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Cisco Building on its Data Center Momentum

Company sees central role for network in improving data center operations; acquires Nuova Systems, expands Nexus product line, launches sales and services program

April 08, 2008

by Charles Waltner, News@Cisco

The data center has a problem. A big problem.

These repositories of digital information are becoming overwhelmingly complex. As a result, management and energy costs are skyrocketing. Far and wide, information technology executives recognize that something needs to be done.

Cisco Systems thinks it has the answer.

Cisco believes the network can serve as an orchestra leader of sorts for the data center, helping coordinate and streamline how these facilities provide the necessary resources to critical software applications for running everything from corporate payroll systems to Internet video sites.

By consolidating multiple connection options and facilitating more efficient use of data center server and storage capacity, the network can be a vital contributor to a new era of more cost-effective and energy-efficient computing, company executives say.

Budget Busters

Today, Cisco unveiled crucial new pieces to this grand plan, announcing the official acquisition of Nuova Systems, a Cisco subsidiary that has been developing data center networking technologies, including a high-speed switch that supports Cisco's "unified fabric" approach to consolidating various data center operations.

The company also launched a sales and services program for its channel partners, Cisco's independent sales force of equipment vendors, systems integrators, technology consultancies, and other networking specialists. The initiative will help channel partners develop holistic data center businesses and advanced technical expertise in all key components of data center networks.

Over the past year, the company has also cultivated a broad-based group of data center technology partners, including Intel, Dell, EMC, Emulex, Qlogic, and VMware. This group will work closely with Cisco to find the best ways for their various data center products to work together.

All combined, the new technologies, services, and partnerships clearly ink out Cisco's blueprint for its far-reaching data center architectural vision, what it calls Data Center 3.0. It's a big step for Cisco, which until now has mostly sold products on a "box level," focusing on limited areas of the data center, such as external network connections and storage management. "Before now we were working in very specific areas," says Jayshree Ullal, senior vice president of Cisco's data center operations. "Now we're part of a bigger discussion."

These developments closely follow the January unveiling of the landmark Cisco Nexus 7000 series, a massive and ultra-fast networking switch that will be the main brain for coordinating Cisco's data center networks. According to the company, the brawny switch can process more than 15 trillion bits of data a second. The new networking super computer is arguably Cisco's most important product in four years.

Cisco Boosting Data Center Services

The Nexus 7000 is big brother to the new machine from Nuova Systems. Dubbed the Nexus 5000, the Nuova device is a speedy 10-gigabit Ethernet "access" switch for helping applications talk to other applications, servers, and data repositories. Both switches use Nexus OS (NX-OS), the company's new data center network operating system.

While the Nexus 5000 will work directly with servers to manage and consolidate their digital traffic, the Nexus 7000 will process traffic coming in from the smaller switches and oversee all data flowing into and out of the data center.

The Nuova Systems acquisition not only brings new technology to Cisco but also a formidable group of 200 engineers. Mario Mazzola, Nuova's chief executive, had previously served as Cisco's chief development officer. In 2002 Mazzola and other Nuova founders helped Cisco launch its first significant foray into the data center market with the MDS 9000 line of storage networking switches.

The Nuova staff also includes new talent critical to helping Cisco integrate the demanding array of tasks that take place in data centers. For example, Nuova's chief technology officer, Ed Bugnion, is the co-founder of VMware, the industry's leading "virtualization" software company.

In fact, virtualization is considered by most technology executives as the path out of the data center's maze of troubles. Virtualization allows a computer server to run multiple applications, or parts of applications, making it possible to max out the resources on each server and greatly reduce the total number of computers needed in a given facility.

Vernon Turner, a vice president with the research company IDC, says data centers are still designed more or less the same way they were 15 years ago. But this older architecture is collapsing under the weight of today's Web 2.0 demands. New approaches such as virtualization are absolutely necessary for upgrading these outdated infrastructures. "The data centers of yesterday won't suffice for the business models of tomorrow," he says.

