Category Archives: NetApp

Xsigo: Hardware Play for Oracle, Not SDN

When I wrote about Xsigo earlier this year, I noted that many saw Oracle as a potential acquirer of the I/O virtualization vendor. Yesterday morning, Oracle made those observers look prescient, pulling the trigger on a transaction of undisclosed value.

Chris Mellor at The Register calculates that Oracle might have paid about $800 million for Xsigo, but we don’t know. What we do know is that Xsigo’s financial backers were looking for an exit. We also know that Oracle was willing to accommodate it.

For the Love of InfiniBand, It’s Not SDN

Some think Oracle bought a software-defined networking (SDN) company. I was shocked at how many journalists and pundits repeated the mantra that Oracle had moved into SDN with its Xsigo acquisition. That is not right, folks, and knowledgeable observers have tried to rectify that misconception.

I’ve gotten over a killer flu, and I have a residual sinus headache that sours my usually sunny disposition, so I’m no mood to deliver a remedial primer on the fundamentals of SDN. Suffice it to say, readers of this forum and those familiar with the pronouncements of the ONF will understand that what Xsigo does, namely I/O virtualization, is not SDN.  That is not to say that what Xsigo does is not valuable, perhaps especially to Oracle. Nonetheless, it is not SDN.

Incidentally, I have seen a few commentators throwing stones at the Oracle marketing department for depicting Xsigo as an SDN player, comparing it to Nicira Networks, which VMware is in the process of acquiring for a princely sum of $1.26 billion. It’s probably true that Oracle’s marketing mavens are trying to gild their new lily by covering it with splashes of SDN gold, but, truth be told, the marketing team at Xsigo began dressing their company in SDN garb earlier this year, when it became increasingly clear that SDN was a lot more than an ephemeral science project involving OpenFlow and boffins in lab coats.

Why Confuse? It’ll be Obvious Soon Enough

At Network Computing, Howard Marks tries to get everybody onside. I encourage you to read his piece in its entirety, because it provides some helpful background and context, but his superbly understated money quote is this one: “I’ve long been intrigued by the concept of I/O virtualization, but I think calling it software-defined networking is a stretch.”

In this industry, words are stretched and twisted like origami until we can no longer recognize their meaning. The result, more often than not, is befuddlement and confusion, as we witnessed yesterday, an outcome that really doesn’t help anybody. In fact, I would argue that Oracle and Xsigo have done themselves a disservice by playing the SDN card.

As Marks points out, “Xsigo’s use of InfiniBand is a good fit with Oracle’s Exadata and other clustered solutions.” What’s more, Matt Palmer, who notes that Xsigo is “not really an SDN acquisition,” also writes that “Oracle is the perfect home for Xsigo.” Palmer makes the salient point that Xsigo is essentially a hardware play for Oracle, one that aligns with Oracle’s hardware-centric approaches to compute and storage.

Oracle: More Like Cisco Than Like VMWare

Oracle could have explained its strategy and detailed the synergies between Xsigo and its family of hardware-engineered “Exasystems” (Exadata and Exalogic) —  and, to be fair, it provided some elucidation (see slide 11 for a concise summary) — but it muddied the waters with SDN misdirection, confusing some and antagonizing others.

Perhaps my analysis is too crude, but I see a sharp divergence between the strategic direction VMware is heading with its acquisition of Nicira and the path Oracle is taking with its Exasystems and Xsigo. Remember, Oracle, after the Sun acquisition, became a proprietary hardware vendor. Its focus is on embedding proprietary hooks and competitive differentiation into its hardware, much like Cisco Systems and the other converged-infrastructure players.

VMware’s conception of a software-defined data center is a completely different proposition. Both offer virtualization, both offer programmability, but VMware treats the underlying abstracted hardware as an undifferentiated resource pool. Conversely, Oracle and Cisco want their engineered hardware to play integral roles in data-center virtualization. Engineered hardware is what they do and who they are.

