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When Cisco Systems announced it was entering the blade server market at the beginning of the year—on the heels of earlier jumps into storage, unified communications and security—it was clear that the titan of networking was seeking a world beyond switches and routers.

At the Cisco Partner Summit in Boston on June 3, the company unveiled yet the latest piece of its Unified Computing System family of products, a set of rack-mounted servers dubbed C-Series. These conventional servers, which will compete in a volume against market leaders such as Hewlett-Packard and IBM, represent a portfolio departure for Cisco. These servers are an entry downstream that runs counter to the hype that has been surrounding the forthcoming but not-yet-shipping technologies that make up its high-end Unified Computing System for the data center.

Cisco is quick to characterize the C-Series debut as just what customers will want as they look to maximize their existing data center investments and ride out the tough economic times. The key differentiator, executives said, is that the C-Series servers are optimized for many of the features that will become available with a fully flushed-out UCS architecture—expanded memory, a virtualization adapter and hypervisor bypass.  C-Series, they say, is an on-ramp of sorts for partners looking to get into customer sites now with a simple engagement but with all the pieces in place to scale fast.

“The C-Series is really an investment protection for customers,” said Soni Jiandani, vice president of marketing in Cisco’s Storage Tech Group. “Our partners can introduce customers to the C-Series knowing that over time they can begin to take full advantage of the entire UCS platform as they move more and more toward virtualization.”

Cisco is touting an “architectural” approach to the data center that takes the various technologies—servers, storage, security, virtualization—out of silos to become one integrated entity—essentially convergence. It’s trying to reorient its partners toward what it calls “architecture selling,” introducing new specializations and certifications and training that set them on track to focus on a number of products across the data center portfolio, said John Growdon, a senior director in Cisco’s Go-to-Market Group for Worldwide Channels.

Growdon emphasized that skills, both sales and technical, are essential for partners to succeed in the UCS space. “Not everyone is going to be able to do this,” he said during an executive briefing at the Partner Summit Wednesday. “But if you can integrate these solutions together and drop total cost of ownership for your customers, you are going to differentiate yourself from a partner who cannot.”

To help partners, Cisco announced a new Authorized Partner Program for the C-Series of servers, which allows any DCNI-specialized partner to engage. DCNI is Cisco’s fastest-growing specialization over the past year, Growdon said, with 100 partners now certified. DCNI specialization along with previous experience selling and implementing servers are prerequisites to selling the C-Series, he said.

From a profitability standpoint, Cisco is launching a C-Series piece to its VIP (Value Incentive Program) that rewards partners financially for wrapping value-added services around product sales. Services, as Growdon noted, are the primary margin driver for today’s solution providers.

The C-Series servers will ship in the second half of 2009, according to Cisco. What remains as the big, unanswered question is when the rest of the UCS portfolio will become available and whether the introduction of the C-Series will provide partners with enough to sell in the meantime.

One Cisco partner, Robert Olwig, vice president of business strategy at World Wide Technology in Maryland Heights, Mo., viewed the C-Series introduction in the light of the recession.

“For partners like World Wide, this provides a powerful choice for customers who want to maximize the investment they’ve already made in infrastructure,” Olwig said, adding that it laid the groundwork for a push into high-end UCS technologies but at a much more palatable price point for today’s strapped IT buyers.