Though companies have been able to plug in higher powered computer servers and networks to keep up with traffic increases, data centers have become dangerously inefficient. Because data centers typically run only one application on one server, often much of the computing power of these machines is wasted. Analysts estimate that data centers now only use about 30 percent of their server capacity.

Throwing more and more servers at the problem is also wasting energy. In 1996 power and cooling was only about 15 percent the cost of hardware purchases for data centers. By 2010, that number will reach 70 percent, Turner says.

The story is similar for management. By simply piling more and more machines into the data center, administrative overhead is increasing four times faster than what companies are spending on basic hardware, Turner says. And a hodge-podge of communications technologies for connecting servers, storage databases, and networks are exacerbating management headaches.

All of these problems have created a massive market desperately in need of some answers. According to IDC, Cisco is currently the leading vendor by revenue of data center networking gear, roughly an $8 billion market. But worldwide, companies spend close to $250 billion on their data centers, with a lion's share of that on administrative and maintenance tasks.

For Cisco, that looks like an opportunity. As it has done for data and voice networks, Cisco aims to consolidate all data center communications onto a single intelligent network infrastructure, in the process creating much greater efficiencies, lowering costs, and easing management challenges for these crucial computing facilities. In the case of the data center, Cisco wants to converge traditionally separate storage area networks (SANs) and local area networks (LANs) onto one system.

IDC's Turner says that because networks are connected to all parts of the data center, they are well-suited for helping coordinate more sophisticated virtualization operations. "While virtualization offers a means to the necessary efficiencies the data center needs, it makes it much harder to keep track of everything. That's where the network can help out," he says.

But to do this, the network has to become smarter and faster, Turner says. The network needs to be smarter to distinguish among the different types of traffic coming from each server and provide good traffic cop assistance to get everything to where it needs to go. And since virtualization will greatly boost the number of applications running on one server, the pipe connecting to those servers must be much bigger to handle the resulting increase in traffic.

"Before now we were working in very specific areas. Now we're part of a bigger discussion."

Jayshree Ullal, senior vice president of Cisco's data center operations

While Cisco's new machines certainly address speed issues, offering arguably the highest performance data center switches in the industry, Cisco's Ullal says her company is most concerned with simplifying data center management. The switches, for example, offer new means to consolidate data center communications while offering critical new support for virtualized servers.

Ullal says data centers are now burdened by having to run multiple parallel network connections; certain types for server-to-server connections, another type for Internet links, and still others for storage systems. This requires a typical server to have from four to 10 different communications interfaces, raising the cost of each server and increasing administrative logistics.

Ullal says Cisco's unified fabric addresses this problem by offering new networking technologies that can consolidate all data center communications on to one protocol known as Data Center Ethernet. Cisco executives say this protocol is quickly becoming an industry standard and that it is a crucial building block to reducing data center complexity. "The idea is to consolidate all network connections into two lines, with the second one only serving as a backup," she says.

Just as importantly, the Data Center Ethernet standard will provide the necessary capabilities for handling virtualized applications, Ullal adds. As data centers use virtualization to run multiple applications on one server, the network must be able to differentiate between the traffic for each of these applications. Until now, Ethernet was not adept enough to handle such a task. It basically treated all traffic the same way. But Data Center Ethernet will be able to provide fine-tuned support to each application, such as giving the most important traffic top priority and knowing where to find an application's archived database.

Certainly, there's a lot more work to do in data centers. Complex management issues will take years to resolve, and bandwidth will continue to be a pressing issue as the industry becomes better at squeezing more virtual machines into each server.

While Cisco believes the network can play a bigger role in helping companies improve their data center operations, Turner says most of the major IT vendors have the same idea and are jockeying for a lead in the data center's redesign.

"While the network can certainly help, there's no clear path to exactly how this transformation should be done," Turner says. "It will be an interesting next couple of years."

Charles Waltner is a freelance writer in Piedmont, Calif.

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