Taking the Malocchio in New Directions

In that vein, I expect Oracle to look increasingly like Cisco, at least on the infrastructure side of the house. Does that mean Oracle soon will acquire a storage player, such as NetApp, or perhaps another networking company to fill out its data-center portfolio? Maybe the latter first, because Xsigo, whatever its merits, is an I/O virtualization vendor, not a switching or routing vendor. Oracle still has a networking gap.

For reasons already belabored, Oracle is an improbable SDN player. I don’t see it as the likeliest buyer of, say, Big Switch Networks. IBM is more likely to take that path, and I might even get around to explaining why in a subsequent post. Instead, I could foresee Oracle taking out somebody like Brocade, presuming the price is right, or perhaps Extreme Networks. Both vendors have been on and off the auction block, and though Oracle’s Larry Ellison once disavowed acquisitive interest in Brocade, circumstances and Oracle’s disposition have changed markedly since then.

Oracle, which has entertained so many bitter adversaries over the years — IBM, SAP, Microsoft, SalesForce, and HP among them — now appears ready to cast its “evil eye” toward Cisco.

Further Progress of Infineta

When I attended Network Field Day 3 (NFD3) in the Bay Area back in late March, the other delegates and I had the pleasure of receiving a presentation on Infineta Systems’ Data Mobility Switch (DMS), a WAN-optimization system built with merchant silicon and designed to serve as a high-performance data-center interconnect for applications such as multi-gigabit Business Continuity/Disaster Recovery (BCDR), cross-site virtualization, and other variations on what Infineta calls “Big Traffic,” a fast-moving sibling of Big Data.

Waiting on Part II

I wrote about Infineta and its DMS, as did some of the other delegates, including cardigan-clad fashionista Tony Bourke  and avowed Networking Nerd Tom Hollingsworth. Meanwhile, formerly hirsute Derick Winkworth, who goes by the handle of Cloud Toad, began a detailed two-part serialization on Infineta and its technology, but he seems to be taking longer to deliver the sequel than it took Francis Ford Coppola to bring us The Godfather: Part II.

Suffice it to say, Infineta got our attention with its market focus (data-center interconnect rather than branch acceleration) and its compelling technological approach to solving the problem.  I thought Winkworth made an astute point in noting that Infineta’s targeting of data-center interconnect means that the performance and results of its DMS can be assessed purely on the basis of statistical results rather than on human perceptions of application responsiveness.

Name that Tune 

Last week, Infineta’s Haseeb Budhani, the company’s chief product officer, gave me a update that coincided with the company’s announcement of FlowTune, a software QoS feature set for the DMS that is intended to deliver the performance guarantees required for applications such as high-speed replication and data backup.

Budhani used a medical analogy to explain why FlowTune is more effective than traditional solutions. FlowTune, he said, takes a preventive approach to network congestion occasioned by contentious application flows, treating the cause of the problem instead of responding to the symptoms.  So, whereas conventional approaches rely on packet drops to facilitate congestion recovery, FlowTune dynamically manages application-transmission rates through a multi-flow mechanism that allocates bandwidth credits according to QoS priorities that specify minimum and maximum performance thresholds.   As a result, Budhani says, the WAN is fully utilized.

Storage Giants

Last week, Infineta and NetApp jointly announced that the former has joined the NetApp Alliance Partner Program. In a blog post, Budhani says Infineta’s relationships with storage-market leaders EMC and NetApp validate his company’s unique capability to deliver “the scale needed by their customers to accelerate traffic running at multi-Gigabit speeds at any distance.”

A software update, FlowTune is available to all Infineta customers. Budhani says it’s already being  used by Time Warner.

Dell’s Steady Progression in Converged Infrastructure

With its second annual Dell Storage Forum in Boston providing the backdrop, Dell made a converged-infrastructure announcement this week.  (The company briefed me under embargo late last week.)

The press release is available on the company’s website, but I’d like to draw attention to a few aspects of the announcement that I consider noteworthy.

First off, Dell now is positioned to offer its customers a full complement of converged infrastructure, spanning server, storage, and networking hardware, as well as management software. For customers seeking a single-vendor, one-throat-to-choke solution, this puts Dell  on parity with IBM and HP, while Cisco still must partner with EMC or with NetApp for its storage technology.

