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Cisco preps for virtualized 'Data Center 3.0'

3.0 already? Better toss the 2.0 rubbish

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Virtualization has become somewhat of a Wild West for the data center market, promising streets paved with gold for IT groups - and endless riches for the vendors hawking this new-age server slicing technology.

But as the virtualization frontier swells with shops and vendors staking claims to their real estate, it's clear that something in the data center needs to take charge of it all. Something needs to be the central point for monitoring and managing virtual machines and applications.

But there's only room for one sheriff in this town.

In the past, Cisco has watched idly as the server, software and storage makers slugged it out with each other. The company has waffled between wanting to own the data center and sticking with good ol' back-end networking. But now, Cisco has put a stake in the ground, and it's ready to grab a piece of the action.

Today, at its Networkers conference in Anaheim, Cisco unveiled its roadmap to victory, which they call — ugh — "Data Center 3.0." While the plan focuses heavily on promises of announcements in the next year or two, Cisco brought along some ammunition as well. Spotlight on the Cisco VFrame Data Center.

"Because the network is uniquely positioned to be the platform for the data center, we are investing in innovations to help our customers transform their data centers for improved efficiency and increased business productivity," said Cisco CEO John Chambers.

VFrame DC is a 1U appliance that links compute, storage and network resources as virtualized network services. It offers a point and click UI and a policy engine that allows for automated resource changes in response to outages and performance flux. Additionally, such changes can be controlled by external monitoring systems, thanks to integration with a VFrame DC web services application programming interface.

For example, an administrator could use VFrame to deal with a sudden spike in traffic on a web server. The admin could set up a policy to automatically provision a new web server if the number of requests passed a certain level. Alternatively, the appliance could be used to reconfigure servers to handle different tasks depending on the time of day.

"VFrame Data Center offers unprecedented orchestration within the data center network, for dynamically re-programming server, storage and network resources into agile application services," said Jayshree Ullal, Cisco's Data Center senior veep. "This agility addresses the need for greater time to market for complex E-commerce application deployments by customers."

Cisco claims that application environments will benefit from VFrame, including web applications such as Apache, SAP R3, Oracle 10G RAC and IBM Websphere, as well as multi-server clustered applications, grid-based applications and test environments.

To break it down, the VFrame Data Center components consist of:

  • The appliance: a central controller that connects to Ethernet and Fibre Channel networks.
  • The GUI: Java-based client that accesses applications running on the appliance.
  • Web Services Interface and Software Development Kit: A programmable interface to allow scripting actions.
  • Host Agent: provides server heartbeat, capacity utilization metrics, shutdown and other capabilities.
  • Macros: open interface that allows admins to create custom provisioning actions.

VFrame will be sold as appliance hardware in August, for $60,000. More dirt on the system can be found on Cisco's website here.

The VFrame unit itself isn't new to the industry. Startup Topspin Communications introduced the device in 2004, and the next year, Cisco acquired the company for $250m. But Cisco was wary about the ambitions of the product — continuing to focus on realizing bigger switches and doing less on the management side.

With Cisco's new determination to look at the "big picture" again by aiming switches at broad hardware management, the company is ready to dust off the appliance.

"You're looking at a company transformed to improve the usability of our applications," said Doug Gourlay, Cisco's data center senior director.

VFrame comes amongst a very long list of data center software and switches the company plans to roll out in the future.

Among them, Cisco is introducing Storage Media Encryption, which encrypts data in the network fabric while being stored on tapes or disks. According to Ullal, if the disk is compromised, it can't be decrypted unless its plugged into the network.

The strategy seems ambitious, and the company clearly has a whole lot of work to do if its going to catch up with the server and storage guys in the market.

Count one more hat tossed into the data center virtualization ring. It promises to be a messy fight. ®

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