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Cisco and cloud computing: Go with the networking giant?

Is there any special value to buying cloud products from a network vendor like Cisco? Can Cisco deliver on any of the special values that a network provider might offer? The answer to both questions is "yes," under the right conditions.

Computing plus networking equals clouds.

Cisco's cloud vision is a three-pillar structure that consists of Unified Computing, Unified Fabric and Unified Network Services. To many enterprises, the greatest value Cisco brings to their cloud needs is how all the elements are collected into a single offering and separated into key components. Each component can then be tuned to match the combination of enterprise needs and the current level of investment in the three areas of the cloud.

What makes Cisco a special provider is the Unified Computing System (UCS) server family, a product line that includes either blade servers with a fabric-integrated chassis and chassis extenders or rackmount servers and a set of multiprotocol switches (the Nexus line) that connect servers and storage. Both Cisco offerings are designed to couple software virtualization and cloud tools (VMware's vSphere and vCloud, for example) and create virtualization-friendly data centers, which are then connected to become cloud data centers. Cisco's UCS blade strategy integrates all data center and network components into a Cisco-created cloud, and the rackmount Nexus-based strategy will allow enterprises to easily include non-Cisco servers.

Choosing a Cisco cloud strategy

So which of these strategies is the best for your enterprise, and are either of them better than what's offered by other vendors?

The first step in answering that question is determining if your current data center, network and server investments are replaceable. If an enterprise recognizes that the current data center is too old, its servers that aren't easily optimized for virtualization (for example, too few CPU cores) and any old LAN technologies won't easily support integrating storage networking with server networking, there may be a real value in refreshing the whole data center, or at least quickly evolving to a new architecture. And Cisco, of course, presents a unique one-stop shopping capability for that kind of upgrade.

The most compelling application for a Cisco cloud offering is one where the data center and network are going to be substantially replaced, or where there will be an entirely new installation. While Cisco's server pricing is comparable to that of major competitors, the UCS fabric integration and management integration is likely superior; this could provide better performance and reduce total cost of ownership (TCO).

Another important question is the extent to which the current LAN and WAN are based on Cisco equipment. Enterprises know that their support staff's skills in managing switches and routers are normally vendor-specific. If your staff is experienced in working with Cisco networks, then a Cisco-dominated cloud will preserve your investment in staff skills development. And even if your current network is a mixture of vendors and your data center a mixture of servers from multiple manufacturers, the harmonization of management and support activity around a single management platform and skill set may be a major savings and a selling point in switching to Cisco.

Determining Cisco's value to you

The value of a common management platform and support skill set is the most significant factor in deciding whether any WAN commitments justify standardizing on Cisco in the rest of the cloud. The value of a tight coupling between the data center network, the servers and any virtualization and cloud software is very clear, but it's not as clear what the technical benefit is to having the same vendor supplying these components and the WAN components. The support value is real, though, and it will be even more beneficial as the size of the WAN and the number of support personnel increase. Large enterprises are more likely to find this particular value proposition compelling than smaller ones.

Enterprises do suggest that where private cloud will be created from multiple distributed data centers, there's value in getting all of the pieces from a single player. Those types of clouds create the largest number of design and support issues, and a single source of product there would be of great value. The classic stories of finger-pointing are true, but the real benefit is insuring that complex issues like capacity and performance planning are handled. Complicated issues of that sort grow even more complex when considered across a structure with this many layers of traffic and performance.

Computing plus networking equals clouds; that's a basic equation of cloud computing. The place where network giant Cisco shines is where the integration of the computing and networking elements has to be near-perfect. As a provider of all the products involved, Cisco would have the knowledge to be that kind of integrator.

About the author:
Tom Nolle is president of CIMI Corporation, a strategic consulting firm specializing in telecommunications and data communications since 1982.


This was first published in March 2011

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