Bringing the Storage

Until this announcement, Dell was lacking the storage ingredients. Now, with what Dell is calling the Dell Converged Blade Data Center solution, the company is adding its EqualLogic iSCSI Blade Arrays to Dell PowerEdge blade servers and Dell Force10 MXL blade switching. Dell says this package gives customers an entire data center within a single blade enclosure, streamlining operations and management, and thereby saving money.

Dell’s other converged-infrastructure offering is the Dell vStart 1000. For this iteration of vStart, Dell is including, for the first time, its Compellent storage and Force10 networking gear in one integrated rack for private-cloud environments.

The vStart 1000 comes in two configurations: the vStart 1000m and the vStart 1000v. The packages are nearly identical — PowerEdge M620 servers, PowerEdge R620 management servers, Dell Compellent Series 40 storage, Dell Force10 S4810 ToR Networking and Dell Force10 S4810 ToR Networking, plus Brocade 5100 ToR Fibre-Channel Switches — but the vStart 1000m comes with Windows Server 2008 R2 Datacenter (with the Hyper-V hypervisor), whereas the vStart 1000v features trial editions of VMware vCenter and VMware vSphere (with the ESXi hypervisor).

An an aside, it’s worth mentioning that Dell’s inclusion of Brocade’s Fibre-Channel switches confirms that Dell is keeping that partnership alive to satisfy customers’ FC requirements.

Full Value from Acquisitions

In summary, then, is Dell delivering converged infrastructure with both its in-house storage options, demonstrating that it has fully integrated its major hardware acquisitions into the mix.   It’s covering as much converged ground as it can with this announcement.

Nonetheless, it’s fair to ask where Dell will find customers for its converged offerings. During my briefing with Dell, I was told that mid-market was the real sweet spot, though Dell also sees departmental opportunities in large enterprises.

The mid-market, though, is a smart choice, not only because the various technology pieces, individually and collectively, seem well suited to the purpose, but also because Dell, given its roots and lineage, is a natural player in that space. Dell has a strong mandate to contest the mid-market, where it can hold its own against any of its larger converged-infrastructure rivals.

Mid-Market Sweet Spot

What’s more, the mid-market — unlike cloud-service providers today and some large enterprise in the not-too-distant future — are unlikely to have the inclination, resources, and skills to pursue a DIY, software-driven, DevOps-oriented variant of converged infrastructure that might involve bare-bones hardware from Asian ODMs. At the end of the day, converged infrastructure is sold as packaged hardware, and paying customers will need to perceive and realize value from buying the boxes.

The mid-market would seem more than receptive to the value proposition that Dell is selling, which is that its converged infrastructure will reduce the complexity of IT management and deliver operational cost savings.

This finally leads us to a discussion of Dell’s take on converged infrastructure. As noted in an eChannelLine article, Dell’s notion of converged infrastructure encompasses operations management, services management, and applications management. As Dell continues down the acquisition trail, we should expect the company to place greater emphasis on software-based intelligence in those areas.

That, too, would be a smart move. The battle never ends, but Dell — despite its struggles in the PC market — is now more than punching its own weight in converged infrastructure.

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.

Reflecting on the Big Acquisition Cisco Didn’t Make

It has been nearly eight years since EMC acquired VMware. The acquisition announcement went over the newswires on December 15, 2003. EMC paid approximately $635 million for VMware, and Joe Tucci, EMC’s president and CEO, had this to say about the deal:

“Customers want help simplifying the management of their IT infrastructures. This is more than a storage challenge. Until now, server and storage virtualization have existed as disparate entities. Today, EMC is accelerating the convergence of these two worlds .“

“We’ve been working with the talented VMware team for some time now, and we understand why they are considered one of the hottest technology companies anywhere. With the resources and commitment of EMC behind VMware’s leading server virtualization technologies and the partnerships that help bring these technologies to market, we look forward to a prosperous future together.”

Virtualization Goldmine

Oh, the future was prosperous . . . and then some. It’s a deal that worked out hugely in EMC’s favor. Even though the storage behemoth has spun out VMware in the interim, allowing it to go public, EMC still retains more than 80 percent ownership of its virtualization goldmine.

