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IT pros ponder Cisco's Unified Computing System

IT pros ponder the merits of Cisco Unified Computing System, which combines server, networking and storage workloads.

Cisco Systems' long-rumored foray into servers is here and will likely shake up the technology buying process, IT pros said Monday.

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Cisco Systems Inc. will pitch its Unified Computing System comprising its own blades, chassis, fabric interconnect, management software, fabric extender and network adapters as a full package. This "Swiss Army Knife" approach, announced Monday, claims to bring together compute, network, storage access and virtualization resources into one system.

Cisco, which made its name in networking hardware, sold into a different IT constituency than server vendors such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Dell.

But all that could change next quarter, when the product is slated to ship.

Cisco "has to convince buyers that [it has] the management chops to help reduce the pain of multiple, disparate management, provisioning, configuration, and monitoring tools for servers and networks and that they can unify all under a virtualization umbrella," said Dave Bartoletti, senior analyst and consultant at the Taneja Group.

A tough road ahead?
Given Cisco's reputation and huge router installed base, whatever the company does is of interest to end users, said an IT manager at a New York-based financial institution who requested anonymity. And while Cisco typically sells to different segments of the IT shop, more spending approvals are getting kicked up to higher-level execs who don't necessarily make distinctions between server and network purchases.

[Cisco] can lowball, get in cheap, cut the margin on the hardware to make the deal.
IT manager,
New York-based financial institution

Buying authority is "converging at the CIO, CTO [and] COO level. And then it's game on," [between Cisco and other server vendors], he said.

Cisco is also flush with cash. "They can lowball, get in cheap, cut the margin on the hardware to make the deal," said the IT manager. Other server providers— notably Sun Microsystems—don't have that luxury, he added.

Among possible hindrances, however, is that IT buyers don't typically look to their network device vendor for virtualization expertise, so Cisco will need to change that perception, Bartoletti said.

Other observers also predicted a tough road ahead for Cisco. It will be hard for it to make headway in the server market since it's not already there, said Jon Oltsik, senior analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group.

"This won't work in the short term, as users will have to manage a mix of server platforms," Oltsik said. "Longer term, the server vendors will certainly address Cisco's packaging with their own integration and potentially industry standards. It won't be easy to push aside Dell, HP, and IBM based on a proprietary design."

In addition, it's a tough time to introduce any major new product since IT budgets and personnel have been slashed in the recession.

"Sure, we'd be interested in doing a proof of concept, but right now in our market, unless they give it to us for free to look at, we probably won't. And even if they do give it to us, do we have the resources to try it out? Not really. It's not on our plan now," said the IT manager.

Cisco also has to assure potential buyers that Unified Computing is not a whim. "It takes a long time to switch," the IT manager said."Most IT shops will at least look at it [the new server] but it takes two to three years for big companies to evaluate these things."

Test-driving the Unified Computing System
Bryan Doerr, the CTO of Savvis Inc., which provides Infrastructure as a Service, has beta-tested the system for about three weeks and is pleased so far.

Cisco's Unified Computing System

  • Compute. New Cisco UCS B-Series blades based on Intel's Xeon Nehalem processors. The blades' extended memory promises to supports more virtual machines per server than does standard memory.
  • Network. The system supports "wire once" unified fabric over a 10 Gbps Ethernet. That network foundation consolidates LANs, SANs and high-performance computing networks to reduce the number of network adapters, switches, and cables.
  • Storage access. Support for unified fabric so the system can access storage over Ethernet, Fibre Channel, Fibre Channel over Ethernet, or iSCSI.
  • Management. Cisco UCS Manager provides a graphical user interface (GUI), command line interface (CLI) and an application programming interface (API) for all components of the system.
  • Cisco's networking focus distinguishes it from other hardware players, he said. "Rather than having server nodes with network connections, Cisco has … worked through networking issues that arise with virtualization, so the platform is designed to better support VMs [virtual machines]," Doerr said. "They embedded control features so as you move servers you can allocate bandwidth granularly. You have more bandwidth but also more finesse with it."

    Doerr runs Red Hat, Linux and Windows Server 2003 and 2008 operating systems with VMware VMs using Intel Nehalem processors, which have yet to be released. Since Savvis hosts applications for multiple customers, Doerr is testing the system's ability to scale and how well the networking features support multiple, segregated customers.

    So far Savvis has performed only basic commands and is running VMware VMs on the system. "We should see a significant impact on the VM capacity, and estimate 50% to 100% more room for VMs compared to traditional x86 systems," he said.

    Doerr likes the system features and interface but more generally views the Unified Computing approach as a "good step, in that vendors are now exploring nontraditional platforms."

    Others blazed Unified Computing trail
    While Cisco CEO John Chambers and others position this Unified Computing architecture as a building block for the cloudy data center of the future because it links resources together, others have made similar plays. Some observers say the offering will do much of what Egenera Inc.'s BladeFrame servers, software and infrastructure orchestration have done for several years now.

    Like Cisco's new system, Egenera's Processor Area Network (PAN) Manager pools physical and virtual resources into a blade platform. The company now works with OEMs to integrate PAN Manager software onto additional hardware platforms, including Dell PowerEdge M600 servers.

    At its event Monday, Cisco trotted out a bevy of partners including Intel, Microsoft, VMware, BMC Software and EMC to bless its plans. Server partners like Dell and HP were conspicuous in their absence, although both issued comments beforehand.

    The New York-based IT manager said Cisco's move will have a big impact on server partners especially HP, which is strong in large accounts, and on Dell, which has gained traction at the low end.

    Dell said it continues its strategic partnership with Cisco. But, "while Cisco is a leader in the networking space, the server market is a whole new environment with its own set of challenges and requirements. CIOs aren't looking for proprietary, point products because they drive up TCO and create more complexity," Dell stated.

    But, even skeptics said Cisco's reputation and financial wherewithal give it credibility.

    Anne Skamarock, the research director at an analyst firm called Focus, said in some ways, Cisco has been building servers, albeit servers designed specifically for the work of switching, for years.

    "If you think about it, the first blade servers were produced in the networking space years ago adding a form factor for multiple switches from the horizontal to the vertical," she said. "On the other hand, they will start competing with some of their best historical partners. … Both HP and IBM have clearly made huge improvements in their most recent generations of blade servers, improving power and cooling efficiencies, increased networking connections and network I/O virtualization, processing capabilities and memory – strong platforms for virtualization, but Cisco has some clear core strengths and experience to draw on to make it an interesting race."

    Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho, News Writer or Barbara Darrow, News Director.

    And check out our data center blogs: Server Farming, Mainframe Propellerhead, and Data Center Facilities Pro.

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