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Is Cisco's VFrame a 'virtual mainframe'?

Mark Fontecchio
Other than in the virtual reality game Second Life, can there be such a thing as a virtual mainframe, and if so, can it run like a regular mainframe?

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That may not be the precise goal of Cisco Systems Inc.'s VFrame Data Center, which the company announced this summer; but Cisco has created a more evolved, hybrid server infrastructure that blends distributed computing and old mainframe concepts, according to John Webster, a principal IT adviser at Nashua, N.H.-based research firm Illuminata Inc. and author of the recent report "VFrame, Cisco's Virtual Mainframe."

The basic idea is to think of all your distributed servers as 'stateless vessels.'
John Webster,
principal IT adviserIlluminata Inc.

"It occurred to me that VFrame is something in between," Webster said. "The pendulum is swinging back to the middle. The centralizing factor is this VFrame technology, which provides some unifying threads via the network to a decentralized client server."

What exactly is the VFrame Data Center? It's part of Cisco's vision for what it calls "Data Center 3.0." The basic idea is to think of all your distributed servers as 'stateless vessels,' " as Webster describes them in his report, "to be filled or drained as needed" and with Cisco networking hardware and software handling the filling and the draining.

"Another way of looking at what VFrame does from our historical perspective," the report said, "would be to say that if client/server computing essentially took all of the processors out of the mainframe box and stood them up as separate but networked servers, then VFrame puts them all back into a mainframe-like box, except that this mainframe box is virtual, not physical, as interconnected x86 servers." And in this model, "mainframe-style systems management is applied consistently across networked servers."

The networking giant likes to call VFrame an "orchestration platform," although it currently works only with servers running Windows or Linux. In future iterations, however, Webster expects that support to expand.

And it doesn't stop there. VFrame purportedly can do the same for networked storage as it does for servers and, down the road, could even control data center infrastructure components such as power units and air conditioners.

Cisco in the middle
According to Webster, the battle will soon move to the "data center fabric": that which connects and automatically controls your servers, storage, switches and infrastructure. As a networking behemoth, Cisco is in a good position. It is accustomed to working with third-party vendors' servers and software so that its network devices run properly, and it has developed a list of partners that will make VFrame attractive to a multivendor data center, which most data centers are.

Cisco's aggression, however, could anger partners that see it as impeding on their territory. But that likely won't deter the company.

"I think Cisco is going to go after any and all opportunities it sees developing," he said. "It may wind up stepping on some of the toes of its partners in the process, but I don't think that's going to stop them."

Cisco isn't the only player in the field either. Brocade Communications Systems Inc., the storage networking company, has already released a similar product called Tapestry Application Resource Manager, although Webster said it doesn't have all the "trappings of a virtual mainframe" like VFrame. He also expects that storage networking company QLogic may enter the market.

Webster also expects other companies to get involved, from large systems vendors like IBM, Hewlett-Packard Co. and Sun Microsystems Inc. to software vendors focusing on automated provisioning, such as Cassatt or Levanta. Even server virtualization software vendors such as VMware Inc. and Virtual Iron Software Inc. may have something to say about it.

"While everyone more or less agrees that automagical provisioning and dynamic data center orchestration is a great vision, getting it to work, in practice, across the workloads that enterprises really care about, has proved much harder," Webster said in his report.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Mark Fontecchio, News Writer.

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