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Cisco UCS moves away from virtualization roots

The latest Cisco UCS server focuses on high-end enterprise workloads such as online transaction processing instead of cloud and virtualization.

Cisco Systems will expand its Unified Computing System server product line to cater to bare-metal workloads such as online transaction processing databases -- not just virtualization.

Given the high cost of entry on Cisco's UCS, the shift may signal the company's effort to broaden its target and focus more on enterprise data centers and less on service providers.

In 2009, Cisco first promoted its UCS server platform as a great fit for VMware. In contrast, the UCS C260 M2 model announced this week is built for environments that need "a lot of processing cores, memory and local storage to run transaction-heavy online transaction processing (OLTP) workloads" without a virtualization layer underneath, said Todd Brannon, Cisco's product marketing manager.

Scaring away service providers?
Meanwhile, some of the cloud and service providers that Cisco had originally trumpeted as its target purchasers appear to be moving away from UCS, citing its higher price.

"I think Cisco thought it was going to dominate the service provider market, but then they realized that they're 20% more expensive" than a solution from SGI/Rackable, Dell or a white-box manufacturer, said the CTO for an emerging cloud service provider and an early Cisco UCS customer.

Case in point, this service provider started out with Cisco UCS but is now purchasing more and more low-cost Dell gear for its cloud offerings. Specifically, it relies on the four-socket Dell PowerEdge R815 with 256 GB of RAM, which the CTO said costs about $3,500 less than an equivalent UCS configuration. It then loads VMware ESXi on top, to easily vMotion off the host's virtual machines if the server fails.

While the service provider still occasionally buys Cisco UCS servers, it does so only for customers that require dedicated hardware for security reasons or to load an operating system directly onto the bare metal, he said.

The breakdown of current UCS customers by type indicates Cisco's newfound focus on enterprise IT shops. At last count, enterprises made up 39% of the approximately 4,000 UCS shops, followed by the commercial sector at 29%, the public sector at 22%, and finally service providers with the remaining 10%, said Cisco's Brannon.

Price aside, UCS is a fantastic box, the service provider said. "Their management tools are stellar – 10 times better than anyone else's," he said, and "the [converged] network and storage architecture is phenomenal," especially for an all-Cisco networking shop. Quality is good too, he said. His company has seen no problems on its 200-server UCS farm in the two years it's been in production.

Loads of memory, I/O
Enterprise shops looking to run demanding database applications may consider the new C260 M2. The two-socket box will feature Intel's upcoming 10-core Xeon processor, code-name Westmere-EX, and supports up to 16 drives, either traditional or solid-state. It also includes Cisco's proprietary Extended Memory technology, an ASIC that brings allows a total of 64 dual inline memory modules (DIMMs) per system. Initially DIMMs will be limited to 8 GB, for 512 GB of RAM per server, but later versions will support 16 GB, bringing the total system memory to more than 1 TB. Even with 8 GB DIMMs, the C260 M2's memory capabilities should satisfy most appetites. "We don't see a lot of customers requesting a terabyte of memory," Brannon said.

Cisco is also upgrading three existing models – the B230 M2, B250 M2, and C460 M2 with the Westmere-EX chips, and all the models should ship with the availability of those chips. The new UCS models were unveiled as part of a larger data center product rollout, including new members of its Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) networking family.

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

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