Westcon Has UCS Success To Point To: Its Own

If Westcon Group needs success stories to reference when customers ask about Cisco Unified Computing System (UCS) deployments, it won't have to look very far.

Westcon was among the first distributors in the U.S. to begin shipments of Cisco UCS products last fall, but starting in November 2009, it also became one of the first U.S. enterprises to adopt UCS full-on as a customer.

As of July 2010, Westcon's migration is almost complete. According to the distributor, it's consolidated some 175 physical servers into 24 Cisco UCS B-series blades, and saved Westcon some $1.1 million in operational savings already.

When its data center upgrade plans began, however, Cisco's UCS wasn't even public knowledge, let alone an option for Westcon, said CIO and CTO William Hurley.

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Hurley joined the company in April 2008, and later that year, he and his team started evaluating Westcon's existing network and data center infrastructure to plan for an upgrade.

According to Hurley, the distributor was already virtualizing much of its application server environment, but during an analysis of its infrastructure needs, it determined that not only did its server and storage infrastructure need refreshing, but also that its upgrade would run into problems with power and storage capacity before long as result of those refreshes. Westcon further needed to duplicate its server and storage infrastructure efforts on two continents; it has production data centers in Elmsford, N.Y. and in Reading, U.K.

At the time, much of Westcon's data center infrastructure relied on HP blades. It was during the evaluation phase for HP and other competitive data center products, Hurley recalled, that Cisco first announced the UCS in March 2009, and the conversations between Westcon and Cisco began.

"I was talking about it with my head of infrastructure and said, well, what do you think, and I just kind of panicked because what we were talking about was new," Hurley described in a recent discussion with CRN. "So we spent a significant amount of time with Cisco trying to understand the product and what emerged was the idea of generating value -- a lot of value -- with virtualization. So Cisco let us beat up the equipment for a couple of weeks, and when they came back, we said, we've got to do this."

As a Cisco distributor, Westcon was admittedly able to gain access to UCS products -- at a discount -- and also learn a bit more about UCS fundamentals before most Cisco solution providers and customers. But Westcon's data center migration requirements were typical of most prospective UCS customers, Hurley said, even if its access to Cisco is not.

It was unquestionably the right choice for Westcon to deploy, Hurley contends.

"We went with UCS purely because we thought it was the best for the enterprise, and we could have just as easily gone to HP or anything else, regardless of what we distribute," he said. "I reached a point where I can look my CEO in the eye and say this [Cisco] may be our best customer, but what's best for the firm is to do it this way."

Next: Westcon's Deployment Challenges

The project was a joint effort of Westcon engineers, Cisco's Advanced Services team, EMC engineers, and Westcon's managed services partner, CBTS-Cincinnati Bell.

The total upgrade, Hurley added, costs about the same as what it would have cost Westcon to upgrade one third of its previous infrastructure to keep up with the same virtualization demands.

The deployment began in November, and Westcon had most of the hardware and software -- including Cisco UCS B-series blades, EMC Clariion CX4-480 and CX4-120 storage arrays and VMware vSphere configuration -- up and running within the first two weeks.

The deployment wasn't without its challenges, Hurley noted. Host bus adapter (HBA) and Fibre Interconnect issues came up early on, as difficulties with some of the configuration. But Cisco and EMC engineers were speedy in their handling of bugs, he said, and Westcon's internal team was quickly won over by the UCS' usability.

"The UCS Manager is really the sexiest part of the whole thing according to our engineers," wrote Hurley in a March 2010 post to his Westcon company blog in March. "Having everything in one place is a lot easier than what we previously had, and appears to be industry leading. The team loves this thing."

"We were panicked for a little bit because it's all brand new," Hurley added in his CRN interview. "Any little thing that goes wrong with brand new stuff is exacerbated because it's brand new. But I think that's just the nature of the beast."

More recent upgrades were smooth. In May 2010, Westcon completed the migration of the North American instance -- one of three -- of its global ERP system. The use of Microsoft's Business Productivity Online Standard (BPOS) suite was also instrumental, Hurley noted ina May blog, seeing as most Westcon employees in North America were migrated to BPOS late last year, and thanks to BPOS' cloud capabilities, the company avoided having to move all of its Exchange servers from the old data center to the new.

The next firmware update from Cisco, Hurley added, is scheduled for August. The next steps for Westcon are to finish replacing its global ERP and e-commerce systems.

The initial success of Cisco's UCS, which debuted in March 2009 and whose wider rollout began in October 2009, has been steady. According to Cisco, UCS as of mid-May -- Cisco's most recent quarterly earnings report -- boasted 900 customers, and has an annualized run rate of $200 million.

Todd Brannon, senior manager of data center product marketing at Cisco, said Westcon's experience has been typical of early UCS adopters -- especially those for whom gradual virtualization has created silos in the data center.

"For many customers, over time maybe they've experienced some kind of data center sprawl, and that was Westcon's challenge: combining at least two data centers, with one in Reading, U.K. and one in Elmsford," Brannon said.

Both Brannon and Hurley urged VARs to approach UCS sales with that in mind.

"It starts with a conversation around virtualization," Hurley said. "It has nothing to do with hardware."

"Moore's Law is handing us all this horsepower but we're not handling it effectively," Brannon added. "What's happened is that a lot of customers looked at the various workloads they have and carved out ones that looked right for virtualization and created virtualization silos. Many have different types of platforms and different pools of virtualized system, so folks have virtualized in pockets but don't have the ability to really dynamically move workloads. That's where UCS succeeds."