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Cisco taps ex-Sun chip guru for servers

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In the wake of its corporate restructuring last week, assaulted networking juggernaut and server wannabe Cisco Systems has tapped ex-Sun Microsystems executive David Yen to take over its Server Access and Virtualization Technology Group, which is responsible for its Unified Computing System blade and rack servers and its Nexus converged server-storage switches.

Perhaps one of the first things Yen can do is give this group a proper name that means something in either English or its American dialect.

A triumvirate of executives that Cisco brought in when it acquired Nuova Systems in April 2008 had been running the server and converged switch unit. Cisco said in a statement that Mario Mazzola, Prem Jain, and Luca Cafiero – three of the founders of Nuova – had "decided to transition out of their current roles to supporting Cisco in an advisory capacity". Interestingly, they are being kept on as advisors to Cisco CEO and chairman John Chambers, not COO Gary Moore or new co-managers of Cisco Engineering, Padmasree Warrior (formerly CTO of the entire company) and Pankaj Patel (previously general manager of Cisco's Service Provider Group).

Nuova Systems was founded by executives who worked at Crescendo Communications, which Cisco bought in 1993 for $89m and which was the foundation for the current Catalyst line of core switches. Other executives from Cisco's Andiamo, a Fibre Channel SAN switch maker that the networking giant bought in August 2002, were also involved in the Nuova Systems project, which Cisco funded with a 20 per cent stake to get it rolling. Nuova came up with the designs for the converged Nexus switches, the UCS blade servers, and a memory expansion ASIC for the UCS boxes that allowed them to use cheaper and skinnier DDR3 memory but yet offer fat memory capacities to server buys – a key differentiator when the "California" UCS blade servers were launched in March 2009 with their integrated Nexus-style switches. For a $70m investment, Cisco basically spun off the development of its future systems and data center switches and brought it back in when it decided to go for it in the server racket and upset the apple cart with its server partners.

In its announcement of Yen's appointment as general manager of the SAVT group, Cisco boasted that the Nexus family of switches were among Cisco's fastest growing products, with Nexus 5000 switches growing 56 per cent and Nexus 2000 switches up 150 per cent in fiscal 2011. And in the 18 months since the UCS blade and rack systems started shipping, Cisco had over 4,000 customers and the machines are on a run rate of $650m in annual sales and still growing.

The question is not how well these switches are performing, but what affect Cisco's entry into the server space has diminished its prospects for core and data center networking, now that server makers are all building their own kit or going to Cisco's rivals to rebadge networking gear and running at the networking giant. And there are a slew of upstart and established network equipment providers that are gunning more aggressively for Cisco, too. So much so that Yen might wish he had stayed as general manager of the fabric and switching business group at Cisco rival Juniper Networks, where he landed in March 2008 after a two-decade stint managing UltraSparc processor design and manufacturing, storage, and servers in various roles at Sun Microsystems.

Yen is usually given credit for getting Sun's Sparc chip business back on track after it derailed a few times, and is usually able to deflect questions about his culpability relating to failed projects – like the "Millennium" UltraSparc-V and "Rock" UltraSparc-RK chips, just to name two that were supposed to be industry leading and that never saw the light of day. Sun took big risks in the chip business, as you would expect an upstart systems maker to do. IBM sat on its hands for a decade in the late 1980s and early 1990s and let Sun eat its data center lunch during the dot-com boom.

It is not clear if Yen was the one taking big risks or if his superiors at the company compelled him to do so; Yen has a reputation for being a cleaner, but heaven (well, ex-Sunners at least) only knows the truth.

The most interesting aspect of this 18-year saga with Nuovo Systems perhaps is that for whatever reason, Cisco felt compelled to do the research and development of converged switching and servers outside of the company, alienating its own executives and techies. And then, when these devices were productized as Nexus and UCS, Cisco then brought in outsiders to run the SAVT group. And now, an outsider is once again being tapped to run the unit, rather than a long-time Ciscoid.

It will be interesting to see what Yen does with the UCS and Nexus businesses. ®

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