Cisco puts network muscle behind virtualization, utility computing

Cisco Systems, Inc. just launched a new family of InfiniBand-based switches and virtualization software that pools resources at the network layer. The products stem from the acquisition of Topspin Communications last May, and experts say Cisco's clout will likely boost the technology's profile and finally open minds and wallets to utility computing.

Cisco Systems, Inc. has cashed in on its purchase of Topspin Communications earlier this year. The networking giant just unveiled a new portfolio of InfiniBand-based Server Fabric Switches and its new VFrameTM 3.0 virtualization software based on technology acquired last May.

The VFrame software will allow data center managers to move virtualization from the server to the more pervasive network level, a new way of looking at the breakout technology.

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Virtualization at network level still in infancy

Virtualization, software that allows IT organizations to provision hardware into platform-agnostic pools of processing and storage capacity, has been implemented on the server by companies like VMware. But Cisco's network virtualization architecture has an overarching quality that touches everything in the data center.

"Cisco's network approach virtualizes the stack at a higher level," Tony Prigmore, senior analyst with Milford, Mass.-based Enterprise Strategy Group said. "VMware does something totally different at the server level. Going forward at this point, most companies' virtualization strategy will include VMware and Cisco side by side."

And while Prigmore said the technologies are complementary now, they may end up competing as time goes on. "We're in the first inning of virtualization, so it's too soon to see how this market is going to shape up," Prigmore said.

Virtualization to unlock utility computing doors

This virtualization tool, combined with high performance InfiniBand switches, will likely open the doors to utility computing, according to Stu Aaron, Cisco's director of product management for the launch.

"Utility computing has been server-centric. It's gained a lot of attention, but not a lot of wallets. Why? Because every customer has multiple server and storage vendors," Aaron said. "The network is more ubiquitous. By layering virtualization over the network, you can look at pools of I/O, CPU and storage as resources."

Matthew Wolf, a research scientist and professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta agrees that the technical component of Cisco's offering will move utility computing to wider acceptance.

GIT is beta-testing the technology in its high performance computing labs to run supercomputing applications and is also using the virtualized grid as a teaching lab for students learning about cutting edge infrastructure.

But Wolf said there are social barriers holding back utility computing, not just technological hurdles.

"There are privacy protection concerns if you don't know where your data is and what people are doing to it," Wolf said. "People have a need to understand what [hardware] their data corresponds to."

Regardless of psychological barriers, Prigmore said Cisco's multi-platform capabilities and brand muscle will likely push the technology to acceptance.

"The real challenge for utility computing is the heterogeneous nature of most IT infrastructures. Cisco has the ability to transcend all enterprise manufacturers," Prigmore said. "The small amount of influence Topspin had as a startup -- Cisco is going to take off with it."

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Matt Stansberry, News Editor

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