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The Unified Computing Story, or ‘Cisco’s History in the Data Center’

- March 18, 2009 - 3 Comments

With our announcement of our Unified Computing System on Monday, I wanted to provide a little bit of the historical context of how Cisco got into the data center technology space:A lot of people say it started with the Nexus line, others say our entrance into storage with the MDS SAN Director.  I think it started a little bit before those, back in 1996….In 1996 Cisco introduced the Channel Interface Processor for the Cisco 7500 series of routers.  The CIP as it was affectionately known used Bus and Tag, Parallel, or ESCON interfaces to connect to an IBM mainframe, and turn the terminal traffic traditionally run on SNA networks to a format that would run on IP networks.  This allowed the consolidation of many parallel networks for ATM machines, credit card verification, airline terminals, etc. What a lot of people do not realize is that consolidation is one of the foundational elements that enabled the airport kiosk check-in, video enabled ATM machines with decent user interfaces, and other kiosk/embedded systems that front-ended mainframe back ends.In 1999 Cisco brought out the Catalyst 6000/6500 series of Multiprotocol LAN Switches.  These found a ready home in the data center as customers quickly moved from the 100Mb Fast Ethernet to 1000Mb Gigabit Ethernet which took off quickly in 2000 and 2001 during the ‘dot com’ growth cycle.  In 2000 Cisco acquired Netiverse and embedded a server load balancer into the Catalyst 6500 with the Content Switching Module – starting our trajectory of execution through 2002 of building security, network analysis, and content/load-balancing capabilities into the Catalyst 6500.  This created the services rich networking system that became a staple of the network design.In 2002 Cisco acquired a ‘spin-in’ named Andiamo.  Based on the learnings of designing and building the Catalyst 6500 Cisco invested into Andiamo to enter the storage networking market.  The MDS 9500 SAN Director was built, and designed to be similar to the Catalyst 6500 from a look/feel of the hardware, and enable technology reuse of ASICs for functions like switch fabrics.  Most important technologically the MDS delivered the SAN-OS operating system, based on Linux, with a fully fault-tolerant and stateful process restart capability.  The MDS also enabled Cisco to address requirements from the storage competency centers in the IT organization, and Cisco brought new capabilities to the SAN that created customer value- enabling SAN and Storage Virtualization and enabling interoperability with both incumbents in this market.  The technologies we pioneered for Virtual SANs were valuable to customers and subsequently standardized by ANSI with no change.In 2003 we brought a program we code-named ‘Constellation 2’ to market- the Supervisor Engine 720 and 10Gb Ethernet modules and 48-port Gigabit Ethernet modules.  This brought 5x more bandwidth to each slot of a Catalyst 6500, bringing it to 40Gb/slot and extended the deployment options of the Catalyst 6500 again and made it more relevant in the Data Center, especially for higher density GbE access as servers shrank to 1RU designs and blade enclosures emerged.In 2004 we started a new project.  It’s not often in networking you get to do a clean-sheet design, the product life-cycles are pretty long, some upwards of a decade.  So when the opportunity presents itself we tend to dive in and want to change a LOT of things about the past.  We had a few very simple and clear goals on this project:- Bring Ethernet, FibreChannel, and HPC transports together into a Unified Fabric- Build a switching architecture that supports this Unified Fabric with the bandwidth and forwarding characteristics necessary- Solve significant operational challenges for our customer – make our systems simpler and easier to operateIn 2006 we took our acquisitions of Actona in the Wide-Area File Services space and the Content Distribution Networking team and brought them together to deliver our Wide-Area Application Services, a broad-based WAN Optimization technology.  It was productized as appliances initially, and then embedded into the ISR series of branch office routers.  Over the next two years it evolved on a virtualization path enabling our customers to run Microsoft Windows Server on top of the appliance as well – this enabled hundreds of branch offices servers to be consolidated into scalable data centers.Delivered in 2008, this project brought together the software from the MDS (SAN-OS) with new Layer-2 code written by some of the original team from the Cat-OS days with new Layer-3 code ported over from our acquisition of Procket. Everything was designed to be modular, multi-threaded, endian-independent, and use separate memory checkpointing systems so we could restart any process in-flight without losing memory state for critical table structures like routing tables.  It was also designed to have an IOS command interpreter so that the learning curve was non-existent for networking professionals. This software became known as NX-OS.  We built new chassis systems purpose-built for the data center with front-to-back airflow and a direct-interconnect mid-plane architecture so we have future scalability for performance and capacity that is not limited by the length of copper wiring traces and signal cross-talk and all the other fun signal-to-noise-ratio problems you deal with on traditional backplane designs.  We also made the system have integrated cable management, door systems, and lights-out management to ease the operational burden.  This became the Nexus 7000, released in January of 2008.Three months later, in April Cisco announced the acquisition of the remaining 20% of Nuova Systems and brought the Nexus 5000 to market- delivering the first incarnation of a Unified Fabric.  The Nexus 5000 runs a Unified Fabric to the host and breaks out FibreChannel to the SAN and 10GbE to the LAN right from the access-layer.  Still rolling the train onward five months later the Nexus 1000 was announced jointly with VMWare.  The Nexus 1000 took the NX-OS operating system and embedded it into a VMWare hypervisor – providing policy, control, and visibility to the virtual machine and enabling virtual machines to be managed the same ways that physical machines are accelerating the transition of virtual machines from labs to production.  This also solved a lot of potential security issues in multi-tenant environments enabling SP hosting architectures and accounting/billing to be simplified with common tools between physical and virtual.In January of 2009, almost one year to the day after announcing the Nexus 7000 and starting one of the most massive new product introduction cycles in the company’s history the Nexus 7000 18-slot Data Center switching System, 5000 one-RU 20-port Data Center Switching System, and the Nexus 2000 Fabric Extender were added to the expanded portfolio.  The Nexus 2000 is interesting in that it provided a zero-touch management ‘remote-line card’ for gigabit server interconnect.  Then, yesterday, we hit the current peak of this journey with our introduction of the Unified Computing System: bringing together thirteen years of data center focus and history.  This creates a new platform, and builds on and with the great technologies our partners have delivered.  This builds on top of architecture and systems work that has come before: from networking, and from the systems side where we genuinely want to acknowledge the great work that has been done by our partners and even our competitors in meeting IT needs for decades.  We’re proud to be part of a great community.dg(Cisco Note: Doug generally blogs over at Cisco Data Center blog)

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  1. Thanks for giving the database exactly as per the consecutive years. Good one!! It clearly shows the growth and sustainability.

  2. It's a nice history.Thanks for sharingJason Pricejprice@walkersresearch.com

  3. Nice history lessonIt will be interesting to see just how far Virtualisation takes usTony