Best known for its network infrastructure kit, Cisco today unveiled its Unified Computing System (UCS), which combines separate networks for carrying data, storage and server cluster traffic into a single unified fabric, and sees the introduction of Cisco blade server hardware.
Cisco's servers are based on new Intel Nehalem chips that have yet to be officially announced but are widely expected to be available within the next month or two.
The servers will fit into an eight-bay chassis designed to take seven blades and one of Cisco's Nexus switches.
Pricing has not been announced.
The other element of the architecture is a unified network fabric based on 10 Gigabit Ethernet and supporting Fibre Channel over Ethernet for connecting storage.
Together with virtualisation technology from VMware, the platform is intended to turn data centre infrastructure into a more scalable and flexible environment for delivery of IT as a service.
Martin Niemer, group product marketing manager for VMware Infrastructure, said that VMware has been working with Cisco for the past three years on the project, which integrates the UCS with VMware vCenter Suite for management.
However, despite this partnership, customers buying into Cisco's platform will be able to use other virtualisation software such as Microsoft's Hyper-V.
"Ultimately, it's up to customers what virtualisation platform they use," Niemer said.
Cisco also announced support from BMC Software, EMC, Emulex, Intel, Microsoft, NetApp, Novell, Oracle, QLogic and Red Hat.
As part of the VMware agreement, Cisco will become a VMware Authorised Consultant partner, able to resell VMware's ESX and VI products along with its own hardware.
The move puts Cisco in direct competition with experienced and long-established server vendors such as HP and IBM, and has already drawn flak from others within the industry, who perceive it as an attempt by Cisco to lock customers into its own platform.
"IBM and HP offer open low cost solutions, have decades of experience delivering such solutions, and it will not take customers very long to see through Cisco's 'my way or the highway' tactic," commented Vikram Mehta, chief executive at Blade Network Technologies.
Ovum analyst Tim Stammers said Cisco is as much about system management as it is blade servers and virtualisation.
"If Cisco's customers have to buy their blade servers from HP or Dell, then the door is open for either of those two to offer their management tools to customers, or to tailor their blades to work better with those tools," he said.
"Moving into more direct competition with those players - and with other systems management players such as IBM and BMC - is a price that Cisco cannot avoid paying unless it wants to be sidelined in the future."
Stammers doesn't feel the competition will hurt Cisco's relationships with big hardware players. Co-opetition, he says, is "hardly new."
"Cisco is already in competition with HP and IBM on the networking front," he said.