Cisco is set to reveal details of its  "unified computing" initiative said to include a blade server code-named California.

The purpose of the product is to manage and automate the movement of virtual machines and their applications across various hardware servers inside data centres, three analysts said.

With the announcement, Cisco will formalise its plans described in 2004 to expand well beyond its traditional role as a provider of switches and other networking gear, the analysts said.

By getting into the blade server business, Cisco will also be taking on IBM and Hewlett Packard Co., which have been strong partners on major projects where customers would purchase HP or IBM servers to complement Cisco switches.

Cisco hasn't said much about the California product, but has talked about data centre virtualisation for at least five years.

In a recent blog and video interview, Cisco CTO Padmasree Warrior laid out why customers will need the company's unified computing. She didn't put a name to a specific product but described what it would do this way: "By connecting any combination of servers, storage and applications, the network orchestrates all forms of communication across the data centre."

Yankee Group analyst Zeus Kerravala said if Cisco was announcing such a product it would be akin to the automatic capability used in the Star Trek science fiction TV show to quickly divert a spaceship's energy resources for defensive shields from the aft to the forward part of the ship.

"In today's data centre, an IT guy has to run around and reprovision all the servers and network resources underneath an application, but in the new unified computing world, he would go to a centralised management console to do that," Kerravala said.

The California blade server will be connected to a new data centre switch that Cisco will also announce, according to three analysts who have been briefed on the product. The server will be powered by a new Intel chip and the management console to coordinate the network, servers and storage will be built by BMC, with other components from Cisco and EMC Corp.'s Smarts technology. They said the products will ship as early as May.

Dennis Drogseth, an analyst at Enterprise Management Associates based in Denver, called Cisco's reported plans to partner with BMC for management a "good choice" since Cisco has no server experience. Building the server would offer a "real risk of competition" with HP and IBM, but Drogseth said Cisco "obviously wants to broaden their opportunities."

But Jim Frey, another EMA analyst, said if Cisco was moving into servers, it is a "natural progression" for Cisco, and even "inevitable." Cisco reportedly has built a "mini-network inside the blade servers ... and has done some things that the other guys like IBM and HP haven't considered."

Frey predicted "absolutely, Cisco will be in a battle with HP and IBM especially. If Cisco is going to grow their business, they have to be in an adjacent business [to networking], and they will be in the crosshairs of IBM and HP no doubt about it."