Cisco’s Storage Trap

Recent commentary from Barclays Capital analyst Jeff Kvaal has me wondering whether  Cisco might push into the storage market. In turn, I’ve begun to think about a strategic drift at Cisco that has been apparent for the last few years.

But let’s discuss Cisco and storage first, then consider the matter within a broader context.

Risks, Rewards, and Precedents

Obviously a move into storage would involve significant risks as well as potential rewards. Cisco would have to think carefully, as it presumably has done, about the likely consequences and implications of such a move. The stakes are high, and other parties — current competitors and partners alike — would not sit idly on their hands.

Then again, Cisco has been down this road before, when it chose to start selling servers rather than relying on boxes from partners, such as HP and Dell. Today, of course, Cisco partners with EMC and NetApp for storage gear. Citing the precedent of Cisco’s server incursion, one could make the case that Cisco might be tempted to call the same play .

After all, we’re entering a period of converged and virtualized infrastructure in the data center, where private and public clouds overlap and merge. In such a world, customers might wish to get well-integrated compute, networking, and storage infrastructure from a single vendor. That’s a premise already accepted at HP and Dell. Meanwhile, it seems increasingly likely data-center infrastructure is coming together, in one way or another, in service of application workloads.

Limits to Growth?

Cisco also has a growth problem. Despite attempts at strategic diversification, including failed ventures in consumer markets (Flip, anyone?), Cisco still hasn’t found a top-line driver that can help it expand the business while supporting its traditional margins. Cisco has pounded the table perennially for videoconferencing and telepresence, but it’s not clear that Cisco will see as much benefit from the proliferation of video collaboration as once was assumed.

To complicate matters, storm clouds are appearing on the horizon, with Cisco’s core businesses of switching and routing threatened by the interrelated developments of service-provider alienation and software-defined networking (SDN). Cisco’s revenues aren’t about to fall off a cliff by any means, but nor are they on the cusp of a second-wind surge.

Such uncertain prospects must concern Cisco’s board of directors, its CEO John Chambers, and its institutional investors.

Suspicious Minds

In storage, Cisco currently has marriages of mutual convenience with EMC (VBlocks and the sometimes-strained VCE joint venture) and with NetApp (the FlexPod reference architecture).  The lyrics of Mark James’ song Suspicious Minds are evocative of what’s transpiring between Cisco and these storage vendors. The problem is not only that Cisco is bigamous, but that the networking giant might have another arrangement in mind that leaves both partners jilted.

Neither EMC nor NetApp is oblivious to the danger, and each has taken care to reduce its strategic reliance on Cisco. Conversely, Cisco would be exposed to substantial risks if it were to abandon its existing partnership in favor of a go-it-alone approach to storage.

I think that’s particularly true in the case of EMC, which is the majority owner of server-virtualization market leader VMware as well as a storage vendor. The corporate tandem of VMware and EMC carries considerable enterprise clout, and Cisco is likely to be understandably reluctant to see the duo become its adversaries.

Caught in a Trap

Still, Cisco has boxed itself into a strategic corner. It needs growth, it hasn’t been able to find it from diversification away from the data center, and it could easily see the potential of broadening its reach from networking and servers to storage. A few years ago, the logical choice might have been for Cisco to acquire EMC. Cisco had the market capitalization and the onshore cash to pull it off five years ago, perhaps even three years ago.

Since then, though, the companies’ market fortunes have diverged. EMC now has a market capitalization of about $54 billion, while Cisco’s is slightly more than $90 billion. Even if Cisco could find a way of repatriating its offshore cash hoard without taking a stiff hit from the U.S. taxman, it wouldn’t have the cash to pull of an acquisition of EMC, whose shareholders doubtless would be disinclined to accept Cisco stock as part of a proposed transaction.

Therefore, even if it wanted to do so, Cisco cannot acquire EMC. It might have been a good move at one time, but it isn’t practical now.

Losing Control

Even NetApp, with a market capitalization of more than $12.1 billion, would rate as the biggest purchase by far in Cisco’s storied history of acquisitions. Cisco could pull it off, but then it would have to try to further counter and commoditize VMware’s virtualization and cloud-management presence through a fervent embrace of something like OpenStack or a potential acquisition of Citrix. I don’t know whether Cisco is ready for either option.

Actually, I don’t see an easy exit from this dilemma for Cisco. It’s mired in somewhat beneficial but inherently limiting and mutually distrustful relationships with two major storage players. It would probably like to own storage just as it owns servers, so that it might offer a full-fledged converged infrastructure stack, but it has let the data-center grass grow under its feet. Just as it missed a beat and failed to harness virtualization and cloud as well as it might have done, it has stumbled similarly on storage.

The status quo is likely to prevail until something breaks. As we all know, however, making no decision effectively is a decision, and it carries consequences. Increasingly, and to an extent that is unprecedented, Cisco is losing control of its strategic destiny.

7 responses to “Cisco’s Storage Trap

  1. Pingback: Cisco’s Storage Trap by Brad Casemore – Gestalt IT

  2. Pingback: Cisco’s Storage Trap by Brad Casemore – Gestalt IT

  3. Wouldn’t one of the new all-flash startups (Pure, Tintri, whatever) make a lot of sense? Cisco would get a forward-looking, virtualization-oriented storage platform, without ticking off EMC and NetApp too much or cannibalizing existing “mainstream” sales. Slapping the Cisco name on some startup’s boxes would instantly “legitimize” the gear in the minds of the conservative/all-Cisco shops.

  4. Ryan,
    Thanks for the comment. Your scenario seems plausible, but I’m not sure EMC or NetApp would be fooled. They’d likely recognize it for what it would be: the thin end of a wedge that would get bigger with time. They’d begin making countermoves, and pretty soon tensions would escalate.

    It would make for good industry drama, though.

  5. Speaking of failed consumer ventures, latest casualty is (not unexpectedly) the Cius: http://blogs.cisco.com/collaboration/empowering-choice-in-collaboration/

  6. Brad,
    Storage is a difficult, highly-fragmented market. What I find interesting is that the line between what is storage vs. compute is blurring. HP has done a good job pulling together those product lines. EMC has been talking about the capability of putting VMs into the storage (there are lots of Intel chips there). Last year at EMC World, they talked about doing this on Isilon and in an interview that SiliconAngle and Wikibon did with Pat Gelsinger last week at EMC World, he talked about it as a future for VMAX (http://siliconangle.tv/video/cube-emcworld-2012-pat-gelsinger-president-emc). Cisco still has a great relationship with both EMC and NetApp; I don’t see that changing any time soon; both companies help enable UCS sales. Silos are breaking down and we’ll see flash storage in more servers (including UCS soon) and compute from storage accessible. Exciting times.

  7. This post is spot on. My bet is Insieme is all about storage, not the heavily publicized “SDN strategy”. Nuova was about ToR switches and servers – servers being the disruptive market that Cisco couldn’t publicly get into. We hear that Insieme is about a 100G switch and SDN. I bet the SDN part of it smokes and mirrors, they’re working on Cloud storage – another disruptive market Cisco wouldn’t like to get into publicly because it would piss of EMC.

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