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Cisco Whiptail buy affirms role for SSDs in server hardware

Data center pros increasingly see SSDs as table stakes in the server market. In this atmosphere, Cisco purchased SSD integrator Whiptail.

Cisco will add an integrated solid-state storage option to its UCS servers following its purchase of Whiptail Technologies Inc., a move that will result in higher-performance internal storage for data center pros who use the Cisco blade chassis.

Whiptail's Accela and Invicta storage systems feature solid-state drives (SSDs) manufactured by Intel Corp., along with routers that provide redundant network paths and manage host connectivity for the devices. Whiptail claims up to 300,000 read Inputs / Outputs per second (IOPS) in the Invicta system, which would mean orders of magnitude higher performance for a server attached to such a device rather than traditional hard disk drive (HDD)-based data storage systems.

Previously, Cisco had certified Whiptail's Accela as compatible with its Unified Computing System (UCS), but they ran as separate systems. This acquisition puts Cisco in position to more deeply integrate Whiptail's SSD automation and management technology into its UCS compute fabric.

Gigabyte-for-gigabyte, SSDs are more expensive than traditional HDDs, but the integration between UCS and Whiptail could also result in consolidated costs for data center pros as compared to purchasing separate systems. The acquisition will also give customers "one throat to choke" for storage as well as the blade servers and networking technology already included with UCS.

"I see Whiptail as an enhancement more than a replacement for traditional storage, in the near term," said Mark Thiele, executive vice president of data center technology at Switch Las Vegas. As a data center hosting provider, Switch has its own installation of UCS as well as dozens of customers using it, Thiele said.

Traditionally separate disciplines of network, storage and compute are breaking down in the data center, and components that were formerly too expensive for most customers to purchase, such as SSDs, have become more affordable than they used to be, Thiele said.

"This purchase will enhance Cisco's position in certain markets today (big data, high I/O, etc.), and longer term will enable them to stay relevant in the entire server market," Thiele said. "Customers want to get all the performance they can out of their infrastructure and the three early drivers (CPU, RAM and disk) just don't cut it anymore."

Cisco is hardly the first server maker to fold in SSDs, said Jonathan Eunice, principal IT advisor at Nashua, NH-based analyst firm Illuminata Inc., citing IBM's acquisition of Texas Memory Systems for its PureFlex converged infrastructure platform last summer.

Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) also offers an IO Accelerator for its BladeSystem c-Class chassis based on an OEM partnership with SSD vendor Fusion-io. Dell sells SSDs specifically for its PowerEdge servers, despite the fact that it also owns two external storage companies, Compellent and EqualLogic.

"With blades and virtualization, we're seeing the continued consolidation of the IT complex," Eunice said. "There just isn't as much separation between spheres of operation in the data center as there used to be in the '80s and '90s."

Cisco itself also put the emphasis on integration of Whiptail with its UCS servers rather than as a standalone storage product. Through this acquisition, the company adds solid state memory acceleration into the compute tier as a managed subsystem, Cisco said in a blog post about the acquisition.

How this acquisition impacts Cisco's work with the VCE Company, a joint venture started with EMC Corp. and VMware Inc. in 2009 which sells the VBlock, also a vertically integrated set of compute, storage and network equipment, is in question, as is Cisco's work with NetApp Inc. on the FlexPod reference architecture. Cisco claims the Whiptail buy is "about the server market.

Still, not everyone's convinced.

"If I were Cisco and I were looking to offer an integrated stack, that's how I'd spin it as well," said Simon Robinson, analyst and vice president for 451 Research based in London. "You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to read between the lines and see that really, this is Cisco's storage play."

Whiptail employees will be integrated into Cisco's Computing Systems Product Group, according to Cisco. Under the terms of the agreement, Cisco will pay $415 million for the company; the transaction is expected to close in the first quarter of fiscal 2014.

Beth Pariseau is senior news writer for Write to her at or follow @PariseauTT on Twitter.

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