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Cisco impresses with UCS

Integrated server blades, networking and management make UCS a strong contender for fast-growing data centers in this exclusive Network World test

By , Network World
December 19, 2011 12:09 AM ET

Network World - If you're tempted to think of Cisco's Unified Computing System (UCS) as just another blade server — don't. In fact, if you just want a bunch of blades for your computer room, don't call Cisco — Dell, HP, and IBM all offer simpler and more cost-effective options.

But, if you want an integrated compute farm consisting of blade servers and chassis, Ethernet and Fibre Channel interconnects, and a sophisticated management system, then UCS might be for you.

Cisco sees UCS as key cloud building block

When Cisco introduced UCS in 2009, based on a 2006 investment in Nuova Systems, everyone had an opinion about Cisco entering the server business. Now that they've had a couple of years to prove their case, we wanted to take a closer look and see whether UCS had lived up to the initial excitement.

We found that for some environments, Cisco has brought a compelling and valuable technology to market. Cisco UCS offers enterprises greater agility and lower deployment and maintenance costs, and is especially attractive in virtualization environments.

While UCS won't be attractive in some data centers, and won't be cost effective in others, it does have the potential to make life, and computing, easier for data center managers.

Under the hood

Cisco UCS has three main components: blade server chassis and blades, a fabric interconnect, which is networking based on Cisco Nexus 5000 switch hardware and software, and a management system resident within the fabric interconnect that controls it all.

The blade server chassis is fairly simple, and there's a competitive selection of blade CPU and memory options. Networking is integrated, not just within the chassis, but between multiple chassis (up to about 20 within a single management domain today).

But what really makes Cisco UCS worth considering is the integrated hardware and configuration management. In UCS, a single Java application (or CLI) is used to manage the hardware and network configuration for up to 176 blades today, with a doubling of that expected to hit the streets soon.

The management system runs as a software process inside of the (mandatory) UCS 6100- or 6200-series fabric interconnect hardware, and is responsible for configuration of the chassis, the blades, and all networking components.

If you follow Cisco's advice and use two fabric interconnects, you'll have high availability for networking, and high availability for UCS management. The management system automatically clusters and runs in an active/passive high-availability mode spread across the two fabric interconnects.

Cisco claims 7,400 UCS customers as of August

The management interface actually takes the form of a documented XML-based API, accessible either via Cisco-provided CLI or GUI tools, or, if you want to write your own tools or buy third-party ones, directly via the API. We used the Java-based UCS Manager software, which is what anyone with a single UCS domain would want to use, in most of our testing.

Because a UCS domain is limited in size today to about 175-ish servers connected to a single pair of UCS fabric interconnects, it's likely that many customers will have at least two domains for two data centers. In that case, you can manage the two domains separately or buy a third-party "orchestrator" package that lets you work across domains. Cisco actually offers a free open source tool called "UCS Dashboard" that lets you roll up two or more UCS domains into a single read-only view.

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