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Cisco's California Blades: Another Stab at Unified Fabric?

ANALYSIS: Cisco CEO John Chambers strongly believes that "the network is the platform." It's a line I first heard him use in a 2006 keynote at Interop, and it's a mantra Cisco executives have repeated countless times since.

On Monday, Cisco is going to take the next step its evolution of realizing that vision. The widespread speculation is that the announcement is about the secret California blade server platform. The new blade server could potentially represent a new market for Cisco, bringing it into direct competition against HP, IBM and Dell -- shaking up the datacenter marketplace as we know it.

Based on what I know so far, Cisco's strategy isn't necessarily about displacing other server blade vendors, but rather is a move consistent with Cisco's long-term vision of network convergence.

Let's step back for a minute. Officially speaking, Cisco hasn't announced anything -- yet. The company's press invite for the event states:

"There's been a lot of speculation on Cisco's entry into new markets with technology that delivers on an architectural approach we call 'Unified Computing.' Cisco would like to invite you to join us to hear John Chambers, CEO of Cisco and senior executives from several market-leading partners to hear more about the evolution of the datacenter and 'Unified Computing.'"

Nexus

The basic idea behind the fancy marketing term "Unified Computing" is what Cisco 20 years ago, along with everyone else in networking, simply called "convergence." Or you may know it as "unified fabric."

But whatever the term, the concept's remained the same: Instead of having multiple transport interconnects -- be it Fiber Channel, SCSI, Infiniband, Ethernet or another -- why not simply network architecture and management with one fabric?

It's an idea that Cisco has been pushing very hard on for some time but with the release of the Nexus switching platform in 2008, the idea really took on hardware form.

In my opinion, the Nexus was Cisco's first big, modern push to converge everything onto a single switch chassis powered by Ethernet. Both regular data and storage -- think storage-area network, or SAN -- could be converged onto one chassis to minimize network administration and improve data center efficiency. A key evolution of the Nexus platform over 2008 was its integrated virtualization capabilities and its abilities to manage virtual server traffic.

Virtualization is a key technology for improving server and datacenter utilization. By enabling its switching gear to control virtual servers, the Nexus represents a key step for Cisco to assume a big role in the virtualized datacenters of today and tomorrow.

Application Blades

The idea of running application blades on a network platform is not a new one for Cisco, either. The Cisco Application eXtension Platform (AXP) which debuted in 2008, is a Linux server, sitting on blade, inside of a Cisco ISR router.

Why would anyone want to run a blade server inside of router? It's certainly not for everyone, and that's also why I don't think Cisco California will totally destroy HP, IBM and Dell's shares of the blade server business.

The claim is that running an application inside of a router reduces latency and improves network visibility. So for applications that are very latency-sensitive -- like voice, video, unified communications and network acceleration -- it's a good idea.

HP ProCurve is doing the same thing with its ProCurve ONE initiative, in which Microsoft, Avaya, Riverbed and others are all partners.

In fact, in a recent conversation I had with Linux routing vendor Vyatta, they made a claim similar to Cisco's: that they are seeing a need for converging application serving and networking on a single level to reduce latency. Embattled networking vendor Nortel is on the same page and could soon be out with its own application services hardware.

Running applications inside networking gear is not a Cisco thing -- it's an industry trend.

It's a trend about which I spoke with Andreas Antonopoulos of Nemertes Research earlier this year, when speculation about Cisco California was ramping up.

"This represents a slight enlarging of the meaning of the term 'server,' and its a natural outcome of the real transformation we've seen in the datacenter over the last five years," Antonopoulos said at the time. "We're moving toward an environment where you orchestrate the allocation of resources for an application as near real time and as close to the demand point as possible."

The Network is the Platform

Scaling applications inside of network architecture also has benefits for cloud computing. After all, cloud computing is an on-demand service, and reducing latency at cloud scale, even by a small percentage, could have big impact.

Cisco did not invent the idea of convergence and did not invent the idea of unified fabric, either. These are broad industry trends and have been ongoing for years.

What Cisco has done to date, and what it will do on Monday, is what Cisco does best: sell the concept at a massive scale and with a branded term.

The big push from Cisco has already generated tremendous interest and will likely generate even more after Monday -- and that's a good thing for the entire IT industry, especially in the current economic climate.

Rethinking network architecture to provide fewer layers, better performance and manageability is a big positive. It will spur debate and competitive claims, for sure, but more importantly it will trigger a re-evaluation that will make IT buyers think about new technology options.