Cisco slots new blade into UCS portfolio

Cisco's new blade server seems to offer the best of all worlds: compute power, thanks to Nehalem EX, plenty of memory capacity, and a half-width form factor.

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Cisco Systems rounded out its emerging x86 server platform on Tuesday with a new blade server model for its Unified Computing System (UCS). Observers said that it provides a nice mix of compute power and memory in a small, half-width footprint.

The new two-socket, half-width B230 M1 blade features 32 dual inline memory module (DIMM) slots and Intel's latest six- and eight-core Xeon 6500 or 7500 processors, (aka "Nehalem-EX"). Previously Nehalem-EX chips were only available to UCS blade users with the full-width, four-socket B440 M1 blade.

Meanwhile, both of Cisco's other blades come with trade-offs. Both the B200 M2 and the B250 M2 run on older generation Intel Xeon 5600 chips (aka "Westmere"). And while the B200 M2 provides density thanks to its half-width form factor, it supports only 12 DIMM slots. The B250 M2 supports up to 48 DIMMs, thanks to proprietary Cisco extended-memory technology, but it takes up an entire slot in the UCS chassis. And of course, the San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco Systems Inc. still has to prove itself as a server vendor. On its last earnings call, Cisco said that UCS had more than 1,700 customers – an increase from 800 the previous quarter – but that still represents a small fraction of the total x86 server market, which is dominated by Hewlett-Packard Co. and Dell Inc.

Beyond virtualization
Cisco touts the B230 M1 as a good fit for high-performance, transaction-intensive applications, such as single-threaded database applications, said Todd Brannan, Cisco's senior marketing manager for data center solutions. Those applications may or may not run on top of virtualization -- an intriguing fit for a platform that Cisco has been pitched as a natural complement to virtualization.

The new blades enable Cisco to position UCS as a general-purpose x86 server platform.

 

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Driving home that point, Cisco published best-in-class results on two performance-oriented benchmarks. The B230 M1 scored a record for two-socket x86 systems on SPECjbb2005, the Standard Performance Evaluation Corp.'s Java business benchmark, with 1,015,802 business operations per second (BOPS). It also posted a world record for two-socket blades on SPECint2006, with a base score of 363.

The new blades enable Cisco to position UCS as a general-purpose x86 server platform that caters to a variety of workloads, not just virtualization and cloud computing.

Still, some UCS proponents see the B230 as a good platform for virtualization too. "This is a fit for high-end virtual environments," said Steve Kaplan, the vice president of data center virtualization at INX, a data center solutions provider in Houston, Texas. "This way you get to move to the latest and greatest processors but still only use two CPUs, and still have all the cores [of Nehalem EX]."

That's in keeping with what most UCS customers -- which tend to see more, not less, virtualization in their future --want.

"It's been a long time since I've even really looked at buying servers with the thought of using them for a bare-metal, standalone OS install," said Rod Gabriel, an IT infrastructure engineer at United Financial Services in Grafton, Wis., a UCS shop. But "if we needed to put in bare-metal OS installs down the road we would certainly look at putting those in as additional blades in our UCS environment," he added.

Still, the B230 M1 might make an attractive alternative to the full-width B250 M2 in the UCS chassis for the city of Mesa, Arizona, said Adam Baum, and IT architect at the organization. Currently the city of Mesa runs VMware virtualization on B250s with 96 GB of RAM, and standalone applications such as SQL server on the smaller B200s, Baum said. But the B230's 32 DIMM slots provide it with ample memory capacity for running virtualization.

As it stands, the city of Mesa doesn't really take full advantage of the extended memory capabilities offered by the B250, Baum said. "We like the fact that it can go higher, but we're not going any higher," he said.

The city of Mesa implemented UCS in June, with the goal of migrating its entire data center of Hewlett-Packard Co. rackmount servers to it. It currently runs 31 blades and 24 rackmount servers in its UCS environment, and the plan is to complete the migration in the coming year.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Alex Barrett, News Director at abarrett@techtarget.com, or follow @aebarrett on twitter.

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