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Tutor Perini: First Cisco UCS production customer

Tutor Perini is the first Cisco Unified Computing System customer in production, and at the eleventh hour, it chose UCS over blades for financial, historical and technical reasons.

Last May, Tutor Perini Corp. chose a blade server vendor to consolidate its five data centers into one, but at the last minute, the company switched to a vendor that was entirely new to the server market.

Thus, the Sylmar, Calif.-based construction giant became the first customer to put Cisco Systems Inc.'s much-touted Unified Computing System (UCS) into production. The product combines the server and networking functions in one enclosure.

For more on Cisco's UCS:
VMware users cast wary eye on Cisco UCS  

IT pros ponder Cisco's Unified Computing System  

Cisco faces controversy over forced obsolescence

"I think the biggest thing I had to do was convince our bosses," said James McGibney, the company's data center lead. "They looked at me like I was kind of crazy."

It wasn't an easy sell. Cisco is the de facto leader in networking hardware, but it is a complete newcomer to the server business. McGibney and his data center and IT staff spent months debating the relative merits of various server vendors.

They agreed that blades would be the form factor. McGibney said power consumption would be 40% less than with rackmount machines. But finally, in May, they picked a server vendor. McGibney wouldn't name the company, but said it was a top player with excellent products. One small problem: "It wasn't where we wanted to go in the end.

"We had all these techs in the room for months talking about what to go with, and going back and forth," he explained. "But when we looked at [Cisco's] UCS, it was the first time in six months that we were all in agreement that was the way to go."

There were many reasons: financial, historical and technical.

McGibney wouldn't disclose how much Tutor's UCS system -- which consists of 22 UCS blades spread among four chassis -- cost, or if Cisco cut a particularly good deal to win a prestigious reference account. All he would say was that "UCS was in line with other vendor quotes, which made the decision very palatable."

The cost of Cisco UCS compared with other blade server vendors is still in dispute. Some say UCS is more expensive, while others say it is about the same or even cheaper.

Either way, it wasn't just about the price tag for Tutor Perini. By going with Cisco's UCS, the company is "pretty much a 90% Cisco shop," McGibney said. That fact will simplify IT budgeting because he has fewer vendors to deal with from a renewal standpoint.

UCS downside: Vendor lock-in
Most big companies running Hewlett-Packard, IBM or Sun servers also run Cisco routers and switches and they have been comfortable with that division of labor to date. But the virtualization boom is leading companies to look at ways to more easily and centrally manage more of their data center infrastructure. That's the problem that Cisco, HP and others are trying to solve with "unified" computing systems.

Users have expressed concern, however, that getting networking and computing equipment from a single provider creates vendor lock-in. Marc Staimer, the president of Beaverton, Ore.-based Dragon Slayer Consulting, said it was more of a marketing ploy than anything.

"This is a 'marketecture,'" he said. "You call one number, and you get help regardless. So it's really more about marketing than it is technology."

Robert Crawford, a lead systems programmer, added that the integration might help with virtualization, but with everything so tightly integrated, he wonders how anyone could ever back out of Cisco's UCS.

And, for shops that already have existing network storage, network connectivity and virtualization, switching to UCS could be onerous. Reconfiguring the connections between the new infrastructure and the old, for example, if a company has an existing storage area network, could be cumbersome.

But since Tutor Perini is consolidating five data centers into one -- it has already moved four of them -- migrating to a new infrastructure isn't as big a deal.

This is where history comes in as well. When McGibney was in the U.S. Marine Corps., he used Cisco gear to secure its network, so he has a certain loyalty to the company.

"We're not too concerned about vendor lock-in, simply because of who that vendor is," he said. "I'm very comfortable with Cisco, mainly due to the fact that I have a long relationship and history with them."

On the technical side, McGibney and his team liked Intel's "Nehalem" processor, the form factor and the front-end interface.

"You can see all the switches and core gear from one interface," he said. "Many data centers have 10 different interfaces I have to look at."

He added that cabling was another benefit. He says he can now see the back of his gear because cabling is simplified in the blade chassis, whereas before he would often spend a half-hour tracing out one cable.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Mark Fontecchio, News Writer. Also, check out our blogs: Data Center Facilities Pro, Mainframe Propeller Head, and Server Farming.

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