual networking market? See VMware Builds SDN Ecosystem; Where's Cisco? ]

Cisco was silent on VMware's announced plans for three days, but on Aug. 29, CTO Padmasree Warrior disagreed publicly, in a blog. VMware's approach "places significant constraints on customers. It doesn't scale, and it fails to provide full real-time visibility of both physical and virtual infrastructure. In addition this approach does not provide key capabilities such as multi-hypervisor support, integrated security, systems point-of-view."

Warrior also said VMware was forcing its customers to "tie multiple third party components together ... address multiple management points, and maintain version control for each of the independent components." Software-only network virtualization views the physical network as separate from the virtual one, denying users a common policy framework from which to manage both. Cisco's approach keeps network management a unified task, Warrior said in so many words.

Warrior said VMware's analogy that it will do for network virtualization what it did for server virtualization mistakenly assumes that networks, like servers, were underutilized until VMware came along. On the contrary, with server virtualization, they're more likely to be fully utilized and require a different kind of management as virtualization penetrates deeper into the data center.

Despite this tension, the two companies are more closely intertwined than many people realize. Cisco's successful entry into the server market was fueled by its mastery of integrating the network with virtual machine environments. VMware invented a distributed hypervisor switch that could handle messaging from hundreds of virtual machines at a time. Cisco put it into hardware, the Nexus1000, and integrated it with servers on a rack. On the strength of its Unified Computing System (UCS), Cisco has gone from non-player to number four in the server market. If Sun Microsystems were still in existence, Cisco would have displaced it a year ago. HP, Dell and IBM, still lead but Cisco revenues are growing the fastest, 50% year over year.

That wouldn't have been possible without close collaboration with VMware. Furthermore, Cisco is an old ally of EMC, VMware's parent company. The top management of both companies are well acquainted, are used to coexisting in co-opetition and are pledged to work together. That may get more and more difficult as market forces in virtual networking play themselves out.

The two still work closely together through a subsidiary, Virtual Computing Environments, and VCE is one reason Cisco enjoys the place it does in the server market. VCE sells Vblock, preconfigured racks of servers based on Cisco UCS. Vblocks are how some companies have gotten into cloud computing quickly. CSC in Atlanta did not have a presence in cloud services until it built out infrastructure based on Vblocks. In August, Gartner put only two suppliers in the upper right, "Leaders," section of its cloud infrastructure Magic Quadrant: Amazon Web Services and CSC. (Amazon clearly still leads overall.)

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