Can Cisco sell 'unified' vision to a tough server crowd?

Cisco's biggest challenge in gaining market acceptance for its new Unified Computing System is to convince data center managers to buy blade servers from the router giant instead of from traditional, incumbent suppliers.

"Server buyers don't have a relationships with Cisco," says James Staten of Forrester Research. "It will be tough to convince them of the need for another player in this market."

Cisco last week finally took the wraps off of its long-anticipated UCS platform, which incorporates internally developed blade servers and is designed to tightly integrate data center computing, storage, networking and virtualization capabilities. The blade server component has been the focus of much industry speculation over the past year, and what it might mean to Cisco's relationships with longtime partners and blade server makers HP and IBM.

Cisco acknowledges that it will now compete with those titans in the data center blade server market. But it also claims it had no choice – and that those trying to pit Cisco and UCS directly against HP and IBM blade servers are missing the point.

"We focus not on competition, but where the market is going," Cisco CEO John Chambers said during last week's launch. "This is the future of the data center. It will evolve into clouds and change business models forever."

Indeed, while tongues were wagging over the past year about Cisco's entry into the blade server market, the company stressed the holistic approach of UCS during its launch, saying its innovations in tying together servers, storage, networking and virtualization make it unique in the industry.

It's not a blade server, company officials insisted; it's an architecture.

UCS is designed to let customers build next-generation data centers that are optimized for virtualized resources – servers, storage, applications and networking. It is intended to manage data center operations as a unified environment and supports applications and services from leading vendors such as Microsoft, EMC, VMware, Red Hat and Novell.

Diagram showing Cisco's UCS

Cisco came up with the unified computing concept three years ago and launched product development shortly thereafter, Chambers said.

Cisco says UCS can reduce IT infrastructure costs and complexity, help extend capital assets and improve business operations. UCS features a "wire once" unified data center fabric for single access to storage-area networks (SAN), network-attached storage and iSCSI platforms.

UCS provides as much as a 20% reduction in capital expenditures and as much as a 30% reduction in operational expenditures, Cisco says. It can provision applications in minutes instead of days, can be managed as a single system supporting more than 300 servers and thousands of virtual machines, and improves energy efficiency by reducing the number of servers, switches, adapters and cables by as much as 50%, which translates into lower power and cooling requirements.

The system also is intended to provide investment protection through "industry standards," Cisco says. At the same time, however, the company stressed its uniqueness in that each element – server, storage, networking and virtualization – is optimized for operation within the UCS system through patented techniques for memory expansion, management and fabric connection.

For the server element, Cisco designed its own computing system — the UCS B-Series blades — based on the future Intel Nehalem processor families, the next generation of Intel's Xeon processor. The Cisco blades offer patented extended memory technology to support applications with large data sets and allow more virtual machines per server, the company says.

Yet blade servers from other vendors – such as HP and IBM – and other individual elements may not be able to fully utilize these advances, Cisco officials suggested during the UCS launch.

"We're selling this as a system," said Rob Lloyd, senior vice president of Cisco Worldwide Operations. "It will be shipped and configured as a system. The innovations are all tied together. This is not a new blade server; it is a new architecture."

Adds Cisco Marketing Vice President David Lawler, "Other vendors' solutions will not work because [UCS is] a single unified system. And we're not developing blades for other [vendors'] platforms."

Therein lies Cisco's chief obstacle to gaining broad market acceptance and adoption of UCS — its inability to accept non-Cisco blade servers.

"The challenge will be around customers' organizational structures, customer buy-in," says Zeus Kerravala of the Yankee Group. "We've never seen them go after different customers before; they've always leveraged existing (customer) relationships."

While not pinpointing the blade server issue specifically, Cisco acknowledges it will have its work cut out for it in selling and gaining market acceptance for UCS.

"Cisco historically reacts to market transitions," Lawler says. "It takes people, in general, a while to understand that the model has changed. The proof is in the pudding of the early adopters."