Consider that EMC paid just $635 million in 2003 to buy the server-virtualization market leader. VMware’s current market capitalization is more than $38 billion. That means EMC’s stake in VMware is worth more than $30 billion, not including the gains it reaped when it took VMware public. I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to suggest that EMC’s purchase of VMware will be remembered as Tucci’s defining moment as EMC chieftain.

Now, let’s consider another vendor that had an opportunity to acquire VMware back in 2003.

Massive Market Cap, Industry Dominance

A few years earlier, at the pinnacle of the dot-com boom in March 2000, Cisco was the most valuable company in the world, sporting a market capitalization of more than US$500 billion.  It was a networking colossus that bestrode the globe, dominating its realm of the industry as much as any other technology company during any other period. (Its only peers in that regard were IBM in the mainframe era and Microsoft and Intel in the client-server epoch.)

Although Juniper Networks brought its first router to market in the fall of 1998 and began to challenge Cisco for routing patronage at many carriers early in the first decade of the new millennium, Cisco remained relatively unscathed in enterprise networking, where its Catalyst switches grew into a multibillion-dollar franchise after it saw off competitive challenges in the late 90s from companies such as 3Com, Cabletron, Nortel, and others.

As was its wont since its first acquisition, involving Crescendo Communications in 1993, Cisco remained an active buyer of technology companies. It bought companies to inorganically fortify its technological innovation, and to preclude competitors from gaining footholds among its expanding installed base of customers.

Non-Buyer’s Remorse?

It’s true that the post-boom dot-com bust cooled Cisco’s acquisitive ardor. Nonetheless, the networking giant made nine acquisitions from May 2002 through to the end of 2003. The companies Cisco acquired in that span included Hammerhead Networks, Navarro Networks, AYR Networks, Andiamo Systems, Psionic Software, Okena, SignalWorks, Linksys, and Latitude Communications.

The biggest acquisition in that period involved spin-in play Andiamo Systems, which provided the technological foundation for Cisco’s subsequent push to dominate storage networking. Cisco was at risk of paying as much as $2.5 billion for Andiamo, but the actual price tag for that convoluted spin-in transaction was closer to $750 million by the time it finally closed in 2004. The next-biggest Cisco acquisition during that period involved home-networking vendor Linksys, for which Cisco paid about $500 million.

Cisco announced the acquisitions of Hammerhead Networks and Navarro Networks in a single press release. Hammerhead, for which Cisco exchanged common stock valued at up to $173 million, developed software that accelerated the delivery of IP-based billing, security, and QoS; the company was folded into the Cable Business Unit in Cisco’s Network Edge and Aggregation Routing Group. Navarro Networks, for which Cisco exchanged common stock valued at up to $85 million, designed ASIC components for Ethernet switching.

To acquire AYR Networks, a vendor of “high-performance distributed networking services and highly scalable routing software technologies,” Cisco parted with about $113 million in common stock. AYR’s technology was intended to augment Cisco’s IOS software.

Andiamo Factor

Although the facts probably are familiar to many readers, Cisco’s acquisition of Andiamo was noteworthy for several reasons.  It was a spin-in acquisition, in which Cisco funded the company to go off and develop technology on its own, only later to be brought back in-house through acquisition. Andiamo was led by its CEO Buck Gee, and it included a core group of engineers who also were at Cresendo Communications.  The concept and execution of the spin-in move at Cisco was highly controversial within the company, seen as operationally and strategically innovative by many senior executives even though others claimed it engendered envy, invidious, and resentment among rank-and-file employees.

No matter, Andiamo was meant to provide market leadership for Cisco in the IP-based storage networking and to give Cisco a means of battering Brocade in Fibre Channel. That plan hasn’t come to fruition, with Brocade still leading in a tenacious Fibre Channel market and Cisco banking on Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) to go from the edge to the core. (The future of storage networking, including the often entertaining Fiber Channel-versus-FCoE debates, are another matter, and not within the purview of this post.)

