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Cisco Sets Sights on Server Management

It takes a lot of moxie to jump into the server management side of the business ruled by such IT giants as IBM , HP  and others.

But that's exactly what networking king Cisco Systems   plans to do, armed with a new product and new ideas.

At the company's Networkers conference in Anaheim, Calif., Cisco today unveiled VFrame Data Center, a software/hardware platform intended to curb the abundance of x86 servers in corporate datacenters by provisioning applications in a point-and-click fashion.

The product is the core offering for the show, where Cisco officials touted Data Center 3.0, the company's strategy for automating and choreographing infrastructure services from shared pools of virtualized server, storage and network resources.

Reducing hardware in datacenters is a hot topic at a time when machines are consuming so much power, sending energy costs skyrocketing, not to mention the cost to buy the hardware and cable it. And once that's done, you've taken up a whole lot of space.

Cisco VFrame
The VFrame.
Source: Cisco

Several companies, including the server vendors and smaller players such as Opsware , BladeLogic, Scalent and Cassatt, are all working to combat server sprawl to alleviate companies' financial and spatial pains. Cisco is only too happy to join the party.

"What we've been looking at here is to better provision these applications into the datacenter infrastructure, including the provisioning they would need for server, networking and storage services, Bill Erdman, product manager in Cisco's datacenter technology group, told internetnews.com.

The classic approach to carving up network services is to add a piece of hardware to each application group for the particular service the hardware offers. For example, you'd add a firewall device for an SAP application, or an e-commerce application. But that can lead to 100 firewalls running at low utilization rates.

Running on a 1U appliance, VFrame virtualizes network services, such as the deployment of firewalls, virtual local area networks and wide-area networks, by pointing and clicking them on a server instead of the traditional method of throwing a raft of devices into the datacenter.

The VFrame appliance is stateless, so no machine has its own IP address, and users can move services from server to server, changing the personality of each machine on the fly.

VFrame solves the problems of servers getting stagnant with the same applications over several years. Erdman pointed to Cisco's own Application Control Engine (ACE), which provides 255 virtual contexts within a content load balancer blade, as a textbook example.

"Rather than dedicate 255 appliances, you can carve the Application Control Engine in 255 contexts for 255 application groups," Erdman said.

But VFrame will complement, not supplant, server and storage virtualization tools.

The executive said Cisco will work with server virtualization products, such as VMware Infrastructure, and storage virtualization tools, such as EMC's Invista software.

"We are not the virtualization engine of the datacenter; we are a middleware platform that can provision the networking components and work with these other endpoint systems," Erdman said.

Available in August, VFrame starts at $60,000 for each appliance and, based on servers and services, can cost $150,000.

Forrester Research analyst James Staten said VFrame could be attractive to IT administrators looking to modernize their datacenters for power and space efficiencies because the platform can set up networks as a service instead of as a traditional hardware-driven datacenter.

Staten said Opsware, BladeLogic and Scalent attack the same problem from different angles, noting that Opsware specializes in configuration management while BladeLogic offers that as well as some virtualized provisioning. Scalent, he said, makes services fail over without requiring hardware changes.

"Ultimately, there's going to have to be a rationalization of all these tools for an administrator," Staten said.

However, Staten said Cisco may have to overcome the challenge of doing server reconfiguration when it has no relationship with server administrators. Moreover, he said, admins can't just plug it in and go; users will have to do some physical reconfigurations to take advantage of VFrame.