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As most of the planet now knows, Monday is D-Day for the "California" blade server launch from networking juggernaut Cisco Systems.

This may not be the first time that Cisco has been involved in the server racket - it has dabbled a bit from the edges - but it is, if the rumors are right, the first time that the company will directly take on the server makers that have defined the foundation of IT infrastructure for decades.

Networks, after all, hang off servers - at least from the viewpoint of server makers and a lot of CIOs. But unless you're talking about standalone machines that pump out paper statements and bills from two, three, or four decades ago, no server is an island.

These days, a server is useful precisely because it is networked, and as Sun Microsystems correctly observed a long time ago, "The network is the computer."

Not that this realization will necessarily make you a lot of money. Cisco has done a hell of a lot better than Sun did during the dot-com boom and has managed to grow its sales and its influence over the data center since the dot-com bust while Sun's has been on the wane.

And if anyone can come in and shake up the server business, it's Cisco.

EMC was always a contender here, too, but it chickened out after buying Data General. It has, however, managed to take that company's Clariion disk-array business to a broader market - thanks to help from Dell - and has played its VMware virtual-server cards rather nicely thus far, as well.

The combination of the two - Cisco and VMware - could end up being a potent combination, even if EMC doesn't want to sell VMware to Cisco, which owns a 2 per cent stake in the server virtualization juggernaut. VMware will play a prominent role in the California server and surrounding infrastructure, as we have already explained here (Cisco rumor mill from late January) and here (VMware's talk this week about creating the "software mainframe of the 21st century").

The basic idea is to create a big virtual switch that sits between virtual machines on physical servers and the real switches that these VMs need to talk to virtualize the network, much as a hypervisor abstracts the underlying physical hardware.

And if Cisco gets a hankering to do this correctly - meaning adding storage as well as servers and virtualization - it might just have to go all the way and buy EMC to get its hands on the two assets it doesn't control. Toss in system management vendor BMC Software, rumored to be a big part of the Monday's upcoming Unified Computing announcement, and you have the whole stack except operating systems.

There have been dumber ideas.

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