Lawler says Cisco early on considered HP and IBM as blade server partners for the UCS system, and "did have conversations" with them about multiple technologies, such as unified fabric and the Nexus 1000V virtual switch, which is believed to be an element within UCS. But "a tighter binding [of the blade server] to the fabric necessitated a new development," Lawler says.

Service provider Savvis, which deploys HP and Egenera servers in its data centers, is beta testing UCS. CTO Bryan Doerr says Cisco is forcing other server vendors to look at alternative approaches to better integrating and virtualizing their devices with other data center components.

"What they've done is reintroduced the idea of the server and forced people to reckon with whether or not this style and subsequent need for virtualization capabilities are key to enabling a different style of service," Doerr says. "We have to continue to look at that solution vs. traditional solutions. There are clearly advantages."

Doerr adds, however, that Cisco's approach is not new — Egenera has been offering unified, virtual data center server computing for years. What's new is that the market has another big player — and that player is influential.

"The traditional [vendors] now need to take a look at this again, afresh and say, ‘do we believe there's a market for this platform built for virtualization; or do we feel that the current evolutionary path of the server in its current form is the one that's likely to win?'" Doerr notes. "I think their investment will follow that decision."

Competitors, predictably, took shots at what they view as the proprietary nature of UCS.

"Rather than keeping the components — servers, storage, networking, management — all with their own ecosystems and being individually improved by the various vendors, Cisco chose a proprietary way to integrate these things together," says David Yen, executive vice president and general manager of Juniper's data center business group. "It deprives [customers of] the ability to take advantage of the constant evolution and advancement in the server area, or the storage area, or in other software areas. The more you integrate, the more you tend to specialize."

On the server specifically, Yen says UCS locks customers in with a data center component that's typically a commodity and interchangeable between vendors.

"This is one reason why all of the modern data centers are all using the commodity 1RU/2RU x86 servers. These are high volume, low cost and interchangeable," Yen says. "They really facilitate the customer's ability in a cloud computing environment to very elastically, dynamically and efficiently utilize these resources. It creates a problem for the data center managers: Should I consider using Cisco's so-called unified computing module as my building block? It is so dangerous because then I'm completely locked into a single vendor."

Matt Zanner, worldwide director of data center solutions at HP ProCurve, says he had no insight into considerations or discussions Cisco may have had with HP on the blade server component of UCS. But he, too, was curious about Cisco's decision to develop that component internally and what it might mean for customers.

"If there's challenges using various standard, off-the-shelf components like servers in a given solution, that leads me to believe there are some control points being taken away from the customer and put in the hands of the vendor," Zanner said.

Consultant Pace Harmon is an advisor to Cisco customers. Principal Rahul Singh says he had input into the launch of UCS and suggested to Cisco that it partner for the system's blade server component.

"This is not something that Cisco's done in the past — trying to get into an already crowded market and displace vendors that people already have a significant amount of investment in and experience with," Singh says. "It doesn't make sense but folks at Cisco are used to selling hardware and boxes so it's almost a logical extension."

Other components of UCS, such as the fabric, will support a low-latency, lossless, 10 Gigabit-per-second Ethernet foundation. This is designed to consolidate what today are three separate networks: LANs, SANs and high performance computing networks, Cisco says.

UCS also is designed to improve the scalability, performance and operational control of virtual environments. Cisco security, policy enforcement and diagnostics capabilities have been added into dynamic virtualized environments to support changing business and IT requirements, Cisco says.

For management, Cisco is rolling out the Cisco UCS Manager, a graphical user interface, command line interface and an application programming interface to manage all system configuration and operations. UCS Manager enables IT managers to collaborate on defining service profiles for applications, Cisco says.

Service profiles help to automate provisioning, providing application access in minutes instead of days, Cisco says.

The Cisco UCS and associated services will be available in the second quarter of 2009. More details on the system, including pricing, will be disclosed in April, Lloyd says.

In addition to Savvis, Cisco says it has nine other beta sites for the platform.

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