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Cisco brings server virtualization to the branch office

UCS E-Series is fast, easy to manage, well designed, and pricey

By , Network World
February 25, 2013 06:00 AM ET

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Large deployments of UCS E-Series blades will also be eased by enterprise-class features in the UCS management tools, such as integration with Active Directory, SNMP traps and configurable alarms, and access controls to increase security of the management plane of the blade.

Running virtual machines

Our Cisco UCS E-Series blade came with two 8GB SD flash cards, one to run the blade itself, and the other ready for the VMware hypervisor we loaded on the blade through the Web-based GUI.

We downloaded a Cisco-specific ESXi v5.0 image from VMware (at no charge) and installed the hypervisor to the SD flash cards in a matter of minutes — once we gave up on making the KVM work on a Mac OS X system and jumped to a Windows client. This freed up the RAID array built into the test blade to be completely dedicated to virtual machine storage.

From there, we had the choice of running with the free ESXi license that VMware offers, or linking the Cisco UCS E-Series Blade into our existing VMware infrastructure. We started running stand-alone for a few weeks, then after VMware helped us upgrade to the latest and greatest (v5.1) version of VMware, we re-licensed the hypervisor so that we could migrate the UCS E-Series blade under the control of the vCenter management system.

For most enterprises, whether or not to upgrade the free license to a full VMware capability set will depend heavily on the kind of virtual machines that will run on the UCS E-Series Blade and the number of blades.

The vCenter management system offers a lot of benefits, but also comes at a cost, including licenses and the continual heartbeat and performance information sent back to vCenter. Many of the advantages of vCenter, such as easy deployment from templates, won't be quite so simple when working across a WAN to branch office locations, so network and system managers should consider the pros and cons before committing.

Cisco doesn't require you to run VMware's ESXi hypervisor, fully supporting Microsoft's Hyper-V and Citrix's XenServer hypervisors, as well as stand-alone operating systems including several flavors of Unix and Microsoft Windows.

However, we think that network and system managers should stick with hypervisor-based deployments on the UCS E-Series blade for maximum management capabilities and flexibility. With a hypervisor in place, remote operating system upgrades and replacements become simpler, and a hypervisor also opens the ability to easily run multiple virtual machines and get more use out of the UCS E-Series hardware.

We didn't look at performance in depth on the Cisco UCS E-Series blades because they're not really designed for compute-intensive environments. However, we think that for most branch office operations, including network operations such as file service, DNS/DHCP, proxies and other security functions, the UCS E-Series blade has plenty of power.

The UCS E-Series 140D blade we tested has three disk slots and a built-in RAID controller with RAID 0 (stripe), 1 (mirror) and 5 (parity) support. While Cisco allows you to put your own choice of 2.5-inch hard drives in the slots, they offer 7200 RPM SATA drives, 10K RPM SAS and self-encrypting SAS drives and speedy SSD options.

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