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Data centre fuzzification: Clear thinkers needed

How Cisco is trashing the server-storage-switch boundaries

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It didn't matter much

None of this mattered too much. So servers ran storage array controller software and so array controllers became servers; this didn't upset any storage and server supplier applecarts. The early use of storage management blades in storage SAN fabric directors could have caused ructions but it was never adopted widely enough to do that; although, now, with the serious upheaval of Cisco's California project coming, we can see what it might have sparked.

Network switches didn't respond so much to the server HW/SW commoditisation forces as high speed processing of network packets meant specially-designed ASICs had the edge over the latest Pentium. No doubt this will start changing. What has changed and what has been identified as a major tipping point in the industry is Mark Hurd's unleashing of HP's ProCurve networking business. It makes good kit which sells well and can be seen as a fine example of a server vendor invading network switch vendor's turf.

This didn't bother Brocade much - not initially at least - because Fibre Channel fabrics are a speciality product range; but then ten gigabit Ethernet arrived, and provided a lot of network bandwidth that could be parcelled and used for different networking channels, LAN, WAN and storage. Again, this didn't upset storage switch suppliers as early storage Ethernet-working meant iSCSI and that was corralled outside the data centre. Layering Fibre Channel itself over Ethernet (FCoE) is an entirely different thing. It means that, ultimately, you no longer need a physical Fibre Channel fabric at all.

This was a threat to Brocade but an opportunity to Cisco, which could use its Ethernet expertise and market presence to move onto Brocade's storage networking turf.

Generally pure-play vendors in the server, storage and switch spaces won't like fuzzification; it blurs their differentiation and exposes them to competitive attack. Aggressive pure-play and generally the multi-play vendors love it; opportunity knocks.

So we have storage vendor EMC buying server virtualisation company VMware and punting server virtualisation software to all and sundry. Server vendors weren't too worried; they no longer write their own server operating software by and large, and if they now have to deal with EMC/VMware as well as Microsoft for that stuff nothing much changes - they still own the server hardware business.

Sun's early lead

Then we have Sun making hybrid server/storage boxes, like the X4500, and promoting the idea of open storage, a storage array with a commodity server HW and commodity, open source storage software stack, with the 7000 as the exemplar. Sun's Jonathan Schwartz is now blogging about an Open Network product following the same example. Although Sun is a fine example of boundary-blurring, it's not big enough on its own to move markets and nothing much changes once more.

But Cisco can move market mountains. When it openly leaks teasers about unified data centre fabrics and unified computing with servers, switch and storage closely interlinked, and doesn't deny server blades will get plugged into its Nexus switch, and that these will be Cisco server blades, then the server world sits up and takes notice.

Server vendors know they are exposed. If customers like the idea of a reinvented mainframe, a closely couple set of racks containing blade servers, switches and storage under the control of a single management entity controlling the virtualised environments within it, then server vendors better get their blades inserted into network switches fast.

The server vendors are OK, for now. Storage blades don't have the capacity needed for racked-up blade servers running hundreds of VMs. That means Cisco has to extend an FCoE-inviting hand to storage vendors, and it looks as if EMC - needed for its VMware ace in the unified computing hole - and NetApp are going to play nice. And why not; it would be a marketing mug's game to walk away from what could be a great growth market through and beyond the recession. Expect every storage array vendor with any pretensions to data centre occupancy to add FCoE interfaces to their products as fast as they can.

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