While we’re on the topic of Andiamo, its former engineers continue to make news. Just this week, former Andiamo engineers Dante Malagrinò and Marco Di Benedetto officially launched Embrane, a company that is committed to delivering a platform for virtualized L4-7 network services at large cloud service providers. Those two gentlemen also were involved in Cisco last big spin-in move, Nuova Systems, which provided the foundation for Cisco’s Unified Computing Systems (UCS).

As for Cisco’s post-Andiamo acquisition announcements in 2002, Okena and Psionic both were involved in intrusion-detection technology. Of the two, Okena represented the larger transaction, valued at about $154 million in stock.

Interestingly, not much is available publicly these days regarding Cisco’s announced acquisition of SignalWorks in March of 2003. If you visit the CrunchBase profile for SignalWorks and click on a link that is supposed to take you to a Cisco press release announcing the deal, you’ll get a “Not Found” message. A search of the Cisco website turns up two press releases — relating to financial results in Cisco’s third and fourth quarters of fiscal year 2003, respectively — that obliquely mention the SignalWorks acquisition. The purchase price of the IP-audio company was about $16 million. CNet also covered the acquisition when it first came to light.

Other Strategic Priorities

Cisco’s last announced acquisitions in that timeframe involved home-networking player Linksys, part of Cisco’s ultimately underachieving bid to become a major player in the consumer space, and web-conferencing vendor Latitude Communications.

And now we get the crux of this post. Cisco announced a number of acquisitions in 2002 and 2003, but it was one they didn’t make that reverberates to this day. It was a watershed acquisition, a strategic masterstroke, but it was made by EMC, not by Cisco. As I said, the implications resound through to this day and probably will continue to ramify for years to come.

Some might contend that Cisco perhaps didn’t grasp the long-term significance of virtualization. Apparently, though, some at Cisco were clamoring for the company to buy VMware.  The missed opportunity wasn’t attributable to Cisco failing to see the importance of virtualization — some at Cisco had the prescience to see where the technology would lead — but because an acquisition of VMware wasn’t considered as high a priority as the spin-in of Andiamo for storage networking and the acquisition of Linksys for home networking.

Cisco placed its bets elsewhere, perhaps thinking that it had more time to develop a coherent and comprehensive strategy for virtualization. Then EMC made its move.

Missed the Big Chance

To this day, in my view, Cisco is paying an exorbitant opportunity cost for failing to take VMware off the market, leaving it for EMC and ultimately allowing the storage leader, yeas later, to gain the upper hand in the Virtual Computing Environment (VCE) Company joint venture that delivers UCS-encompassing VBlocks. There’s a rich irony there, too, when one considers that Cisco’s UCS contribution to the VBlock package is represented by technology derived from spin-in Nuova.

But forget about VCE and VBlocks. What about the bigger picture? Although Cisco likes to talk itself up as a leader in virtualization, it’s not nearly as prominent or dominant as it might have been. Is there anybody who would argue that Cisco, if it had acquired and then integrated and assimilated VMware as half as well as it digested Crescendo, wouldn’t have absolutely thrashed all comers in converged data-center infrastructure and cloud infrastructure?

Cisco belatedly recognized its error of omission, but it was too late. By 2009, EMC was not interested in selling its majority stake in VMware to Cisco, and Cisco was in no position to try to obtain it through an acquisition of EMC. In that regard, Cisco’s position has only worsened.

Although EMC’s ownership stake in VMware amounts to about 80 percent (or perhaps even just north of that amount), its has 98 percent of the voting shares in the company, which effectively means EMC steers the ship, regardless of public pronouncements VMware executives might issue regarding their firm being an autonomous corporate entity.

Keeping Cisco Interested but Contained 

Conversely, Cisco owns approximately five percent of VMware’s Class A shares, but none of its Class B shares, and it held just one percent of voting power as of March 2011.  As of that same date, EMC owned all of VMware’s 330,000,000 Class B Shares and 33,066,050 of its 118,462,369 shares of Class A common shares. Cisco has a stake in VMware, but it’s a small one and it has it at the pleasure of EMC, whose objective is to keep Cisco sufficiently interested so as not to pursue other strategic options in data-center virtualization and cloud infrastructure.

