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Cisco Leads Tight Pack In Data Center Networking

Data center architects like their current networking equipment vendors, with 83% saying they're either satisfied or very satisfied, according to InformationWeek's latest research. Their top choice for that gear? No surprise: Cisco.

But the data center is a dynamic environment, particularly compared with the LAN. Virtualization, network consolidation, and a general increase in server-to-server traffic (so-called east-west traffic) mean that architects are regularly forced to rethink their networks. Because of that dynamic nature, slightly more than half of the respondents to our survey say they'd consider either replacing a primary or secondary networking vendor or adding another vendor.

The environment is so dynamic that just 29% of the 501 IT pros with data centering responsibility who responded to our survey said they have no plans to change their networking architecture in the data center. The rest either have just finished (14%), are somewhere in the process (37%), or think they need to re-architect within the next 24 months (20%). With Cisco's Catalyst 6500 growing long in the tooth and the Nexus series representing a substantial change, it's not surprising that architects are at least willing to kick the tires.

And when they do kick the tires, they're looking for operational cost savings (57%), capital cost savings (55%), and performance gains (53%). Advanced features (40%) and enabling new applications or services (35%) are further down the priority list.

[ Curious about how the story changes in the LAN? Check out our November LAN vendor assessment. ]

Those not interested in looking at other vendors say they could be enticed by the same top three things (capital and operational cost savings and improved performance), but enabling new applications and services (26%) and packing new features (22%) rank way down their list. This is an important differentiator, and vendors looking to unseat Cisco had better have an improved architecture story to tell, not just a lower cost story.

We asked in our survey whether the data center architects had used or evaluated gear from 12 different vendors. We got enough responses on seven vendors--Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, IBM, Brocade, Juniper, and Avaya--to include them in our detailed survey analysis.

On our standard 10 evaluation criteria, the data center pros rated product reliability and performance as most critical, followed by operation cost and quality of post-sales support. Least important is quality of presales support and breadth of product line. Cisco topped the ranking, getting 77 of a possible 100 points, followed closely by IBM (76) and HP and Dell (75). Avaya got the lowest composite score (70) and ranked last in eight of our 10 categories.

We also asked the IT pros to rate each vendor on features specific to data center networking. Most important among the 12 criteria we presented are adherence to standards, "hot" (requiring no reboot) software and hardware upgrades, and ultra-low latency. At the bottom of the list, respondents noted access layer virtualization, on-switch scripting, and proprietary technology in advance of standards. Cisco topped this list too, scoring a 79, followed by IBM and HP at 77. Dell ranked last with a 73.

We did this same survey in July, 2010. Then as now, the pack was tight, with Cisco tying for top honors with Brocade and HP in our standard evaluation and finishing second to IBM and Brocade in the feature-specific evaluation. As such, it's been a good year for Cisco--apparently customers are settling into the notion of using its Nexus switches. It hasn't been such a good year for Brocade, as it now trails near the back of the pack in both composite scores.

It's time to get going on data center automation. The cloud requires automation, and it'll free resources for other priorities. Download InformationWeek's Data Center Automation special supplement now. (Free registration required.)