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Cisco 'California' blade server launch imminent?

Mighty vendor sure is up to something

While vendors come and go in the cutthroat server racket every day, it is an exceptional day when a company with the economic and technical might of Cisco Systems decides to jump in.

Many tongues are wagging as to what Cisco is up to as part of its "Big Bang" product launch for automating and virtualizing the data center and its related "California" server launch. But despite the whirling rumors, Cisco is keeping pretty tight-lipped.

While the Big Bang product launch is generally expected between now and the end of the first quarter, one source says it is possible that Cisco may launch the California server as early as next Monday. Thus far, Cisco has not reached out to the IT press for pre-briefings, but various IT consultancies (the usual suspects) seem to know a thing or two about what Cisco is up to.

It is possible that the Big Bang launch was originally scheduled for the end of January, but adverse economic conditions might have pushed it out to February or March.

There have been plenty of whispers about Cisco annoying server makers and networking partners IBM and Hewlett-Packard, which recommend and sell Cisco switches, routers, and other gear to their server customers. The détente that has existed between network and system providers has always been a precarious one - IBM used to have a big networking business of its own, and HP has been building one for years. So in a way, Big Blue and Big Gray have it coming to them if Cisco invades their server space - and more importantly, in an economy like this one, it is every IT vendor for itself.

It may or may not be significant that IBM just this morning withdrew from its product catalog the Fibre Intelligent Gigabit Ethernet switch module made by Cisco for IBM's BladeCenter blade servers. IBM won't sell this Cisco switch after January 30.

There were early rumors last fall that Cisco had partnered with Dell for server iron, and the more logical idea that it would partner with Intel has also appeared in the rumor mill. According to our sources, Cisco has not done an OEM deal with Dell or Intel.

That doesn't mean that Cisco isn't using Intel's x64 iron, or even perhaps IBM's and Intel's co-developed BladeCenter blade server form factor in the California server designs. It also doesn't mean these rumors are correct; they are rumors, after all.

Another source suggested that Cisco would be launching a high-end quad-socket server, which is not where you would expect a volume product to be. As we all know, the two-socket server, be it in a rack or a blade form factor, represents the belly of the server space. Four-socket boxes, while having high margins, are not exactly volume products. But given that Cisco's goal with the Big Bang launch is to virtualize the data center - networks, servers, and storage - all in one fell swoop, using high-end blade servers with lots of memory bandwidth makes sense.

Cisco could launch blades using Intel's "Dunnington" four-core and six-core Xeon 7400 processors, or it could do a blade based on Advanced Micro Devices' "Shanghai" Opteron 8300s. Both families of x64 chips run the same software, and they have on-chip support for speeding up virtual machine hypervisors.

There is some talk that Cisco's California blade servers with use high-density memory (like that supplied by MetaRAM) or memory appliances (like those from Violin Memory) to provide somewhere between double and quadruple the main memory available on standard x64 servers. There is also some suggestion that Cisco has put other innovations into the California blade server's chipset, which might mean a partnership with a motherboard maker such as Super Micro.

Such a large memory on the server implies that the California blades are being architected to support some pretty big, high-margin workloads, such as online transaction processing, in a virtualized manner. If Cisco was going to rattle the server makers, this would be a great way to do it.

What everyone seems to agree on is that the California server, whenever it does launch, will be hooked into Cisco's Nexus 5000 switch, which will sit at the top of the rack, and it will somehow tie into the Nexus 1000V virtual switch. This is a variant of the Nexus family that is aware of virtual machines running on hypervisors on servers (in this case, VMware's ESX Server and ESXi hypervisors) and that can cope with changing network settings on these VMs as they are migrated around a network of servers.

The interesting bit about the 1000V is that it is implemented in software. The Cisco NS-OX network operating system runs inside a VM and talks to virtual Ethernet modules inside the ESX server hypervisors (and replacing VMware's own virtual switch). The virtual switch in turn talks to actual switches, which handle traffic between the servers and the outside world. That would be the Nexus 5000, which was designed to provide 10 Gigabit Ethernet LAN and Fibre Channel SAN connectivity from a single switch.

The California blade server could see Cisco pick up some management tools from a third party, if reports from NetworkWorld pan out. The rumors over there are that BMC Software is providing some of the systems and virtual server management software that will launch with the California blade servers. There is even a suggestion that Cisco might just go all the way and buy BMC to up its table stakes in the data center game.

While this is possible, BMC has a market capitalization as we go to press of $5.1bn, and would probably fetch something on the order of $7bn if it was acquired because of the $925m in cash and equivalents it is sitting on (that's a September 30 number, the most current available). By comparison, Cisco is worth about $92.6bn today, and had $4.2bn in cash and equivalents and $22.6bn in short-term investments as October ended.

Clearly, Cisco could afford such a buy. But that doesn't mean it will happen, or should. ®

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