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Huawei, Cisco Battle Heats Up

Huawei, known mostly as a manufacturer of carrier-class infrastructure, especially for mobile networks, made a surprising splash into the enterprise in 2011 with its debut of campus switching technology at the Interop trade show last Fall. Now Huawei's CloudEngine line, launched at Interop on Tuesday, moves the company squarely into the data center--and serves further notice that the Chinese behemoth is serious about throwing its considerable weight around in the U.S.

The CloudEngine chassis comes in a variety of sizes (four, eight, and 12 line cards) and supports a variety of interfaces (1, 10, and 40 Gbps, with 100 Gbps on the way) and a variety of industry standards efforts, including two around shortest path bridging: the IETF's TRILL and the IEEE's SPB. (For a detailed examination of those approaches, read Network Computing's "Shortest Path Bridging Will Rock Your World.")

As its name implies, CloudEngine includes a few virtualization features: Clustered Switching System (CSS), which lets data center managers combine separate switches into one, and Virtual System (VS), where a single switch can be partitioned into eight virtual switches.

In our brief video interview with Steve Collen, Huawei's VP of data communications marketing (embedded below,) you can see some of the beefy hardware. But the product's pricing hasn't been announced. Collen says it will be 30% to 40% less expensive than any comparable product, a bold claim but one he wouldn't characterize on a per-port basis.

While Huawei's data center play is intriguing, its focus on the enterprise in general is far more interesting. Huawei already has a campus switch and telepresence system, and it plans to enter the wireless LAN, network management, security, and optical networking markets.

This is a company has 60,000 engineers globally, more than its rivals have employees. More stunning: 12,000 of those engineers focus on the enterprise.

While Cisco is obviously the 800-pound gorilla in enterprise networking, it would be a mistake to dismiss Huawei, a company that has filed more than 57,000 patents,15,000 of them outside of China. (Several years ago, Cisco sued Huawei for infringing several of its patents, and later the two companies agreed to a settlement on the matter.)

Huawei continues to make its presence felt outside infrastructure, most recently with the introduction of AscendD Quad, a quad-core smartphone at Mobile World Congress. That phone, by the way, uses a Huawei-designed chipset.

The company confirmed that CloudEngine and other enterprise-class products, for now, use merchant silicon (all of it from Broadcom). That's a smart move as the company builds trust with customers outside of China. The thought of buying enterprise-class, Chinese-made data center technology using Chinese-designed custom ASICs is--and there's no way to put this delicately--risky.

Perhaps to partially acknowledge such concerns, Huawei announced earlier this year that it’s spending $6 billion globally on OEM contracts with the likes of Qualcomm and Broadcom. It spent $6 billion in 2011 on components from U.S.-based companies, a Huawei spokesman says. However, Huawei also makes its own silicon through its HiSilicon chip division, located in Silicon Valley.

Cisco CEO John Chambers continues to say that the biggest threat to his company isn't any one system player, but merchant silicon. Seven years ago, InformationWeek's Rob Preston asked Chambers about the biggest competitive threats his company faced, and instead of naming the usual suspects, Chambers said it would be some forthcoming competitor from Asia.

Welcome to the party, Huawei.