Cisco Systems aimed straight for datacentres yesterday at its annual worldwide analyst conference, with company executives claiming many communications functions in servers would be better moved into the network.
That vision is likely to bring the networking giant into conflict with system suppliers, according to some industry analysts at the conference in California. But Cisco president and chief executive John Chambers sees the move as part of a broad strategy to set Cisco apart from networking rivals gearing up to compete on equipment price.
Cisco has decided to move further into datacentre functionality over the next year, looking to take a role in distributing both storage and processing power across a network in a strategy it calls "service virtualisation".
"It won't be as much dependent on a particular device with a service," said Chambers. "You won't care whether those services are in the datacentre or in remote locations."
Charlie Giancarlo, Cisco's chief technology officer, said the company aimed to help service providers and enterprises move functions such as security, spam filtering and server load balancing from servers to switches or routers. In some cases, those functions could be distributed across the network by making storage and processing power available as a pooled resource across a high-speed network.
Giancarlo used the example of the firewall, which began life on a dedicated server but has gradually moved into the network, first on appliances and subsequently on components of routers and switches.
Other functions that Cisco sees moving into the network infrastructure or being distributed across the network include SSL encryption, intrusion detection systems, RFID functions and disc management. Giancarlo said these functions took up valuable processing power on a server and could better scale up if they were running in the network infrastructure.
Ultimately, he said, Cisco envisioned "intelligent processor switches" that could create massively parallel computing capacity by using resources located in multiple datacentres.
According to Giancarlo, the growth of network capacity itself would make datacentre power more important as service providers and enterprises built a rich layer of applications on top of IP networks that could carry anything that used packets.
Analyst Frank Dzubeck of Communications Network Architects said that Cisco had accelerated its datacentre strategy since last year and users would have to choose between keeping functions in servers and operating systems or moving them into Cisco's territory. According to Dzubeck, many of the functions that Cisco would like to move into the network are already provided in, say, IBM's WebSphere middleware.
Analyst Steve Kamman of CIBC World Markets was more blunt. "This is the future of technology. We are going to a zero-sum game."
He predicted that Cisco would try to sell its virtualisation strategy on the promise that customers who invested in the network wouldn't need as much server capacity and could put off or reduce server purchases. "If Cisco's going to get an additional couple of billion dollars a year in revenue, that's going to come out of someone else's pocket."
Stephen Lawson writes for IDG News Service