Storage

Why Cisco's data center strategy depends on simplifying storage

Cisco's history with enterprise storage is complicated. Here's the company's latest approach to the storage market, including its efforts in hyperconverged infrastructure and x86 SAN.

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Image: iStockphoto/Wavebreakmedia

Cisco has built an estimated $1 billion business via their UCS server platform. According to IDC, the performance is high enough to place Cisco in fifth place in the server market behind first place HPE, Dell, IBM, and Lenovo.

The x86 server market is an increasingly important slice of the enterprise data center, as x86 servers continue to cannibalize other parts of the enterprise data center. For example, network virtualization solutions such as Nuage Networks and VMware NSX continue to eat away at Cisco's traditional switch business.

Another important area of growth for x86 servers is storage, and there's a growing list of storage providers that base solutions on standard data center servers. Because of this, there has been speculation that Cisco is primed to purchase the last available independent storage provider, NetApp.

However, before making any purchase, I believe Cisco is leveraging its solid positions in networking and servers to build out a native, Cisco-only data center strategy. If you are a Cisco UCS customer, it's helpful to understand their storage solutions.

For starters, it's useful to highlight that Cisco has tried to penetrate the enterprise storage market in the past. Cisco and NetApp teamed up to create an all-Flash UCS module that quickly floundered. Also, Cisco acquired New Jersey-based all-Flash Array (AFA) company Whiptail in 2013, but integration issues and support challenges eventually doomed the Invicta product line.

So, what will Cisco do next?

Hyperconverged infrastructure

An obvious opportunity is hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI). The success of solutions from Nutanix, SimpliVity, and VCE proves the strength and potential of the market—VCE has a reported run rate of $3 billion. Currently, Cisco's approach to HCI is to partner with other technology providers.

SEE: Where converged ends and hyperconverged begins, and how to decide between the two

VCE leverages Cisco UCS servers for the Vblock converged platform. The Vblock consists of EMC storage and Cisco network gear. Cisco has also partnered with SimpliVity to offer a pure converged infrastructure solution. Cisco sells a Cisco and SimpliVity co-branded OmniStack solution, which integrates with the Cisco UCS platform.

Customers looking to get Cisco's global support and SimpliVity's IP are well-suited to look toward the OmniStack. For Cisco, one of the drawbacks to the OmniStack product is the revenue mix. In conversations with Cisco resellers, I understood the Omnistack had limited channel appeal due to the revenue agreement with SimpliVity.

Cisco's 2nd major attempt at HCI was the HyperFlex, which came as part of an exclusive partnership with hyperconverged software vendor SpringPath. Cisco's HyperFlex HCI solution is based on the SpringPath software. As part of the OEM licensing agreement, Cisco receives the lion's share of revenue from unit sales. It's obvious from the Cisco website where the focus is between OmniStack and HyperFlex. I wasn't able to find a way to navigate to the OmniStack solution, but the placement of HyperFlex was prominent under the hyperconverged product page on Cisco's website.

X86 SAN

Cisco recently announced a MapR-based SAP HANA appliance. MapR is described as a converged data platform, and Cisco is leveraging the platform to create a dedicated x86-based SAN for the SAP HANA persistent layer. A major difference between HyperFlex and the MapR-based SAP HANA appliance is the storage and compute nodes are not mixed. MapR creates a dedicated layer for storage separate from the application servers.

Cisco's storage strategy has a complicated history. The current set of technologies is focused on specific verticals. However, Cisco needs to place some consistency behind a single strategy before customers buy wholesale into a Cisco-only data center strategy.

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About Keith Townsend

Keith Townsend is a technology management consultant with more than 15 years of related experience designing, implementing, and managing data center technologies. His areas of expertise include virtualization, networking, and storage solutions for Fo...

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