The EMC gambit has worked, up to the point. But Cisco, which missed its big chance  in 2003, has been trying ever since then to reassert its authority. Nuova, and all that flowed from it, was Cisco’s first attempt to regain lost ground, and now it is partnering, to varying degrees, with VMware and EMC competitors such as NetApp, Citrix, and Microsoft. It also has gotten involved involved with OpenStack and the oVirt Project in a bid to hedge its virtualization bets.

Yes, some of those moves are indicative of coopetition, and Cisco retains its occasionally strained VCE joint venture with EMC and VMware, but Cisco clearly is playing for time, looking for a way to redefine the rules of the game.

What Cisco is trying to do is break an impasse of its own making, a result of strategic choices it made nearly a decade ago.

Cisco Hedges Virtualization Bets

Pursuant to my post last week on the impressive growth of the Open Virtualization Alliance (OVA), which aims to commoditize VMware’s virtualization advantage by offering a viable open-virtualization alternative to the market leader, I note that Red Hat and five other major players have founded the oVirt Project, established to transform Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization Manager (RHEV-M) into a feature-rich virtualization management platform with well-defined APIs.

Cisco to Host Workshop

According to coverage at The Register, Red Hat has been joined on the oVirt Project by Cisco, IBM, Intel, NetApp and SuSE, all of which have committed to building a KVM-based pluggable hypervisor management framework along with an ecosystem of plug-in partners.

Although Cisco will be hosting an oVirt workshop on November 1-3 at its main campus in San Jose, the article at The Register suggests that the networking giant is the only one of the six founding companies not on the oVirt Project’s governance board.  Indeed, the sole reference to Cisco on the oVirt Project website relates to the workshop.

Nonetheless, Cisco’s participation in oVirt warrants attention.

Insurance Policies and Contingency Plans

Realizing that VMware could increasingly eat into the value, and hence the margins, associated with its network infrastructure as cloud computing proliferates, Cisco seems to be devising insurance policies and contingency plans in the event that its relationship with the virtualization market leader becomes, well, more complicated.

To be sure, the oVirt Project isn’t Cisco’s only backup plan. Cisco also is involved with OpenStack, the open-source cloud-computing project that effectively competes with oVirt — and which Red Hat assails as a community “owned”  by its co-founder and driving force, Rackspace — and it has announced that its Cisco Nexus 1000V distributed virtual switch and the Cisco Unified Computing System with Virtual Machine Fabric Extender (VM-FEX) capabilities will support the Windows Server Hyper-V hypervisor to be released with Microsoft Windows Server 8.

Increasingly, Cisco is spreading its virtualization bets across the board, though it still has (and makes) most of its money on VMware.

Further Intimations of Cisco-EMC Tensions

At the risk of further ad-hominem attacks, I will note again that all might not be well with the relationship between Cisco and EMC, particularly within the context of their VCE joint venture.

I suggested previously that Cisco and EMC might be heading for a not-so-amicable divorce, and I still feel that the organizational and technological auguries point in that direction. The signs at VCE — which provides converged infrastructure comprising Cisco servers and switches, EMC storage, and VMware virtualization — have been inauspicious lately, with layoffs, significant restructuring, and Cisco’s increasingly ardent converged-infrastructure partnership with EMC competitor NetApp adding murk to the mix.

Capellas Loses CEO Title

Now, there’s more to consider. A few weeks ago, as reported by The Register, Michael Capellas was delisted as VCE’s CEO on the company’s website. Capellas is a Cisco board member who was strongly backed by John Chambers for the CEO position at VCE.  The official story from VCE is that nothing has changed at VCE, that Capellas’ role remains the same even though he’s lost the CEO designation and now shares the responsibility of running the company with Frank Hauck, a longtime EMC executive who was appointed VCE president earlier this year.

Perhaps VCE’s official spin on the mahogany-row shuffle is true, but skepticism seems warranted.

