Cisco busts out beyond blade servers with Unified Computing System

UCS links servers, storage, networking, virtualization

It’s not a blade server – it’s an architecture.

It's not a blade server – it's an architecture.

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Cisco stressed the holistic approach of its Unified Computing System during its widely watched launch Monday, claiming its innovations in tying together servers, storage, networking and virtualization make it unique in the industry. Observers trying to pit IT directly against HP and IBM data center blade servers were missing the point, Cisco officials suggested.

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

Cisco Unified Computing System is designed to allow customers to 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, including Microsoft, EMC, VMware, Red Hat and Novell.

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 SANs, network attached storage, and iSCSI platforms.

UCS provides up to a 20% reduction in capital expenditures and up to a 30% reduction in operational expenditures, Cisco claims. 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 up to 50%, which translates into lower power and cooling requirements.

The system is also intended to provide investment protection through "industry standards," Cisco says. At the same time, however, Cisco 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.

Blade servers from other vendors – like HP and IBM – and other individual elements may not be able to fully utilize these advances, Cisco officials suggested during the UCS launch.(Compare Server products.) Much has been made of how Cisco's move into this market would pit it against former partners.

"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."

For the server element, Cisco designed its own computing system -- the so-called 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.

Analysts say Cisco's biggest challenge will be in selling the UCS to customers who have traditionally bought blade servers from HP, IBM, Dell and others entrenched in that market.

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

"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."

Cisco acknowledges that it will have its work cut out for it in selling and gaining market acceptance for UCS.

"Cisco historically reacts to market transitions," says Lawler. "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 said Cisco considered HP and IBM as blade server partners for the UCS system, and "did have conversations" with them about multiple technologies, like 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.

The UCS unified fabric will support a low-latency, lossless, 10 Gigabit-per-second Ethernet foundation. This network foundation consolidates what today are three separate networks: LANs, SANs and high performance computing networks, Cisco says.

UCS is also 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 enabling 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.

Cisco's Network Management Technology Group, which is currently undergoing some outsourcing activity, was not involved in the development of UCS Manager, Lawler says. The management system was developed by the Nuova data center switching group within Cisco, he says.

The Cisco UCS and associated services will be available in the second quarter. More details on the system will be disclosed in April, Lloyd said.

Cisco said it has 10 beta sites for the platform, including service provider Savvis.

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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