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HP ProCurve data center switches a battle cry to Cisco

New HP ProCurve data center switches could spark an all-out ProCurve-Cisco war, possibly forcing partners to choose sides between Hewlett-Packard and Cisco.

HP ProCurve's launch of a new series of data center switches and an applications module this week heats up the company's competition with Cisco Systems. The shift could force partners that once sold both Cisco and Hewlett-Packard (HP) portfolios to choose sides and pick a channel.

ProCurve's big data center announcement comes right as Cisco confirmed last week that it would be entering the data center server market with its "California" blades. Cisco and its channel once depended mostly on HP for data center servers. Similarly, HP partners once bypassed the company's own ProCurve networking arm to reach out to Cisco for switching and routing.

"These are two companies that have had a long relationship, and what you're seeing is that coming to an end," said Yankee Group analyst Zeus Kerravala.

Some partners say that as the relationship between HP and Cisco weakens, there is animosity left between the companies, and it is becoming more difficult for channel partners to work with both simultaneously.

"I think when HP acquired [CEO] Mark Hurd, he looked at ProCurve totally differently than his predecessors had. Before, HP [channel partners] had been incented to sell Cisco product, but when Hurd came in, he saw the light and noticed that their own networking business was pretty strong," said Chad Williams, manager of the public sector division at Matrix Integration, a partner to both ProCurve and Cisco based in Jasper, Ind. "They [HP] had to cut some of those ties in order to shift toward their own product."

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Hurd has been at HP since 2005, but this year, he took special interest in the company appointing HP veteran Marius Haas as senior vice president and general manager of ProCurve. Just two months later, ProCurve announced it would acquire wireless LAN company Colubris to round out the portfolio.

This move into the large data center goes even further in enabling ProCurve and HP channel partners to offer a network end-to-end solution.

Technology 4-1-1

The most compelling part of ProCurve's latest launch is the HP ProCurve 6600 switch series, specifically built for the larger data center. The series includes five top-of-rack gig and 10-gig server edge switches. All of the switches run on ProCurve's ASIC chipset, which drives functionality across the company's overall switch line. What's more, the switches run on the same firmware that also controls ProCurve's 5400 and 8200 switches.

ProCurve is pitching the green angle, since ports on the switches that aren't being used can be turned off to save power. What's more, the switches have front-to-back reversible airflow, so users can better manage the cooling layout of their centers.

Along with the switches, ProCurve announced a management application -- the Data Center Connection Manager -- that aims to deal partially with the complications caused by a virtualized environment. The Connection Manager, which works in a multi-vendor environment, automates provisioning of network servers and formalizes workflow activities, easing the relationship between the network and the server administrative teams, said F. Matthew Zanner, ProCurve worldwide director of data center solutions. The system provides visibility into virtualized environments and can report on troubled connections, Zanner added.

But ProCurve didn't stop at beefing up its switching line. The company also launched an applications module -- the ProCurve One Services zl Module -- that can be directly plugged into ProCurve's switches either at the edge with the 5400zl or at the core with the 8200.

The modules were created to support an ecosystem of pre-tested applications -- ranging from security and bandwidth optimization to voice and unified communications -- from a group of nearly 20 big-name vendors. Among the group of applications partners are F5 with an application delivery tool, Riverbed with bandwidth optimization, Avaya for IP networking and unified communications, Microsoft for its network access protection, and McAfee's security products. The goal of pre-testing the applications is to ensure that they will interoperate with one another and on ProCurve's networks.

"This moves beyond the traditional alliance … with joint engineering, removing the complexity for the customer," Zanner said. "We are not limiting customer choice by only running applications from the networking vendors themselves."

Shifting market

HP's renewed focus on the network, its integration of applications into its switches, and Cisco's expansion into servers signify a larger shift in the market that a channel partner must be prepared for, Yankee Group's Kerravala said.

"The trend that you're seeing here is the computing and networking stacks coming together. If you're in the computing world, you have to learn about networking, and if you're in the networking world, you have to learn about computing," Kerravala said. "The channel partners that pick up both sides fastest will be the ones that are most successful."

As that happens, both Cisco and HP ProCurve partners are trying to find their way in this new world.

Williams said Matrix is shifting more of its business away from Cisco and to ProCurve now that HP can address more of the network. Still, he expects that the company will also sell Cisco blades when they come out. The problem is, he expects it to be difficult to work with both companies.

"You're being forced to jump on one bandwagon or the other -- that's being driven by Cisco," Williams said. "It's almost down to the level that they will punish resellers that go outside of Cisco."

But Benjamin Patz, president and CEO of solution provider Coleman Technologies Inc. in Orlando, Fla., doesn't see it that way. He said Cisco's servers will be a strong offering that he hopes will be more "tightly coupled to the network" and have better "energy management." Coleman currently sells equipment from HP and other vendors for the data center. Once the Cisco product comes out, Patz said, the company will add those into the mix.

"Hopefully, we will be selling what the customers really need. The devil is in the details," Patz said. "[ProCurve's data center move] will trouble the relationship between the two companies, but less than most people predict." Patz believes that the shift could be similar to when Microsoft launched voice and unified communications products after a long partnership with Cisco. Many channel partners still sell products from both companies.

As for the channel play linked to ProCurve's new offerings, Zanner said there will be many more opportunities to sell implementation and management services for the new data center product. ProCurve partners may have to seek cross-certification to sell the applications from ecosystem partners that are pre-tested for the services module, though there is a lot of overlap in the channels already.

The ProCurve One module will be available Feb. 1, and the switches will be available in the first half of 2009.

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