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Cisco Sees 'Huge Advantage' With New AI, Machine Learning-Specific UCS Server

The introduction of the C480ML is part of a concerted effort to capitalize on dramatic big data customer growth and to send a message to enterprises and solution providers that Cisco intends to rule the AI roost.

Cisco Systems is making what is perhaps the most significant development in the decade-long history of its UCS server line with the introduction of the C480ML, an Nvidia GPU-loaded heavyweight aimed at the burgeoning market for AI and machine learning.

The C480ML is the second major new Cisco UCS server rollout in little more than three months. Its introduction is part of a concerted effort to capitalize on dramatic big data customer growth and to send a message to enterprises and solution providers that Cisco intends to rule the AI roost.

The number of customers running big data workloads on UCS servers has increased 18X in the last four years, according to Han Yang, Cisco senior product manager. "We're seeing a tremendous amount of growth for big data workloads, and those are the same customers that are asking for additional analytic capabilities like machine learning and deep learning," Yang said.

Yang cited research indicating that businesses that take advantage of AI, machine learning, deep learning and analytics stand to take $1.2 trillion from competitors that fail to do so in the coming years. "We're approaching this not focused on who are our competitors, but a lot more on solving problems for our customers," Yang said. "At the end of the day, they're trying to tap into that $1.2 trillion in value."

Still, Cisco is dropping the C480ML into a red-hot server market dominated by Dell EMC and HPE. Cisco executives realize the company's ability to differentiate from the market leaders is critical.

"The distributed functionality we bring to the table is unparalleled in the industry," said Scott Mohr, director of data center and cloud inside Cisco's global partner organization. "When you take into account our ability to deliver edge services both in our routing platforms, as well as our server platforms and the ability of those to work cohesively to provide a solution end-to-end, it gives us a huge advantage in providing IoT, AI and ML out to the edge where we can help our customers make quick decisions that lead to better outcomes and experiences."

Cisco's technical advantages translate directly into advantages for its partners, Mohr said. "Our ability to bring alliances, partnerships and a strong ecosystem of vendors to round out our solutions allows partners to deliver a strong use case outcome to customers," he said. "There's a lot of opportunity in this space. The ecosystem is vast and wide. It gives our partners a leg up in the ability to deliver a solution. Only a company like Cisco with its breadth and depth of capabilities can bring together an entire solution set that has a full-stack offer from general compute all the way to specialized workloads like AI and ML."

Cisco is offering validated designs that use the C480ML as a foundation while integrating with software solutions like Google Cloud Platform, Cloudera, Kubernetes, TensorFlow, Docker and Apache Spark to handle Hadoop, containers and AI and ML workloads.

Cisco sees the C480ML as a natural extension of existing UCS environments alongside mainstream servers, compute-intensive models like the C4200 and C125, and models like the S3260 intended for data-intensive workloads. The ecosystem is lorded over by Cisco's UCS Manager automation platform and its cloud-based Intersight infrastructure management system.

The C480ML comes loaded for bear with eight Nvidia Tesla V100 data center GPUs, up to 24 drives able to handle 182TB, up to six NVME drives and the ability to handle up to four 100Gb network switches.

Cisco executives haven't trumpeted the UCS line publicly since the company's intent-based networking solutions took center stage. Its last major release, the high-density, AMD-powered C4200, was introduced in late May.

Brent Collins, global practice director, data center at solution provider giant World Wide Technology, said the Cisco partner had made "conservative" estimates for UCS growth this year, but instead has been surprised by record sales.

"We weren't sure what we would see, but we've had a record-breaking year with UCS sales," Collins said. "We've had significant growth, and we had booked a conservative growth plan. It's been a really strong business for us, and a very good year."

At about $1.1 billion, Cisco second-quarter server sales trailed market leaders Dell EMC and HPE by wide margins, according to research firm IDC. However, that sales number represents revenue growth of more than 22 percent, nearly doubling HPE's pace.

Collins said the C480ML is hitting the market at exactly the right time. Customers, he said, are investing in AI and ML, and a high-performance server built specifically for that use case will be attractive, especially considering its links to the wider Cisco ecosystem.

"We see it across the board," Collins said. "The companies that are going to do well in the next 20 years are investing in AI and ML. They're already investing heavily there." Although most vendors have "their take on this type of offering," he said, Cisco's ups the ante.

"The biggest thing with Cisco is that they're doing interesting things with AI and Intersight," Collins said. "They've got some automation advantages going on. The most important thing is the ecosystem they've developed with good offerings from other partner technology. Those ecosystems are going to be really important as people build out data lakes that people can take advantage of. I love that Cisco is putting a lot more time and attention into the AI/business intelligence/analytics space. They've got an interesting lineup on the compute side to tackle a lot of different use cases."

Cisco is counting on the channel firepower of large partners like WWT, Presidio and ePlus to spark C480ML growth. For Mohr, the biggest opportunity for those partners, as well as Cisco's wider partner ecosystem, is in the wide variety of services necessary for customers to launch, maintain and grow an AI practice, especially in existing UCS customers.

"There are a lot of nuances required to deliver this type of solution, from consulting services to strategy sessions to workshops to the ability to deliver and measure outcomes," Mohr said. "This gives us ability with our partners to expand the UCS footprint. We have over 80,000 customers for our partners to go back and touch today."

Once touched, those customers are likely to depend on solution providers for life, Mohr said. "Partners take the lead in delivering strategy and assessment workshops to help develop AI and ML lifecycle management," Mohr said. "They have the ability to provide full continuity with customers. It puts them in that advisory services role they want to be in. The partner has the ability to help customers craft their ongoing business strategy."

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