The Network is the Computer

It’s sometimes funny that history takes some strange turns. Back in the 1980s, Sun began building its empire in the workgroup by combining two standards: UNIX boxes with TCP/IP networks built in. Sun’s The Network is the Computer message declared that computing was of little value without the network. Of course, Sun hardly had a lock on the idea, as Bob Metcalfe devised the law stating that the value of the network was exponentially related to the number of nodes connected, and that Digital (DEC) (remember them?) actually scaled out the idea at division level where Sun was elbowing its way into the workgroup.

Funny that DEC was there first but they only got the equation half right – bundling a proprietary OS to a standard networking protocol. Fast forward a decade and Digital was history, Sun was the dot in dot com. Then go a few more years later, as Linux made even a “standard” OS like UNIX look proprietary, Sun suffers DEC’s fate (OK they haven’t been acquired, yet and still have cash reserves, if they could only figure out what to do when they finally grow up), and bandwidth, blades get commodity enough that businesses start thinking that the cloud might be a cheaper, more flexible alternative to the data center. Throw in a very wicked recession and companies are starting to think that the numbers around the cloud – cheap bandwidth, commodity OS, commodity blades – might provide the avoided cost dollars they’ve all been looking for. That is, if they can be assured that lacing data out in the cloud won’t violate ay regulatory or privacy headaches.

So today it gets official. After dropping hints for months, Cisco has finally made it official: its Unified Computing System is to provide in essence a prepackaged data center:

Blades + Storage Networking + Enterprise Networking in a box.

By now you’ve probably read the headlines – that UCS is supposed to do, what observers like Dana Gardner term, bring an iPhone like unity to the piece parts that pass for data centers. It would combine blade, network device, storage management and VMware’s virtualization platform (as you might recall, Cisco owns a $150 million chunk of VMware) to provide, in essence, a data center appliance in the cloud.

In a way, UCS is a closing of the circle that began with mainframe host/terminal architectures of a half century ago: a single monolithic architecture with no external moving parts.

Of course, just as Sun wasn’t the first to exploit TCP/IP network, but got the lion’s share of credit from, similarly, Cisco is hardly the first to bridge the gap between compute and networking node. Sun already has a Virtual Network Machines Project for processing network traffic on general-purpose servers, while its Project Crossbow is supposed to make networks virtual as well as part of its OpenSolaris project. Sounds like a nice open source research project to us that’s limited to the context of the Solaris OS. Meanwhile HP has raped up its Procurve business, which aims at the heart of Cisco territory. Ironically, the dancer left on the sidelines is IBM, which sold off its global networking business to AT&T over a decade ago, and its ROLM network switches nearly a decade before that.

It’s also not Cisco’s first foray out of the base of the network OSI stack. Anybody remember Application-Oriented Networking? Cisco’s logic, to build a level of content-based routing into its devices was supposed to make the network “understand” application traffic. Yes, it secured SAP’s endorsement for the rollout, but who were you really going to sell this to in the enterprise? Application engineers didn’t care for the idea of ceding some of their domain to their network counterparts. On the other hand, Cisco’s successful foray into storage networking proves that the company is not a one-trick pony.

What makes UCS different on this go round are several factors. Commoditization of hardware and firmware, emergence of virtualization and the cloud, makes division of networking, storage, and datacenter OS artificial. Recession makes enterprises hungry for found money, maturation of the cloud incents cloud providers to buy pre-packaged modules to cut acquisition costs and improve operating margins. Cisco’s lineup of partners is also impressive – VMware, Microsoft, Red Hat, Accenture, BMC, etc. – but names and testimonials alone won’t make UCS fly. The fact is that IT has no more hunger for data center complexity, the divisions between OS, storage, and networking no longer adds value, and cloud providers need a rapid way of prefabricating their deliverables.

Nonetheless we’ve heard lots of promises of all-in-one before. The good news is this time around there’s lots of commodity technology and standards available. But if Cisco is to make a real alternative to IBM, HP, or Dell, it’s got to put make datacenter or cloud-in-the box reality.