Cisco Takes "Logical Next Step" at Annual Data Management Event

Composite used to market data virtualization as "the logical next step." The conceptual vision Cisco outlined recently is both logical and bold.

Earlier this month, the former Composite Software Inc., now a part of Cisco Systems Inc., convened its annual Data Virtualization Day (DVD) customer event in midtown Manhattan.

This year's event had a very different feel from those of its predecessors. It had a very different location, too -- having shifted from the hip luxury of the midtown Continental to the calm grandeur of the midtown New York Palace Hotel. Nevertheless, the feel at this year's DVD event seemed both urgent -- at least, on the part of Cisco and Composite officials -- and exciting, especially among users, which may have to do with Cisco taking Composite seriously enough to make it -- or data virtualization (DV) -- the centerpiece of an ambitious technology vision.

"The network has a very different role to play," said Mike Flannagan, general manager of Cisco's Integration Brokerage Technology Group, in his opening remarks. "We believe Composite helps us build a platform that sits in between applications and infrastructure and facilitates some very important connections," he continued. "We believe it's going to be incredibly important for us to connect applications with infrastructure much more effectively than is currently done."

Me Talk Data One Day?

Cisco and Composite officials used the expression "logical next step" several times during the event. This was almost certainly intentional because that was precisely the theme of last year's event. The conceptual vision that Cisco and Composite outlined at this year's DVD event is at once logical and bold, however.

In short, Cisco plans to address what it says is the single biggest bottleneck of DV or, for that matter, of data movement, by making the network data flow-aware -- and vice versa.

Network connectivity -- understood as a function of bandwidth and latency -- is the bottleneck, Cisco officials argued, not query performance, complex SQL statements, or other traditional culprits. "Data virtualization needs to move its algorithms out of its own box, out of the [Composite Information Server], to start addressing the [problem] of how do we make the network more efficient," argued former Composite CEO Jim Green, the newly christened general manager of Cisco's Data Virtualization Business Unit.

"This is a question of taking the existing network capacity that you have with the existing cost structure that you can afford and making it more effective," Green continued, elaborating: "In order to do that, we need to understand the network better ... [this will entail] moving data across those networks through mechanisms of seeing inside the network and working with the network [i.e., its capacities and constraints] more efficiently."

According to Green, this vision is grounded in the Cisco Open Network Environment (ONE), which is Cisco's prescription for a software-defined network (SDN) implementation.

The thing is, "Open Network Environment" and "software-defined network" aren't part of the data management (DM) vernacular. At DVD, this juxtaposition of unfamiliar (and seemingly unrelated) concepts -- invoked by no less a figure than long-time data federation and DV advocate Jim Green -- was almost surreal. Green's use of concepts such as "global data fabric," "alternative routing paths," "link selection," and "data warehouse" -- if not in the same sentence, then, certainly, in the same context -- was disorienting, at least for DM attendees: some nodded their heads, some wore blank expressions, others looked plumb confused.

It's an indication of just how much data management (a traditionally insular discipline) is changing, and of how a vendor such as Cisco wants to change it even more.

"As we move forward, what we see is that we can take [the network], and there are different levels in which we can interact with it," said Green, who -- invoking the example of hardware virtualization -- argued that the status quo, in which bandwidth and capacity are statically allocated, is like a throwback to the pre-hypervisor era in which the capacity of commodity enterprise servers was effectively unmanaged. Outside of certain periods of high utilization, Green pointed out, server resources invariably idled in the low double digits. He outlined a vision of a data-aware SDN in which "the capacity of a network is dynamically allocated in different directions depending on who needs it next, who needs it now, and who needs it with a higher priority than anybody else."

This matters, Green said, because the future is one of small-c "composite" clouds. "We're moving to ... a world where we'll have multiple clouds coordinated with each other," he maintained. "The still point is not a data center -- the still point is the network. ... The bottleneck is the network."

An Undercurrent of Urgency

The undercurrent of urgency at this year's DVD doubtless had to do with the fact that Cisco, which acquired Composite in June, doesn't have much of a data management pedigree.

It stemmed, too, from the fact that Composite's customers -- while admittedly not as zealous or as fervid as those of (for example) Tableau Software Inc. -- do tend to be highly enthusiastic about the company and its technology. To that end, Composite and Cisco officials set the tone early, assuring (and periodically reassuring) customers that the post-acquisition Composite would continue to be a data virtualization "market leader."

Cisco's Flanagan emphasized Composite's independence inside of Cisco's organizational structure -- as has been noted, former CEO Jim Green now heads up Cisco's "independent" Data Virtualization Business Unit -- and promised that "the entire Composite team ... [will] continue to innovate the way they did as an independent company."

"We are not just committed in words to making sure that the Composite business continues along the path that it has been along for the last 12 years and that Cisco aids in accelerating that path, not creating deviations," Flanagan told attendees. "We want to make sure that we're also doing things that create the environment where that will be the case."

During breaks, Cisco and Composite teased attendees with demos of a new self-service analytic sandbox -- dubbed "Collage" -- that's slated to ship next month.

Collage will incorporate a feature that Composite itself has long talked about -- namely, a "directory" or catalog of available business views -- and is designed to at least partially automate the data preparation and data integration tasks that most experts agree effectively constrain the productivity of business analysts.

"What we need to do is come up with a self-service product that can actually help people build sandboxes and empower the business analysts so that they can be four times more productive and then build things that will tremendously benefit their systems," said Green, explaining that "since this is self-service, we need ... a front-end tool" -- i.e., Collage -- that's designed for information consumers, as distinct to DBAs, data architects, and data integration specialists.

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