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Cisco’s Warrior: Unified Data Centres Are Still Best

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

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Monolithic networks are great says Padmasree Warrior, especially if they include standard SDN interfaces

Padamasree Warrior, Cisco‘s chief technology officer, told TechWeekEurope that Cisco’s monolithic Unified Computing System (UCS) is still the company’s flagship data centre product, despite the emergence of more open, modular approaches such as Facebook’s Open Compute.

While giant data centres owned by cloud services such as Facebook might be able to specify and adopt their own modular hardware designs, the vast majority of data centres are still in enterprises or are co-location facilities, which need to buy equipment in a simple fashion, she told us, at  a panel session at the Cisco Live 2013 event in London today.

Cisco Live 2013 David Yen Vice Preisdent Data Centre

Anything is possible

The Open Compute project has published open source hardware specifications, so users can design their own low-energy, no-frills hardware, a development seemingly at odds with Cisco’s approach, which combines network and server in a UCS module.

However,the open road is only for the very largest users, and UCS has been a resounding success since its launch three years ago, taking Cisco from nowhere, to the number two spot in servers after Hewlett-Packard, according to some figures. Even if Open Compute makes it impossible to sell monolithic hardware to the hugest customers, it’s still the best thing for big enterprises, she said.

“You have to consider the enterprise data centre is different from a Facebook data centre,” Cisco’s vice president for data centres David Yen (pictured) told the same panel. “If you can afford to build football-pitch sized data centres, you can take advantage of power density and make a lot of investment into custom hardware and software.”

Large end users and hosting centres are “orthogonal” to that sort of investment, he said. “If you optimise a data centre as a unified whole, then it is different.”

TechWeekEurope asked Warrior later if there was any chance Cisco might have to do Open Compute designs in future, and was told: “Anything is possible, but our unique value proposition is bringing together computing and networking. UCS is a switch with computing and management.”

Andrew Buss, analyst at Freeform Dynamics, backed Cisco’s approach, pointing out that UCS had successfully propelled Cisco into the top division of server makers, but warned it was still too focused on networks, in a tweet during Warrior’s keynote.

This network strength is still serving Cisco well, Warrior said, pointing out that Cisco is a close networking partner for Facebook: “They use our fabric architectures, and we do things specifically for these massive scale data centres. For the cloud hardware, however, Cisco thinks it will be working more with ‘vertical clouds’ than with ‘horizontal clouds’ like Facebook: “Nine out of ten big data centres use our Nexus switches.”

Going into software

Warrior and her colleagues also addressed software-defined networking (SDN) and open source, another approach often seen as at odds with Cisco’s unified mindset.

Cisco has embraced the idea of open APIs, which is part of the SDN movement and has been opening up its own APIs through the ONE (Open Network Environment) strategy said Warrior.

“The Cisco One Platform Kit (OnePK) will allow deep programmability and an open community of participants,” she said. “SDN is a subset of what we do.” With the OnePK, Cisco allows customers to program the network using the OpenFlow SDN standard, or use a wider set of APIs to achieve more, said Warrior.

“Programmability varies between customers and segments,” said Yen. “Creating APi allows those who want to have that programmability. OpenFlow  is literally a subset of Cisco’s OnePK – and by allowing a superset you let the customer go deeper and wider if they want to. If you like to stay within the so called standard limit, this is your judgement. We offer  more, not less.

“Where there is an industry standard we absolutely like to support it,” he said, “but Cisco cannot always wait for a standard to be formed or widely adopted. We have to go above and beyond, making a superset to help our customers solve problems. ”

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