Cisco declares war, embraces open source

Cisco Systems is attacking the world with its new Unified Computing initiative, and although the technology is proprietary, open-source software plays a key role.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

Cisco Systems doesn't seem to know how to color inside the lines.

The networking-equipment giant has been foraging in a diverse set of new markets lately, taking on Microsoft in the collaboration and unified-communications markets, but now sticking a finger in the eye of longtime server partners Hewlett-Packard and IBM by jumping into the server market, as The New York Times reports.

Is Cisco reckless, or simply smart?

Whichever the case may be, Cisco just took on a host of powerful competitors. All at once. Sun Microsystems' Zack Urlocker notes that Sun, among others, is jumping into Cisco's profitable network equipment market. It was bound to happen that partners would become competitors to Cisco, as they sought to eke out a living in a recessed economy.

What wasn't certain is just how grand Cisco's ambition could be and how fast it would happen. As CNET's Marguerite Reardon writes, Cisco isn't going halfway with its new Unified Computing push:

It shouldn't come as a surprise that the company's new data center server strategy, announced Monday, is fueled by a grand vision to not only help its corporate customers improve efficiency and reduce costs, but also (to) transform how average consumers can access loads of cool new applications on cheap devices.

Few companies have the luxury to make such bold moves. Cisco, as well as IBM, Oracle, and Microsoft, is one that can.

Intriguingly, Cisco's Unified Computing initiative puts it into close collaboration with Linux leader Red Hat, as the two are collaborating to ensure that Cisco's new servers run seamlessly with Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL). While VMware and Microsoft got a lot of coverage in the Cisco announcement, my conversations with executives behind the scenes reveals a different picture:

  • Cisco has been working on this project for more than a year, and it initially figured that it could cover the market with VMware for virtualization, and Windows and RHEL as the operating systems. However, when the company talked with early prospects roughly nine months ago, the vast majority reported that they were using VMware or virtualization in only 5 percent to 10 percent of the workloads Cisco was targeting for its Unified Computing push. They weren't using Windows, either. Virtually all of them were using Unix or RHEL, with a large swath embracing RHEL.
  • RHEL, in fact, is expected to claim 80 percent to 90 percent of Cisco's Unified Computing customers: those using VMware for virtualization but running RHEL as a guest server operating system, and those not yet comfortable using virtualization in high-end computing workloads, will use RHEL as their base operating system.

While Cisco's Unified Communication technology is hardly open source--Cisco has built its own proprietary Ethernet, for heaven's sake!--the initiative will largely depend on open-source software. In my conversations with executives involved in the initiative, Red Hat, specifically, and open-source proponents, generally, are deemed to be critical to its success.

This isn't surprising, given how integral open source is to Cisco's other new initiatives, such as its push into collaboration, which involved the acquisitions of PostPath (which also includes Zimbra's open-source Web client in its offering) and Jabber, as well as a variety of open-source projects from the Apache Software Foundation and elsewhere.

HP's vice president of marketing for enterprise servers and storage, Jim Ganthier, dissed Cisco's foray into his market with a dismissive hiss:

It may have looked like a really great idea on paper, but as they start to wade into the water, they may find out that there are some things in the water that they don't like.

Maybe. But Cisco has the heft to completely dam HP's river and fill a lake. That's the plan. And open source will play a major role in making it happen.

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