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As Cisco invades server market, Sun prepares networking counterstrike

Cisco Systems will stage an online press conference on Monday with CEO John Chambers. He will be unveiling Cisco’s vision of “Unified Computing,” which CTO Padmasree Warrior describes in her blog as an “architectural transformation” in the data center where “the compute and storage platform is architecturally ‘unified’ with the network and the virtualization platform.” It is this concept that has been generating all the rumors about Cisco entering the server market with a product codenamed “California.”

So it appears these rumors will be confirmed in some fashion on Monday, and the world will take notice.  However, the heart of Cisco’s business remains the network. That is where it dominates and that is where it reaps enormous profits. While Cisco reaches into new markets and competes with old partners like HP, another company is quietly positioning itself for a counterstrike.

Blogger Scott Lowe points out that Sun Microsystems is hinting at plans to compete directly with Cisco in the networking market. He notes that a new blog entry by Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz pretty much confirms the speculation.

Lowe points to this money quote from Schwartz’s blog (The emphasis is Lowe’s):

As I’ve said before, general purpose microprocessors and operating systems are now fast enough to eliminate the need for special purpose devices. That means you can build a router out of a server – notice you cannot build a server out of a router, try as hard as you like. The same applies to storage devices.

To demonstrate this point, we now build our entire line of storage systems from general purpose server parts, including Solaris and ZFS, our open source file system. This allows us to innovate in software, where others have to build custom silicon or add cost. We are planning a similar line of networking platforms, based around the silicon and software you can already find in our portfolio.

Lowe notes that the comment about building a server out of a router is probably a shot at Cisco’s California. But Schwartz is also saying that the proprietary hardware and operating systems  that Cisco and other network vendors build are  unnecessary.

Note this statement:

At Sun, open source isn’t for servers. Open source is for datacenters.

He’s arguing that high performance networking devices can be developed with an open source operating system and high-performance, commoditized hardware. Open source networking start-ups like Vyatta have been making this argument for quite awhile.

Schwartz writes:

Leveraging inexpensive, general purpose components is one big advantage for us, but there are others – using a general purpose OS allows us to easily embrace specialized components (from flash memory to GPU’s), or adapt to new storage or networking protocols entirely in software. The underlying OS and server are so fast, these extensions and enhancements are simple feature updates, and ones we can leverage across servers, and storage and networking.

As everyone speculates breathlessly about what Cisco has planned with California, it’s easy to forget that companies like Sun and HP won’t be sitting still.

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