Cisco, HP ratchet up data centre battle

Cisco Systems (Nasdaq: CSCO) and HP (Nasdaq: HPQ) last week armed themselves for an impending battle in the data centre in which each company will invade the other’s turf.

HP brought its ProCurve networking arm into the data centre fray by unveiling the first ProCurve switches optimized for data centre duty.

The company also rolled out a server module for existing switches that allows users to begin integrating and consolidating switching and application processing.

Cisco, meanwhile, laid the groundwork for an imminent blade server launch with additions to the Nexus switching line and enhancements to its Catalyst products, including software designed to allow the switches to control the energy consumption of attached devices. Cisco is expected to launch its “California” blade server mid-year, and the switching upgrades are designed to help support that effort.

HP’s ProCurve launch is also in anticipation of the Cisco blade server, which will encroach on HP’s longtime data centre territory. So HP’s new switches are viewed as a pre-emptive strike into the heart of Cisco’s data centre stronghold.

“This is clearly a demonstration of HP really taking ProCurve in the enterprise and leveraging other HP strengths,” says Jon Oltsik, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. “HP’s certainly in the data centre business and for the first time ever they’re talking about handling all communications, too. HP is looking at where it can succeed in the enterprise networking market and picking its battles strategically.”

Its weapons for this battle include a new switch line optimized for top-of-rack data-centre switching applications. The 6600 line includes five Gigabit and 10 Gigabit Ethernet switches, all in 1RU form factors but in a variety of configurations.

Indiana University is putting the 6600 through its paces in preparation for building a new data centre. It currently has two, which support about 1,700 servers.

“As we started looking at our requirements, it made a lot of sense for us to move from and end-of-rack switching model to a top-of-rack switching model,” says Matt Davy, chief network architect for the university. “The 6600 has a lot of interesting features for top-of-rack.”

Indiana University is also evaluating Cisco Nexus 5000s for this application. The school is implementing a top-of-rack architecture to lower the cost of increasing gigabit densities that server virtualization presents, as well as an eventual migration to 10G Ethernet, Davy says.

“Doing 10G at top-of-rack is definitely more cost effective because of the SFP+ direct attached cables reducing your connection cost to the servers,” he says.

The server module for HP ProCurve’s 8200 and 5400 zl switches is called the ProCurve One Services zl Module. It is based on an Intel T7500 Core 2 Duo processor with 4GB of memory, 4GB of flash memory, and a 250GB hard drive.

It sports two 10G Ethernet connections to switch backplane, and future capabilities include virtualization, scalability, other form factors, and closer coupling with the switch management and forwarding plane, HP says.

The modules runs software applications from Microsoft (security and network access), McAfee (Web security, filtering and IPS), Avaya (unified communications), F5 (application delivery control and load balancing), Riverbed (WAN optimization) and others. The zl module can only run one application per module, however, but two modules can run in one 8200 or 5400 switch chassis.

City College of San Francisco is using the zl module to run a network monitoring application from HP partner InMon Corp.

“InMon’s Traffic Sentinel on the module handled all the sFlow reporting we threw at it with lower CPU utilization rates than our production server,” says Glen Van Lehn, network engineer at the college.

“This gave me a server with zero footprint — no extra space (assuming empty slot), no extra electrical outlets or UPS outlets, and no extra Ethernet ports as the two 10 Gigabit interfaces plug directly into the backplane,” he says.

The 6600 switches are priced from US$4,699 to $17,999 and will be available in the first half of this year. The Services zl Module costs $5,995 and will be available in February.

To protect its own data centre turf, Cisco is rolling out the Nexus 7018, Nexus 5010 and Nexus 2000 Fabric Extenders. The Nexus 7018 joins the Nexus 7000 Series with an 18-slot chassis that provides up to 16 I/O module slots supporting up to 512 10 Gigabit Ethernet ports — twice the density of the Nexus 7010, which debuted a year ago.

The Nexus 5010 is a 28-port, 1RU switch supporting 10 Gigabit Ethernet, Cisco’s version of a lossless Data Centre Ethernet (DCE), FibreChannel over Ethernet (FCoE), and FibreChannel. These features enable it to consolidate traffic from local area networks, storage area networks and server clusters onto a single unified fabric, Cisco says.

The Nexus 2000 Series Fabric Extender is intended to support an increasing number of servers and increased demand for bandwidth from each server. The Nexus 2148T Fabric Extenders connect to dual Cisco Nexus 5020 sSwitches and are designed to improve scalability by supporting up to 2,496 Gigabit Ethernet servers.

Enhancements for the Catalyst 6500 line include an in-service software upgrade and support for long-range integrated 10 Gigabit Ethernet optics to reduce the time needed for planned network maintenance and facilitate virtual machine mobility across data centres. The Catalyst switches will also be getting some new IOS software that allows them to control the energy usage of attached devices.

Called EnergyWise, the software was developed under the code-name Big Bang.

EnergyWise is designed to proactively measure, report and reduce the energy consumption of IP devices such as phones, laptops and access points. The software includes application programming interfaces to Cisco third-party partner packages that will enable the management of power consumption for entire building systems, such as lights, elevators and air conditioning/heating, Cisco says.

“By attaching more things to the network it allows you to make better decisions around energy,” says Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with The Yankee Group. “This can be extended to security as well — you can turn cameras on in certain areas. So there’s a lot of benefits for it.”

Cisco EnergyWise will roll out in three phases. In the first phase, it will be supported on Catalyst switches and manage the energy consumption of networked IP devices such as phones, video surveillance cameras and wireless access points.

In the next phase, there will be expanded industry support of EnergyWise on IT devices such as personal computers, laptops and printers. In the final phase, Cisco EnergyWise will be extended to management of building system assets such as heating, ventilation and air conditioning, elevators, lights, employee badge access systems, fire alarm systems and security systems.

Cisco last week acquired Richards-Zeta, a company that develops middleware designed to allow computers and building systems to be controlled by switches and routers in an IP network.

Cisco EnergyWise is a free software upgrade to existing Catalyst switches and will be available in February. It will support fixed-configuration switches initially, with chassis-based systems — the Catalyst 4500 being the first — to follow on later.

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