HP vs. Cisco: A Data Center Smackdown Looms?

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Despite an overwhelming dominance of the networking business, Cisco has a target painted on its back, in the eyes of Hewlett-Packard.

HP's ProCurve networking unit painted the target there early in the decade, when they began gunning for Cisco, whose strength, analysts say, is built on a history of effective acquisitions and long-term planning-allowing Cisco to build certain leads in virtualization, VoIP, Unified Communications and other hot network-centric technologies before the markets for them are really developed.

"Clients especially recently have come to us asking about alternatives to Cisco," according to says Dave Passmore, network, data center and infrastructure analyst at The Burton Group. "Not because they're unhappy with Cisco; because they're trying to introduce competition into the equation, especially when their budgets are tight."

HP-known traditionally more for high-end servers and professional services than for networking gear-has nevertheless been inching up the list of Cisco networking competitors. HP reached a market share of 5.2 percent during the first quarter of this year for the total worldwide ethernet switch market, compared to Cisco's 69 percent, and a list of also-rans with shares smaller than four percent, according to Dell'Oro Group, which measures revenue, sales volumes and relative market share in a quarterly survey.

A New Push in Virtual Networks and Data Center "We tend to joke about networking as being 'Cisco and the seven dwarfs,'" Passmore says."HP's been making steady progress, though they focus on more the small and mid-sized enterprise and really haven't had as much to track virtual machines as they move from one server to the next, or offer much in networking gear designed specifically to be more suitable to the data center."

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HP is pitching itself as a credible alternative to Cisco in the networking market, and positioning itself to push even harder in the data-center and virtual-infrastructure networking fields.

Next week, at its HP Technology Conference & Expo in Las Vegas, HP will offer 64 sessions that touch on virtualization, and 17 on networking.

It's true HP has focused on 'campus' networking rather than 'enterprise,' but ProCurve-which operated independently and was almost ignored by the rest of HP until it was incorporated into the company's server division last year-is moving up the food chain and starting to compete directly with Cisco for the enterprise, says Ben van Kerkwyk, global product manager in HP ProCurve's data center technology group.

Most recently, in May the group announced a four-year, $180 million deal with Microsoft to produce a set of unified communications and collaboration products designed to compete with Cisco's unified communications products.

In January, HP announced a vendor alliance called the HP ProCurve Open Network Ecosystem (HP ProCurve ONE) that packages a variety of load-balancing, security and other third-party applications with HP switches-and in doing do, took a shot at Cisco, which was preparing to launch the server/router/virtualization platform it calls the Unified Computing Services.

More importantly, HP announced a grown-up version of its Virtual Connect, software, which has been shipping since 2006 and is designed to allow network managers to make one set of network connections to an HP switch, which will then create and maintain virtual network connections to each of the blade servers within the chassis.

HP's related Data Center Connection Manager is software that runs as an appliance, keeping track of the network and storage connections of both physical and virtual servers throughout the data center.

"It lets a data center manager create a set of profiles defining the access servers should have, and apply that to physical servers or virtual servers," van Kerkwyk says. "So you can spin up a resource as fast as you need it, but it bypasses the need to go through another whole process of provisioning with storage or networking people to make the connections with policy based automation. As virtual machines move from one server to next, the network can specifically track virtual machines, do load balancing, bring in a lot of functionality to add to what was just an Ethernet switch to make more suitable to data center. "

HP BladeSystem Matrix vs. Cisco Unified Computing System In April, HP followed that up with a direct slap at Cisco, when it announced BladeSystem Matrix, a software/server/storage/networking computing platform designed to compete with Cisco's Unified Computing System, which had been announced two months earlier. ( See "Data Center Dustup Favors Cisco" for more background on Cisco's UCS and what it means to enterprise IT.)

HP's Matrix is designed as chassis-mounted blade servers with connections and management software for networks and storage units built in, while Cisco's UCS is more like a router with blade servers added.

It also shipped the 6600 series of 10 Gbit/sec racktop switches designed to be bolted to the top of blade- or rack-mounted server chassis in order to centralize network connections and management, reducing the complexity of cabling and management of both servers and network connections inside the data center.

Both Data Center Connection Manager and Virtual Connect are steps in the right direction for a company that "kind of got left behind on the virtualization front," Passmore says. "HP has a great presence in the data center, but ProCurve didn't have much in the data-center product line or in virtualization. They recognized that and acknowledged they'd have to do something, though, and said 'watch this space.'"

"If you listen to the descriptions, Matrix sounds a lot like Unified Computing," according to John Oltsik, analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. "Cisco did a fantastic job of looking at virtualization and focusing on networking and security and offering an integrated product set to support it. HP has a compelling portfolio, too, but they're just starting to develop specific products. Matrix is compelling, but they haven't done as much integration as Cisco has."

That will change, and quickly, van Kerkwyk says, as HP integrates DCCM, BladeCenter Matrix and its other networking and server-management tools to make a product set more tailored to data centers and virtual infrastructures. But it won't happen by the time of HP's conference next week.

"Our big splash was at Interop [in May] with the announcement of our alliance with Microsoft," he says. "The reason we've been successful in taking market share is our focus on standards based technologies, and we're going to continue to take advanced technologies and drive them through standards bodies to solve issues related to virtualization. That's what to look for."

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