By Paul Korzeniowski

As new, integrated products are delivered rather than autonomous storage systems, servers, and network equipment--a change that may have placed Cisco and Juniper on a collision course--businesses will need to determine how that will impact their business.

Storage systems, servers, and network equipment have evolved as autonomous product categories, each with a distinct set of features and suppliers. Those tidy dividing lines may soon be erased as new, integrated products are delivered, a change that seems to have placed two of the networking industry's leading suppliers on a collision course.

Technologies such as appliances, blade servers, and virtualization have provided small and midsize businesses with more flexibility in meeting their computing needs. However, as these new technologies have taken hold, traditional product categories have become pass. Recently, Cisco and Juniper, two of the networking industry's leading suppliers, have been moving to help break down these traditional barriers. Theoretically, the changes would ease management chores, improve energy usage, and increase product efficiency. However, because their initiatives are in the early stages, questions revolve around the ability of these new products to deliver promised features, and most small- and midsize-company IT departments will need to revamp their operations to take advantage of the new functionality.

The movement to more converged devices is being seen on a number of fronts, starting with the development of new standards. Currently, servers, storage systems, and network devices support a variety of different interconnects, such as Ethernet, Fibre Channel, Infiniband, and Myrinet. The hodgepodge means these networks are costly, energy inefficient, often redundant, and difficult to manage. To date, small and midsize businesses had to simply bear these increased burdens, but they may soon have a more appealing option.

Vendors -- such as Cisco, EMC, NetApp, IBM, and Juniper -- and systems have been pushing for development of a new version of Ethernet, one specifically designed to interconnect devices in a data center. In its current state, Ethernet is not optimized to provide the services required for storage and high-performance computing traffic. The issue is not just speed. Ethernet drops packets when traffic congestion occurs, so it needs to evolve into a low latency, "lossless" transport technology with more sophisticated congestion management and flow control features.

The Converged Enhanced Ethernet (CEE) is being built to address those issues. An extended version of Ethernet for data center applications, its goal is to collapse LAN, storage-area network, and high-performance computing applications onto a single Ethernet network. However, the work is evolving. The standards are under development and expected to be ratified in the spring of 2010. Some vendors may try to get a jump and ship products at the end of 2009, but most are expected to hold back until 2010.

However, the jockeying for market-leading positions in this emerging area has already begun. Juniper announced its plans to deliver next-generation network devices. The company plans to partner with server, storage, and software companies to develop a converged data center fabric under a multiyear project. Juniper's Stratus Project comprises six elements: a data center manager, storage, compute, Layer 4-7 switching, appliances, and networking. It is intended to be a flat, nonblocking, lossless fabric capable of supporting tens of thousands of Gigabit Ethernet ports, offer an order of magnitude reduction in latency, deliver no single point of failure, and include tightly integrated and virtualized security functions.

Cisco is also looking to transform data centers. It is developing its own blade servers that integrate networking, compute power, and virtualization. The company has not yet formally outlined its plans but is believed to be working with VMware and BMC Software on this project. Unlike Juniper, Cisco appears poised to move directly into the blade server market and compete against traditional partners, such as HP and IBM.

While convergence appears to be taking place among various computing devices, there are some outstanding issues before these initiatives deliver many of their promised benefits. Not everyone is convinced that the new Ethernet standards will work well with data center devices. There are questions about how well the new standards will support features, such as load balancing. The new converged devices could present a single point of failure. If a device goes down, the network, server, and storage system could all be knocked offline. Such a problem could be catastrophic at many companies. In addition, there is no guarantee that the new devices will deliver their promised benefits. In many cases, new technologies appear better on paper than they do at customer sites. Small and midsize businesses may want to avoid rushing into this emerging area until the vendors have proven that their products can deliver additional functionality.

In addition, the new devices will cause companies to re-examine their IT operations. In many cases, companies now have different groups responsible for servers, storage systems, and the network. Those dividing lines will disappear. Small and midsize companies will need to determine who is in charge of their new revamp operations as well as find a way to meld the various skills sets that they now have.

At the moment, the plans from Cisco and Juniper are in a fledgling state. Consequently, small and midsize businesses have time to try and determine how these changes will impact their business. At the very least, they need to understand that major changes are coming in product design and start to determine how their companies will be affected.

See more columns by Paul Korzeniowski.

Paul Korzeniowski is a Sudbury, Mass.-based freelance writer who has been writing about networking issues for two decades. His work has appeared in Business 2.0, Entrepreneur, Investor's Business Daily, Newsweek, and InformationWeek.