Cisco Rolls out its Next Generation Fabric Computing

Analyzing the release of Cisco's latest generation of its fabric computing platform.

Cisco as a server vendor! Ha!

Remember back when the company first unveiled its “Unified Computing System” (UCS)? At the time, the thought of Cisco being in the server market seemed almost laughable. But, this was a journey that we had seen before. Similar guffawing was heard when Cisco jumped into the voice market. Way back in the day, when I was in internal IT, Cisco acquired its way into the VoIP market and rode the IP wave to market leadership in only about a decade. When you think about how, historically, extremely difficult voice share was to gain, the fact that Cisco managed to grab as much share as it did, and as fast as it did, was remarkable.

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There are some parallels between the voice market of yester-year and today’s server market. Both are huge, multi-billion-dollar industries with some long-established suppliers. Additionally, the server market today, like the voice market of years ago, is currently in transition. Servers used to be computing devices that were deployed on an application-by-application basis. Virtualization has, of course, completely changed the way servers are designed, which is what Cisco saw as its entry point.

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Early on, I was a UCS skeptic in that I spoke to many organizations that had UCS in their shops but used it primarily in the labs for their network guys. Anyone who was using UCS in a production environment was doing something that seemed against the norm. It was kind of like seeing MacBooks in the workplace a few years ago. This is the eyeball test that makes me realize that Cisco has arrived as a server vendor. When I talk to customers and ask them if they’ve deployed UCS they don’t look at me like I have three eyes any more, it’s become a non-spectacular event – they’re now mainstream. Well, that and the fact that the likes of HP continue to tell me why Cisco isn’t relevant in the server market. If it wasn’t, then the server vendors wouldn’t care so much, would they?

Building on its success, the company this week announced its third generation “fabric computing” platform. The idea is that network, compute and virtualization are all integrated together and then tied up with a single pane of glass management front end. I’m not going to go into all the product details, as you can easily read the press release from Cisco or some of the news stories to get that. I will point out some of the highlights though.

The new servers utilize the long-awaited Intel Xeon E5-2600 (Romley) processors and they are loaded with memory slots. These servers are meant for processor- and memory-intensive workloads, and Cisco rolled out beast of a server family here. Additionally, Cisco has brought feature parity to the management of rack and blade servers within a single domain. Over time, the company will add the ability to manage multiple domains. The unified management will let customers mix and match servers, creating much needed flexibility in the UCS family.

Cisco also announced a Fabric Interconnect, which customers can use to connect UCS to the FEX (Fabric Extender) blades in a Nexus switch. There were a few other things announced, but these were the more notable ones in my eyes.

I know there are still some skeptics who wonder whether Cisco is really innovating here; after all, Egenera has been talking this story of unified computing and point-and-click provisioning for a long time. However, because of Cisco’s network market share, it’s actually pushed the vision past a few early adopters and made the concept of automating a data center a reality. Couple this with the fact that cloud computing is the most network-centric computing paradigm we have ever had, and it’s easy to see how Cisco has made the run to a billion in server revenue as fast as it has.

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