Having spent a bit of time in the building industry, the right answer is actually "maybe." This is because a general contractor can come into the job a number of ways. Generally they come through carpentry, but they could come up as an electrician or a plumber. A great general contractor needs to know all the skills well enough, but also to effectively collaborate with the architect and the client.
At this moment HP, which is making the comparison, is more qualified than Cisco to be a general contractor, simply because it is vastly more experienced in the traditional role. But nothing says that Cisco, or a partnership with Cisco in it, couldn't result in a solution that with the right leaders could build a better, non-traditional structure. The concept of a "cloud" solution is non-traditional.
But let's explore the idea of a plumber general contractor for a moment.
A Plumber or Electrician and General Contractor
If you were building a house, when might you want to have a plumber or an electrician as opposed to a carpenter as a general contractor? I can think of two reasons: You aren't using lumber and are instead using an alternative building material, or you are optimizing on water or electricity. A carpenter will want to use wood, but were you to build out of another substance -- say fiberglass or steel -- the carpentry skills might not help and using someone with a different background likely would be a better path.
Water or electricity might be expensive, you want to heat or cool with liquids or use some type of alternative energy. Someone with either an electrical or plumbing background might do a better job with their now more critical skill.
Don't get me wrong, with a traditional wood house, your carpenter-based general contractor normally will be best. But were you building in a flood plain, a hurricane or tornado area, running off the electrical grid, or someplace not traditional -- like on the side of a cliff -- you might find that someone with an alternative background would have a more innovative approach to the unique problems.
But does that apply here?
The Cloud: Plumbing-Centric
The cloud is at its core nothing more than flexible hosting. It has three core attributes: cost, control and performance. If it doesn't have cost advantages, there is no point in doing it. If control isn't adequate, it can't be secured (creating an inexpensive way to get folks fired). And if performance drops, the cost savings can't be justified.
Given that the "cloud" is based on dynamically shifting loads across wide distances and locations, it would seem that the network is, in fact, the central critical path. You can't forget the servers, anymore than you can forget the structure in a new house, but you focus on optimizing the network so that your cost, control and performance needs are met.
One other part comes to mind, and that is the virtualization and storage layers. Information from all three -- the virtualization platform, the storage platform and the network -- need to be optimized to assure that the resulting "cloud" system performs to specification.
The virtualization layer, in this model, talks to the servers and replaces them at the critical component.
This suggests a an interesting partnership.
Cisco, EMC, VMware
A partnership that encompasses the three new legs of the "cloud" would be one with networking, virtualization, and storage to complete the solution. This suggests that the market partnership we are missing is one between Cisco, EMC and VMware, or alternatives that address the same three components.
But the key to all of this is a general contractor that understands networking, storage and virtualization deeply, because those are likely the three critical skills in this new world order. By the way, this clearly suggests other partnerships, as well.
The current economic conditions are already driving massive change; one of them may be that we'll want a plumber to be our general contractor. It is interesting to note that HP, who started me down this path, has a Networking Unit called "ProCurve" that could also fill this general contractor role in the new "cloud" world.