In the same piece at The Register that updates us on Capellas’ current status at VCE, we also learn that a source formerly employed by the joint venture says “the Cisco originator of the Vblock concept  is no longer at VCE and neither is the Cisco staffer who ran VCE’s service provider and channel sales operation.”

Mere coincidence, one might contend, and I’m inclined to take that possibility under advisement.

EMC in Server Business?

There’s one other piece of evidence to consider, though. As reported by The Register (yes, again), EMC seems to have moved, via its storage arrays, into the server business. That, as you might expect, could have implications for EMC’s relationship with Cisco and its Unified Computing System (UCS) servers.

Here’s a particularly salient excerpt from The Register article, written by Chris Mellor:

“If you have a VMAX, with flash-enhanced engines, able to run application software, then you wouldn’t need UCS servers to do that job. Were EMC to do a deal with a network supplier, then you wouldn’t need Cisco network switches to hook the application server/array complex up to accessing clients either, and we might have a VMAXblock as well as a Vblock.”

For its part, EMC is ambiguous on whether it’s actually entering the server space. On his blog, EMC staffer Mark Twomey has enjoyed some mischievous fun with the proposition, concluding that EMC’s moves put in the compute and systems business and “maybe” in the server business.

Such fine distinctions might be lost on server vendors such as HP, Dell, and IBM.

Follow the Money

Let’s remember that EMC is the overwhelming majority shareholder — and, thus, owner — of VMware. As such, the virtualization leader will not do anything to hurt the business prospects of its de facto parent. More to the point, VMware remains in the strategic service of EMC, furthering its big-picture agenda while advancing its own interests.

That combination isn’t just a competitive threat to the likes of HP, IBM, and Dell. Increasingly — indirectly or otherwise — Cisco seems to be in EMC-VMware gunsights, too.

Will Cisco Leave VCE Marriage of Convenience?

Because I am in a generous mood, I will use this post to provide heaping helpings of rumor and speculation, a pairing that can lead to nowhere or to valuable insights. Unfortunately, the tandem usually takes us to the former more than the latter, but let’s see whether we can beat the odds.

The topic today is the Virtual Computing Environment (VCE) Company, a joint venture formed by Cisco and EMC, with investments from VMware and Intel.  VCE is intended to accelerate the adoption of converged infrastructure, reducing customer costs related to IT deployment and management while also expediting customers’ time to revenue.

VCE provides fully assembled and tested Vblocks, integrated platforms that include Cisco’s UCS servers and Nexus switches, EMC’s storage, and VMware’s virtualization. Integration services and management software are provided by VCE, which considers the orchestration layer as the piece de resistance.

VCE Layoffs?

As a company, VCE was formed at the beginning of this year. Before then, it existed as a “coalition” of vendors providing reference architectures in conjunction with a professional-services operation called Acadia. Wikibon’s Stuart Miniman provided a commendable summary of the evolution of VCE in January.

If you look at official pronouncements from EMC and — to a lesser extent — Cisco, you might think that all is well behind the corporate facade of VME. After all, sales are up, the business continues to ramp, the value proposition is cogent, and the dour macroeconomic picture would seem to argue for further adoption of solutions, such as VME, that have the potential to deliver reductions in capital and operating expenditures.

What, then, are we to make of rumored layoffs at VCE? Nobody from Cisco or EMC has confirmed the rumors, but the scuttlebutt has been coming steadily enough to suggest that there’s fire behind the smoke. If there’s substance to the rumors, what might have started the fire?

Second Thoughts for Cisco?

Well, now that I’ve given you the rumor, I’ll give you some speculation. It could be — and you’ll notice that I’ve already qualified my position — that Cisco is having second thoughts about VCE. EMC contributes more than Cisco does to VCE and its ownership stake is commensurately greater, as Miniman explains in a post today at Wikibon:

 “According to company 10Q forms, Cisco (May ’11) owns approximately 35% outstanding equity of VCE with $100M invested and EMC (Aug ’11) owns approximately 58% outstanding equity of VCE with $173.5M invested. The companies are not disclosing revenue of the venture, except that it passed $100M in revenue in about 6 months and as of December 2010 had 65 “major customers” and was growing that number rapidly. In July 2011, EMC reported that VCE YTD revenue had surpassed all of 2010 revenue and CEO Joe Tucci stated that the companies “expect Vblock sales to hit the $1 billion run rate mark in a next several quarters.” EMC sees the VCE investment as strategic to increasing its importance (and revenue) in a changing IT landscape.”

