Cisco's Nexus spearheads drive into the data centre

Cisco is set to launch a data centre platform that could supersede Ethernet switches and the Fibre Channel devices that form storage networks

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Cisco is set to launch a data centre platform that could supersede Ethernet switches and the Fibre Channel devices that form storage networks. The Nexus series has been designed to cope with the demands for bandwidth and energy efficiency within data centres, while simplifying the jobs of IT administrators. In the process, it could help give Cisco the central role it seeks in IT infrastructure.

The company already has two leading product-ranges within the data centre: iits Catalyst series of Ethernet switches and its MDS storage network platform. The Nexus series of routers will combine these function by using a single switching fabric and the emerging Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) standard. The first of these, the Nexus 7000 chassis, will be generally available in the second quarter. Prices will start at US$75,000 (£38,000), but a typical configuration will cost about $200,000 (£102,000), according to Jayshree Ullal, senior vice president of Cisco's data centre, switching and security technology group.

Initially, Cisco sees the Nexus switches at the core of data centres that still use separate networks for processing and storage. But as FCoE emerges in storage systems, the Nexus could become the single connectivity platform, Ullal said. Its switching fabric is designed to be lossless, unlike a standard Ethernet system, which tolerates dropped packets, said Tom Edsall, senior vice president and CTO of the data center group. The platform also has built-in security features, including wire-speed encryption and authentication capability for each port.

At the heart of the platform is a new, virtualized operating system, NX OS. As with server virtualisation, NX OS can turn a Nexus switch into multiple logical switches running totally different processes, Ullal said . For example, one logical switch could handle storage and be managed by storage specialists, while the other links servers and is run by a different staff. A third could be a test platform. All would use a single switching fabric and set of redundant power supplies, which provides benefits in performance, economies of scale and resiliency, she said. This virtualised architecture eventually will trickle down to other Cisco product lines, according to Ullal.

Cisco also has automated some aspects of management with the Nexus line, drawing on best practices it learned partly from its customers, Edsall said. The system is designed to monitor and heal itself in many cases.

The network's role in data centres is growing as computing and storage are combined and shared, according to industry analysts. It's now the "orchestrator" of the data center, Zeus Kerravala of Yankee Group said. Cisco is the only vendor with both the networking and the computing experience to fulfill that role, he believes. But though many managers of data centers want to see total virtualisation of the data center, which could boost efficiency, they aren't yet ready for it.

"We're just entering the very early stages of the virtual data centre," Kerravala said. "This is probably at least two years away."

Cisco is best positioned to build the core of data centers because the network touches everything in it, according to Ullal, Edsall, and other executives.

"For Cisco, it's very critical that this platform be a launching pad to go further up the IT stack," said IDC analyst Cindy Borovick. However, taking control of data centres won't be a walk in the park, she cautioned.

"Cisco's in a very strong position, but there are other very large suppliers that recognise how important the data centre is and are willing to invest the R&D dollars," Borovick said, citing IBM and Sun Microsystems. To Cisco's peril, data center administrators are more than willing to buy the best of many vendors rather than standardise on one, because they control the "crown jewels" of the enterprise, she said.

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