Cisco's uncharted territory: Here be storage dragons

Blades are one thing, disks are quite another

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Comment Cisco's California may be a Unified Computing System, but it sure isn't unified storage.

On old maps uncharted areas were labelled 'Here be dragons'. Cisco has redrawn the data centre map and left two uncharted areas outside the Cisco occupied territories of blade server chassis, switches and Cisco's UCS Manager software. It's called its vision thing unified computing, but in truth it's just a blade server and switch HW play providing an infrastructure for two IT ingredients that Cisco is not responsible for.

Firstly there is the software inside the blade servers. VMware, Microsoft and Xen hypervisors will provide virtual machines for Window and Linux/Unix servers running the apps. EMC VMware and Cisco are co-operating like star-crossed lovers, but no way is Cisco crazy enough to get into a monogamous VMware relationship. Unless customers standardise on one hypervisor it's going to be a mess, and the unified computing system idea will stop right there.

The UCS unification provides storage access, not unified storage. It is not bridging the storage silos in the data centre but reinforcing them, providing, as Cisco says it does, "consolidated access to both storage area networks (SANs) and to network attached storage (NAS). Support for a unified fabric means that the Unified Computing System can access storage over Ethernet, Fibre Channel, Fibre Channel over Ethernet or iSCSI, providing customers with choices and investment protection."

The Cisco data centre map has 'Here be dragons' plastered all over the storage area. Customers don't get storage unification, they get storage choices. It's consolidated access to a junkyard - that means the opposite of unification.

UCS supports both Fibre Channel and Ethernet access, Cisco having to recognise the need customers have to continue using Fibre Channel infrastructures. It supports iSCSI - but so what? Most every SAN vendor has spent the last three years chanting the iSCSI-is-not-for-the-data-centre mantra so, yes, of course, you can use it inside this grand UCS vision thing in theory - but virtually no one will. It's a worthless choice that unifies nothing.

Cisco has been unadventurous in its approach to storage. With switches it's even virtualised a switch into a VM but in storage its moves are as exciting as watching paint dry. Sun has gone far, far further in deconstructing storage arrays with its open storage idea which, ultimately, will have the entire storage controller software stack running in the server and looking after what is in effect a large JBOD.

This is too advanced for Cisco, which is happy to disrupt the server business but has no intent here to disrupt the storage business. The net effect is to encourage storage vendors to stick an FCoE access port into their data centre arrays, and that changes very little. It's not really unifying storage at all, UCS appearing to change things on the surface but not the actuality underneath.

A potentially interesting aspect of this UCS deal is what it means for Microsoft and the storage vendors. We see EMC tightly embracing Cisco with VMware, and Cisco leaving room for Hyper-V and Xen. There is potential here for a dynamic that stengthens the willingness of storage vendors other than EMC to work more closely with Microsoft, on the basis that this could help cut EMC down to size. Nothing else they are doing is, judging by IDC's numbers.

For Microsoft EMC's VMware is a great big fly in the ointment, and it will surely be encouraged to strengthen Windows' and Hyper-V's relationships with storage vendors other than EMC as a way of weakening the Cisco-EMC-VMware axis.

EMC management must now have a care not to get boxed in, with Dell, HP and all the other server vendors except Cisco looking to ally with its storage competitors, and with Brocade to create a counter to the Cisco-EMC-VMware trio, a virtually-everyone-but-Cisco-EMC-VMware axis. Who knows, but HP may get some ProCurve OEM deals out of this. Dell might even feel tension between itself and EMC because EMC is so strongly supporting a Dell server competitor. Will Dell move to add another storage OEM alongside existing EMC?

Sun is also in an interesting position strategically. Its storage array deconstruction strategy puts it at odds with storage array vendors and its open networking strategy sets it against network switch vendors. So, to my mind, it will not find it easy to make common cause with other server and storage vendors competing with Cisco, EMC and VMware.

Cisco and EMC/VMware have lobbed a great big rock into the data centre server and networking supplier pool and the ripples are spreading, but not into every corner of the data centre. UCS can unify compute and networking, through blades and virtualisation and management, but it does not unify compute, networking and storage, and nor does it unify the hypervisor environment or other software layers.

Shorn of non-essentials, this is a Cisco server and switch play bolstered by server virtualisation software. With the massive Cisco marketing machine in support it's sure to make waves, and could become a tide. If it does, this is one rising tide that will not lift all boats. ®

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