Analysis: Cisco, EMC, VMware partnership is a long shot

Users get a unified service offering, but don't think of it as a private cloud

Cisco, EMC and VMware today joined forces to sell products as a private cloud offering to enterprises. Called the Virtual Computing Environment (VCE) coalition, the announcement was called "unprecedented," something destined to lead to "greater IT infrastructure flexibility."

What the Cisco, EMC and, ahem, VMware collaboration -- EMC owns VMware -- represents is an opportunity for Cisco to sell its Unified Computing System (UCS) server and networking platform into EMC's customer install base. For the IT consumer, the VCE partnership represents two things: an opportunity to purchase a tightly integrated, pre-tested -- yet proprietary -- set of extended virtualization technologies, and a single throat to choke for service.

The VCE alliance calls its private cloud offering Vblock Infrastructure Packages. Vblock Packages amount to integrated server, networking, storage, security, virtualization and software technologies.

But cloud computing it is not.

Tom Bittman, an analyst at Gartner Inc., said the VCE Vblock Infrastructure Package may resemble cloud, and it provides the underlying infrastructure for cloud computing, but it lacks higher-level management software that would seamlessly and automatically provision capacity for applications without manual intervention.

"Actually, I'm surprised BMC [Software Inc.], a close partner of Cisco's, was not a part of this," Bittman said.

Gartner defines cloud computing as a style of computing where scalable and elastic IT-enabled capabilities are delivered as a service to internal customers using Internet technologies.

"The point is, how the provider delivers the service is hidden from the user," he said. "Virtual machines can be one of the ways of doing that, but there are many ways. uses multi-tenant software and Google uses parallel programming. But on the consumer side, what they see is a service-oriented interface all metered by use. They don't see the implementation. If I have to go to the provider and ask for specific virtual machines and be specific about how it's implemented, that's not cloud."

Charles King, the principal analyst with Pund-IT Inc., agreed that while the VCE alliance may sound like a "grand pronouncement," about "unprecedented efforts firmly rooted in precedent and unique solutions," it's nothing of the sort.

"While the IT industry as a whole loves the notion of collaboration, including partnerships based on friendly 'co-opetition,' the shape of most such relationships is conventional in the extreme, focusing on simple product interoperability and customer issues," King said. "As such, they do not threaten the vertically-focused product and service integration strategies common among traditional end-to-end systems vendors and which are central to some emerging players."

He pointed to Oracle, with its impending acquisition of Sun Microsystems, as one emerging player in the private cloud infrastructure marketplace.

And King said IT users do stand to gain the common benefits of Intel-based, industry-standard computing and well-established technologies that undergo a rigorous pre-integration and validation process.

"Is this unprecedented? I'd say it's unprecedented in that they're all coming together. But is the platform itself unprecedented? No," said Mark Bowker, an analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group in Milford, Mass.

Bowker pointed to Hewlett-Packard's Matrix cloud storage offering, IBM's CloudBurst private cloud service and even Dell, with its many hardware and software reseller partnerships. All three can offer the same type of infrastructure as the VCE alliance.

The benefits of the alliance for end users include reference architectures and a set of best practices for deploying a private cloud.

"All other hardware and server OEMs have similar initiatives under way or have had them under way for some time," Bowker said. "I think the most significant part of this announcement is the potential for IT to consume a cloud platform differently than it has in the past. This is about an end-to-end well integrated solution."

King said he is also intrigued by Cisco and EMC's Acadia venture, which aims to accelerate cloud computing adoption among large enterprises and service providers -- a group that other vendors are also aggressively targeting.

"Is VCE likely to succeed? Perhaps, though we expect it will encounter vigorous and vocal competition from established system vendors and their allies (as was certainly the case when Cisco announced its Unified Computing System (UCS) earlier this year)," King said in an analysis of the alliance.

Server bigwig Dell Inc., a long-time reseller partner of EMC's midrange and entry-level storage systems, said the Cisco and EMC joint venture "assumes that customers are looking for closed technology architectures that lock them into a restricted vendor stack."

"This proprietary implementation of industry standard architectures is a throwback to the 1990's and creates complete vendor lock-in," said Praveen Asthana, vice president of Dell's Enterprise Storage and Networking Division. "Dell knows from its customers' insights that cloud compute workloads are best served by open, standards-based solutions -- not by repackaging high-cost infrastructure as a cloud solution."

"We also feel that this announcement further validates the trend that we're seeing, as more and more enterprises move to a virtualized dynamic data center infrastructure," said Jay Kidd, chief marketing officer for EMC's arch rival NetApp. Kidd noted that NetApp has also been offering combined Cisco/VMware virtualization services.

Bowker said the real question is whether IT organizations will accept the private cloud concept. "That's what Cisco, EMC and VMware [are] betting on. I'm not convinced that's where IT environments are at. If IT still goes out and buys individual components and bolts them together, this won't work."

He believes IT's focus these days is less on the private cloud and more on consolidating their infrastructure, driving down IT costs -- and automation. "It's rare I get someone saying, 'I want a private cloud.' Private cloud isn't what people are looking for today," he said.

Gartner's Bittman agreed, saying the VCE alliance is targeting larger small-to-medium-sized businesses through enterprises and ISPs, which generally don't rip and replace infrastructure; they upgrade systems piece meal.

Bittman also faulted the group for limiting the service to organizations requiring 300 virtual machines or more, saying smaller businesses tend to rip and replace infrastructure and might see value in a packaged solution. "So I don't think they went low enough," he said.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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