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IBM data center networking strategy: Battle HP with partnerships

IBM has broadened its data center networking offerings with new Brocade and Juniper OEM deals and a reselling agreement with Cisco for its Nexus 5000 switches. By strengthening its data center networking capabilities, IBM is positioning itself for an all-out war with HP over enterprise data centers.

As HP steps up its ProCurve networking business and Cisco Systems enters the server market, IBM is diversifying and strengthening its data center networking business by inking new OEM and reselling agreements with Brocade, Juniper and Cisco.

In essence, IBM wants its customers to be able to shop for a data center as a single package without seeking a third party on the networking side of the project. Of course, IBM has been reselling networking gear such as Cisco's for years. But by offering a broader choice of products, many with the IBM label on them, IBM hopes its customers who are building new data centers will have an easier time making decisions on which gear to buy.

"We have broad networking capabilities in the broader IBM portfolio in terms of services, security and networking management," said Charlie Andrews, IBM's director of dynamic infrastructure. "We want to round it out, and this helps us by establishing tighter relationships with the primary networking vendors on the market. That allows us to also have some influence to work with them in terms of where networking capabilities are going in the future."

Back in April, IBM announced a broad OEM agreement with Brocade's Ethernet switching line. The new announcement expands on that with what IBM is calling the Converged Switch B32, which appears to be Brocade's 8000 Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) switch, a 1U switch with 24 10 GbE ports and eight Fibre Channel ports.

The Cisco portion of the announcement also focuses on FCoE. IBM will begin reselling Cisco's Nexus 5000 Series switches, a pair of data center switches that support 10 GbE and FCoE.

Finally, IBM announced that it will begin OEM sales of some of Juniper's EX and MX switches and routers later this year, although it didn't identify specific models.

IBM's data center strategy positions the company to take on HP in both data center networking and services simultaneously. IBM has long been a services-led organization, and its ability to stay close to its customers is based on its open and standards-based approach to networking data centers, according to Lucinda Borovick, research vice president for data center networks at IDC. However, with HP stepping up its ProCurve networking business and beefing up its services capabilities with its 2008 acquisition of EDS, IBM now has a major rival for data center services. To keep pace, it's building out relationships with the likes of Brocade, Juniper and even Cisco, despite the latter vendor's recent move into the server market with the Unified Computing System.

"You can look at this as an epic battle between IBM and HP," Borovick said. "I think it's really important to recognize and not discount the fact that IBM has been providing services and implementation around networking for many years. What this does is it eases customers' willingness to go with a particular vendor. Maybe they were looking at a particular strategy, and IBM was going to do just the services. Now, with these OEM agreements, customers will be more willing to try something such as Brocade."

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"To me, HP is the only vendor right now that has soup-to-nuts [in the data center]," said David O'Berry, director of IT systems and services at the South Carolina Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services. "I'm not sure how great their soup-to-nuts are, but the ProCurve line is pretty strong, and it's getting support from the mother-ship now. IBM has had to cobble together some of that."

Although IBM might disagree with O'Berry's point on HP's ability to deliver on all aspects of the data center, it does agree with the notion that it is important to deliver a complete solution to enterprises looking to build or refit data centers.

"Our enterprise customers … expect us to deliver a complete solution for their IT infrastructure needs," Andrews said. "They don't want us to bring in other vendors. They're not looking to use Lego blocks to build up [the data center]. What they're trying to do is get a vendor to partner with them at a higher level -- a solution level -- that delivers some of the financial benefits they want rather than getting down to how much this cable costs and that switch costs."

"This helps us be more responsive to meet [our clients'] specific needs," he said, "because they have very specific requirements of networking capabilities matching up with applications."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor

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