Indeed, I agree that EMC views its VCE acquisition through a strategic prism. What I wonder about is Cisco’s long-term commitment to VCE.

Marriage of Convenience

There already have been rumblings that Cisco isn’t pleased with its cut of VCE profits. In this context, it’s important to remember how VCE is structured. The revenue it generates flows directly to its parent companies; it doesn’t keep any of it.  Thus, VCE is built purely as a convenient integration and delivery vehicle, not as a standalone business that will pursue its own exit strategy.

Relationships of convenience, such as the one that spawned VCE, often do not prove particularly durable. As long as the interests of the constituent partners remain aligned, VCE will remain unchanged. If interests diverge, though, as they might be doing now, all bets are off. When the convenient becomes inconvenient for one or more of the partners, it’s over.

It’s salient to me that Cisco is playing second fiddle to EMC in VCE. In its glory days, Cisco didn’t play second fiddle to anybody.

In the not-too-distant past, Cisco CEO John Chambers had the run of the corporate house. Nobody questioned his strategic acuity, and he and his team were allowed to do as they pleased. Since then, the composition of his team has changed — many of Cisco’s top executives of just a few short years ago are no longer with the company — and several notable investors and analysts, and perhaps one or two board members, have begun to wonder whether Chambers can author the prescription that will cure Cisco’s ills. Doubts creep into the minds of investors after a decade of stock stagnancy, reduced growth horizons, a failed foray into consumer markets, and slow but steady market-share erosion.

Alternatives to Playing Second Fiddle

Meanwhile, Cisco has another storage partner, NetApp. The two companies also have combined to deliver converged infrastructure. Cisco says the relationships involving VCE’s Vblocks and NetApp’s FlexPods don’t see much channel conflict and that they both work to increase Cisco’s UCS  footprint.

That’s likely true. It’s also likely that Cisco will never control VCE. EMC holds the upper hand now, and that probably won’t change.

Once upon a time, Cisco might have been able to change that dynamic. Back then, it could have acquired EMC. Now, though? I wouldn’t bet on it . EMC’s market capitalization is up to nearly $48 billion and Cisco’s stands at less than $88 billion. Even if Cisco repatriated all of its offshore cash hoard, that money still wouldn’t be enough to buy EMC. In fact, when one considers the premium that would have to be paid in such a deal, Cisco would fall well short of the mark. It would have to do a cash-and-stock deal, and that would go over like the Hindenburg with EMC shareholders.

So, if Cisco is to get more profit from sales of converged infrastructure, it has to explore other options. NetApp is definitely one, and some logic behind a potential acquisition was explored earlier this year in a piece by Derrick Harris at GigaOm. In that post, Harris also posited that Cisco consider an acquisition of Citrix, primarily for its virtualization technologies. If Cisco acquired NetApp and Citrix, it would be able to offer a complete set of converged infrastructure, without the assistance of EMC or its majority-owned VMware. It’s just the sort of bold move that might put Chambers back in the good graces of investors and analysts.

Irreconcilable Differences 

Could it be done? The math seems plausible. Before it announced its latest quarterly results, Cisco had $43.4 billion in cash, 89 percent of which was overseas. Supposing that Cisco could repatriate its foreign cash hoard without taking too much of a tax hit — Cisco and others are campaigning hard for a repatriation tax holiday — Cisco would be in position to make all-cash acquisitions for Citrix (with a $11.5 billion market capitalization) and NetApp (with a $16.4 market capitalization). Even with premiums factored into the equation, the deals could be done overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, with cash.

I know the above scenario is not without risk to Cisco. But I also know that the status quo isn’t going to get Cisco to where it needs to be in converged infrastructure. Something has to give. The VCE open marriage of convenience could be destined to founder on the rocks of irreconcilable differences.