Cisco is set to launch a datacentre platform that could supersede Ethernet switches and the Fibre Channel devices that form storage networks.

The Nexus series has been designed to cope with the demands for bandwidth and energy efficiency within datacentres, while simplifying the jobs of IT administrators. In the process, it could help give Cisco the central role it seeks in IT infrastructure.

The company already has two leading product-ranges within the datacentre: its' Catalyst series of Ethernet switches and MDS storage network platform. The Nexus series of routers will combine these functions by using a single switching fabric and the emerging Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) standard.

The first of these, the Nexus 7000 chassis, will be generally available in the second quarter. Prices will start at US$75,000 (£38,000), but a typical configuration will cost about $200,000 (£102,000), according to Jayshree Ullal, senior vice president of Cisco's datacentre, switching and security technology group.

Mark Drake is looking at the Nexus platform for future-proofing as his company, Health Management Associates, centralises its data resources. The company runs about 60 hospitals, mostly in the Southeastern US. Health Management's current Catalyst switches are probably enough to handle connectivity needs in its datacentres for the next two years, but it's hard to predict storage and processing requirements beyond that as he looks for the next generation, Drake said.

"I'm looking at a little over ten years' capacity," Drake said. The Nexus line is built to go far beyond the scale of the Catalysts, delivering more than 15T bits per second. "The capacity to grow is huge," he said.

Another benefit Drake sees in the Nexus, which he has been told about but hasn't tested, is ease of management. Health Management is already trying to reduce IT staff costs by consolidating datacentres from each hospital to a two main locations. Because the new platform combines storage and data switching along with security in a single switch and management interface, it could further simplify running those datacentres, he said.

Initially, Cisco sees the Nexus switches at the core of datacentres that still use separate networks for processing and storage. But as FCoE emerges in storage systems, the Nexus could become the single connectivity platform, Ullal said.

Its switching fabric is designed to be lossless, unlike a standard Ethernet system, which tolerates dropped packets, said Tom Edsall, senior vice president and CTO of the datacentre group. The platform also has built-in security features, including wire-speed encryption and authentication capability for each port.

At the heart of the platform is a new, virtualised operating system, NX OS. As with server virtualisation, NX OS can turn a Nexus switch into multiple logical switches running totally different processes, Ullal said . For example, one logical switch could handle storage and be managed by storage specialists, while the other links servers and is run by a different staff. A third could be a test platform. All would use a single switching fabric and set of redundant power supplies, which provides benefits in performance, economies of scale and resiliency, she said. This virtualised architecture eventually will trickle down to other Cisco product lines, according to Ullal.

Cisco also has automated some aspects of management with the Nexus line, drawing on best practices it learned partly from its customers, Edsall said. The system is designed to monitor and heal itself in many cases.

The network's role in datacentres is growing as computing and storage are combined and shared, according to industry analysts. It's now the "orchestrator" of the datacentre, Zeus Kerravala of Yankee Group said. Cisco is the only vendor with both the networking and the computing experience to fulfill that role, he believes. But though many managers of datacentres want to see total virtualisation of the datacentre, which could boost efficiency, they aren't yet ready for it.

"We're just entering the very early stages of the virtual datacentre," Kerravala said. "This is probably at least two years away."

Cisco is best positioned to build the core of datacentres because the network touches everything in it, according to Ullal, Edsall, and other executives.

"For Cisco, it's very critical that this platform be a launching pad to go further up the IT stack," said IDC's Cindy Borovick. However, taking control of datacentres won't be a walk in the park, she cautioned.

"Cisco's in a very strong position, but there are other very large suppliers that recognise how important the datacentre is and are willing to invest the R&D dollars," Borovick said, citing IBM and Sun Microsystems. To Cisco's peril, datacentre administrators are more than willing to buy the best of many vendors rather than standardise on one, because they control the "crown jewels" of the enterprise, she said.